The Disturbing Noise Coming Out of El Sistema

The British musicologist who published a controversial book about the famous music program analyzes the organization’s response to the allegations of sexual abuse of minors

Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

Todos lo comentan, nadie lo delata.
(Everyone talks, no one tells.)
—Héctor Lavoe, “Juanito Alimaña”

El Sistema, Venezuela’s world-famous orchestral program, is accustomed to being in the news, but it has recently attracted attention for all the wrong reasons: it has become the focus of a sexual abuse scandal. The Venezuelan version of #MeToo, #YoTeCreoVzla, took off in late April, and it quickly spread to El Sistema. A Facebook post by a former El Sistema musician, Angie Cantero, alleging that the program “was / is plagued by pedophiles, pederasts, and an untold number of people who have committed the crime of statutory rape,” attracted widespread attention. So did an anonymous blog post by “Lisa,” describing in detail her sexual abuse at the hands of two teachers in El Sistema from the age of 12. 

Together with Dartmouth musicologist William Cheng, an expert in the topic of abuse in music education, I published an article in The Washington Post in both English and Spanish. It was picked up by media outlets across Latin America and Europe. El Sistema was probably facing its biggest public scandal in 46 years, dwarfing even José Antonio Abreu and Gustavo Dudamel’s alignment with the Maduro regime in February 2014.

A First Response

The first official response came on June 1st, not from Venezuela but from one of El Sistema’s international affiliates, Sistema England. The British organization expressed serious concern and said “that events involving such abuses could have taken place is appalling, and all our thoughts and sympathies go to each and every victim.” It went on: “We await El Sistema Venezuela’s formal response to show accountability and public solidarity with the survivors, communicating how these failures to protect children and young people were possible, what steps are being taken to support victims, and to detail what mechanisms have been or will be put in place to ensure they are never repeated.”

The following day, Sistema Toronto in Canada spoke out. Their message was even stronger. The program was “deeply appalled” and it “unequivocally condemn[ed] this behavior.” It pledged to re-evaluate its connection to El Sistema in Venezuela. On June 4th, after a week of silence, El Sistema finally made a public statement. The organization acknowledged the problem and described legal and administrative steps that it was taking to address it.

El Sistema expressed “absolute solidarity with the victims and their families.” It announced that it had gone to the Public Prosecutor’s Office “to support opening investigations of any complaint related to any form of violence or human abuse. Prosecutor’s Office No. 79 with nationwide jurisdiction has been specially assigned for this purpose.” It also set up the Committee for Training and Prevention of the Rights of Children and Teenagers to provide guidance to members of El Sistema. “This office is responsible for receiving and allocating complaints, serving as a liaison with the Public Prosecutor’s Office as well as providing psychological support.”

Pending Questions

El Sistema has finally acknowledged and reacted to a problem that was first aired in 2014, in my book El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth. I began that book with the line from Héctor Lavoe’s “Juanito Alimaña,” which succinctly captured an institution replete with private complaints yet devoid of public debate. At the time, El Sistema dismissed my account of sexual abuse as “absolutely false,” so its new statement represents a significant change of tone and direction. Yet it also raises as many questions as it answers.

The first is, will these recently announced legal and administrative steps have any real effect? Will victims trust an organization that has allegedly sheltered abusers for decades to appropriately deal with sensitive information that could implicate that very organization? Will they trust an institution that was warned of the problem of sexual abuse seven years ago and instead of investigating, dismissed the allegations? It seems questionable that a powerful organization should offer to process accusations that could reflect badly on itself and senior figures. It’s not for nothing that this issue blew up on social media rather than through more formal channels, and victims who wish to take action in the future may well prefer external routes as well. If victims don’t trust El Sistema, its internal measures may end up being largely symbolic.

El Sistema’s statement itself may lessen rather than increase trust and therefore further reduce the chances of victims coming forward. It states: “Our educators and students receive training on the prevention of sexual harassment, children’s rights, the culture of peace, sexual and reproductive health, and gender violence.” I spent a year in Venezuela in 2010-11, researching El Sistema full-time, and I never heard about any such training. I checked with a recent graduate to see if things had changed since. She responded:

“I spent ten years in El Sistema and I never received training in topics other than musical ones. I never received talks or workshops about sexual abuse, sexual and reproductive health, or gender violence, which are some of the issues that El Sistema’s statement declares that it provides training about. I spoke to some friends who are still in the organization and others who were there for years, and they didn’t receive any training in these areas either.” 

She concluded that out of at least 20 people that she had talked to, only one recalled a relevant talk. I also contacted a current El Sistema teacher. She too had received one talk, many years before. The students received nothing, she said.

It’s concerning that El Sistema should issue a misleading statement as part of its apparent efforts to “come clean” over sexual abuse. It will hardly inspire faith that the institution is now taking the issue seriously and can be trusted to deal with it.

Two Uncomfortable Words

Other notable elements of El Sistema’s statement are a certain lack of contrition and a whiff of denial. Its opening sentence describes “punishable acts […] committed against the physical and psychological integrity of our children and adolescents.” The words “sexual abuse”—used by Sistema England and Sistema Toronto—are avoided. 

El Sistema’s statement also declares proudly: “For 46 years, El Sistema has provided tools and teaching methodologies that contribute to the personal and professional development of more than one million participants, thus contributing to the development of better citizens through the values embedded in the collective practice of music.” A public statement concerning sexual abuse is a curious place to make this kind of institutional boast, particularly since the information that has emerged recently raises important questions about the program’s methodologies and values. The accounts of victims and former students cited in our Washington Post article paint the institution in a much less flattering light, suggesting that problems were routinely ignored or swept under the rug. As musician María Chacón told BR-Klassik: “I’m convinced that older men are systematically protected there. I’ve seen it myself and I know that everything was done to prevent it from coming to light.” Such allegations don’t point to an institution that, as the statement declares, “focus[es] on the welfare, the health, and the physical and emotional safety of all our children and adolescents.” Maintaining an open secret of sexual harassment and abuse for decades requires the complicity or at least acquiescence of a large number of people, which hardly points to “the development of better citizens.” 

Conspicuously absent from El Sistema’s statement is a response to Sistema England’s demand to know “how these failures to protect children and young people were possible.” El Sistema says nothing about investigating or getting to the root of the problem. It acknowledges symptoms but makes no reference to causes, and its stout defense of its methods implies that it has little intention of probing more deeply into its own failures. For me at least, the message is clear: El Sistema will carry on largely as before, treating sexual abuse as a case of a few “bad apples” and ignoring the ways that it’s intertwined with institutional dynamics, imbalances of power, and the norms of classical music education. 

Another boast comes with the claim that the institution’s values have been “recognized by hundreds of educational, state, and private institutions around the world.” One might add here: El Sistema’s supposed values. Whether so many institutions around the world would have supported El Sistema if they had known the truth is open to question. Sistema Toronto’s statement suggests otherwise, and it’s unlikely to be the last of El Sistema’s international affiliates to distance itself from the mother program.

In fact, as I explored in my 2014 book, the values that El Sistema embodies in practice are often problematic ones. Teacher-student relationships were “the norm,” violinist Luigi Mazzocchi affirmed in this interview. Don’t speak up; keep quiet and keep playing. The ends justify the means. It’s the product that counts, not the process. Don’t listen to your critics; strike back. 

Carolina Jaimes Branger, who in the past has repeatedly defended El Sistema in Venezuelan media, opted for this last path. Whereas journalists around the world picked up the story and ran with it, she insinuated that I was being paid by shady backers to expose this issuethough she provided no evidence, not even a hypothesis. She then went on to cast blame or aspersions on everyone except El Sistema: on wider society (there are pedophiles everywhere); on the victims (why don’t they come out and publicly name their abusers?); on “Lisa” (why did she use a pseudonym?); on students’ families (if you leave the students at home, they’ll just be abused by their fathers or stepfathers); and on the perpetrators (more reasonably). 

El Sistema in the Media

There are two reasons why we should take Jaimes Branger’s article seriously. It’s a textbook example of how not to respond to an institutional sexual abuse scandal. And it also raises the question of how such a piece came to be published, which points to the larger question of the role of the media in the El Sistema story.

Something that has struck me often during the dozen years that I have been researching El Sistema is just how few critical articles have appeared in the Venezuelan media. Venezuelan cultural journalists didn’t lack access to El Sistema; some would even travel with the Simón Bolívar Orchestra on overseas tours. How, then, did sexual abuse inside El Sistema remain an open secret rather than a public issue for decades? Why did it take a British musicologist to reveal it? Perhaps it was so normalized that it took an outsider to see it. Or perhaps journalism morphed into advocacy, as explored by Roger Santodomingo and Rafael Rivero back in the 1990s.

As the scandal around U.S. conductor James Levine grew, so too did attention to the classical music journalists who had written about him for decades, often in glowing terms. Did they know about the open secret of his sexual predation and kept quiet? Or were they somehow ignorant of information that was common knowledge within the profession, which would raise questions about their journalistic skills? Similar questions must surely arise in relation to Venezuelan classical music’s own open secret. 

The Venezuelan media often portrays El Sistema in misleading ways. Jaimes Branger’s statement that “the immense majority of the children that belong to our Sistema come from very poor households” is widely repeated. I raised doubts about this belief in 2014, having heard many musicians question it in private; and in 2017, an evaluation of El Sistemathe largest and most recent study of the program, funded by the Inter-American Development Bankestimated that just 16.7% of entrants fell below the poverty level. In fact, the children entering El Sistema were three times less likely to be poor than their peers. In the words of Professor Stephen Clift, “far from addressing social inequalities, the work of the [El Sistema] centres served to reinforce them.” The IDB, El Sistema’s own funder, acknowledged that its findings illustrated “the challenges of targeting interventions towards vulnerable groups of children in the context of a voluntary social program.” Yet four years later, the inaccurate public narrative around El Sistema and poverty hasn’t changed.

How much further might the sexual abuse story go? It might be the tip of an iceberg. After all, there’s been no full investigation so far. The information that we published was largely in the public realm. But foreign musicologists can’t go any further. Now would be a good moment for Venezuelan journalists to start digging and discover what lies behind El Sistema’s expensive, polished façade.

Geoff Baker

Professor of Music at Royal Holloway, University of London, and author of four books on music in Latin America, including El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela's Youth.