A History of Sexual Abuse in Venezuela’s Lauded Youth Orchestra System

The cases called out during the Venezuelan MeToo aren’t the only ones. We spoke to some of the victims, the organization, and specialists to get a wider picture of how bad the situation is

Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

April’s “Venezuelan MeToo movement” came to an abrupt stop after the suicide of a poet who had been called out for statutory rape. All the testimonies flooding social media were overshadowed by this shocking event. While the Venezuelan cultural scene was still recovering from the shock, not many people realized that El Sistema, Venezuela’s youth orchestra system that has been celebrated all over the world, was being signaled by women who suffered harassment and abuse when they were underage students at the organization.

On April 23rd, Angie Cantero said on Facebook she was sexually harassed in El Sistema since she was nine years old. Soon after, on Twitter and a blog she created to speak up, a former oboe player from Lara, who only identifies herself with the nom de plume “Lisa”, told her story of abuse under two teachers, one at the Barquisimeto Music Conservatory and one working for El Sistema. The second one seduced her (and her family, in a way) for years. He isolated her from her friends, destroyed her relationship with music and her future as a professional musician, and had sex with her when she was his pupil and was a minor.

Lisa’s testimonial led to a public response by the Fundación Musical Simón Bolívar, the entity that manages El Sistema, with a communiqué and a petition for an investigation at the Attorney General’s office. Meanwhile, other stories have came to light; at least two organizations that follow El Sistema’s method for teaching music expressed their concern for what’s described in the testimonials; and articles on the matter have been appearing in the press abroad, in general interest outlets and magazines of the orchestral world. Pianist Gabriela Montero said that the victims had lived in a “fear bubble” and humanitarian expert Susana Raffalli suggested that UNICEF remove El Sistema’s honorary goodwill ambassador title. 

The Closed Door

The love between music and Lisa started late, but with vigor. Even when music is a craft that demands an early beginning, she discovered she had what it took when she started to play the flute in school, two years after she moved to Barquisimeto from San Cristóbal. Later, she found the oboe, a complex instrument that she felt close to her, that made her feel unique. She started to study oboe at the Barquisimeto Conservatory and she applied to join a children’s orchestra, taking advantage of an evident talent. From there, she could be promoted to a youth orchestra and become a professional musician.   

The orchestra helped her with integrating into her new life in Lara. “I liked it a lot,” said Lisa to Caracas Chronicles. “The conductor could be very strict, but that wasn’t a problem for me. I was surrounded by many other children, from strata. I got along with everyone, we’d go out, have ice cream at a neighboring place, would spend hours chatting in the garden… it was a valuable space of exchange and socialization that I couldn’t find anywhere else.” At that moment, her training started to divide between the Conservatory, where she spent most afternoons, and El Sistema, different institutions that, for the students’ points of view, were practically the same. 

The first abuse came from an oboe teacher who was working for the Conservatory. She was eleven. He was in his forties.

“The oboe lessons at the Conservatory were taught behind closed doors,” Lisa said. “That was a situation in which inappropriate approach was possible. When you are teaching how to play an instrument, you frequently touch the student to indicate how to use the diaphragm. That has been quite problematic and it’s been increasingly banned in Europe. In Venezuela it was very common.” That’s how the first abuse took place. “It was traumatic. The teacher ordered another student to leave, closed the door, and came so close to me that I felt the need to get away from him. But I was frozen, I didn’t know how to react. He started to massage my neck, to go down my back, alleging I was tense, that I needed to relax. During those moments, the lesson stopped.” 

It wasn’t the last time. Lisa was already being called a very beautiful girl by older students and that teacher. “I was uncomfortable. Why does an adult man have to notice it?” Once and again, she heard she had to use her talent. “For me, talent meant something entirely different than for my male friends. From the first moment, they said I was very talented. That seemed evident for me, because it was being confirmed by other people in other places, so I couldn’t see that the teacher was using my talent as an excuse, as a seduction strategy.” 

As she grew more displeased with that oboe teacher, her interest in the instrument diminished. Lisa started to arrive unprepared for class, or tried to skip it. Then, she knew about another teacher who didn’t work for the Conservatory but was granted the use of a classroom. He was the woodwind workshop teacher of El Sistema and used to work in several parts of the country. He was so prestigious that he could choose the students of his “experimental” course, as he used to call it. He managed that class as an independent entity, teaching on Saturdays. He was also in his forties. But his classroom door was open. He even said that the parents could attend. Lisa was curious. She took a class and liked it. There were a bunch of children and they were talking about many things, not only about classical music. She wouldn’t be alone in that class, because two of her closest friends were there.

“That teacher made great efforts to attract me to his class,” Lisa remembers. When she wasn’t yet a student of the course, the teacher invited her to outings with the group, to eat with them, to go bowling. He convinced her that he was the only person able to develop her potential. “In fact, the three best teen oboists in Lara were his students. That was my way to get over the level of the Conservatory class.” She joined the group. She was already thirteen years old.

The Manipulation Plot 

With this second oboe teacher at El Sistema, what Lisa calls “a plot of manipulations” began. This man dedicated himself to get close to her family to establish the idea that Lisa’s fulfillment as a musician depended on a whole education as an artist, not only as an oboe player. When Lisa had the conditions to enter the youth orchestra according to El Sistema standards, the teacher argued that she wasn’t ready and she needed to keep studying with him. Friends of her that had her same level, that could play the same repertoire that Lisa, went forward and joined the youth orchestra, so she found herself separated from her friends. She stayed in the class where the door was open but she was taken to a world that only the teacher could control. “For me, that made no sense and it was unfair. But it meant that I was still the main oboist in my old children’s orchestra, too.” 

One day, when Lisa was fourteen, the teacher closed the door and kissed her in the mouth. He said that was normal amid people with an artistic temperament. 

After that, his presence was more intense in Lisa’s life. He would knock on her door to drive her to class. His lessons were free, so her family felt grateful. At some point, he told Lisa’s parents that she was a troubled child, and that of course he had the solution for that problem. “I was just going to parties with my friends and could have a beer, as you can expect from anyone my age. I wasn’t doing crazy things, I was taught to behave in my Tachirense family,” says Lisa. 

But the physical contact escalated. The excuse was always the same: Lisa needed to experience things, “to make contact with my inner world and find a better sound for my instrument.” He started to touch her more, to rub against her while he read poetry to her in her room, and as Lisa wrote in her blog, “he appropriated the beginning of my sexuality.”

She didn’t know what to do. She had no references to assess the situation. She noticed that others were progressing and she was stuck in her music career. She tried to escape, to resist, and it only made him insist more and more. 

María and Claudia

María (the name we gave her to protect her identity) left her career because of the constant abuse of that same oboe teacher. “ I now regret quitting music, like someone who divorces a person they still love. I left El Sistema when I was twenty, and by that time I was going to practice out of habit only.” She was friends with Lisa during their first years; Lisa played the oboe and María the bassoon, they sat side by side in the orchestra. María was also interested in that eccentric class. The teacher started to tell her she had a lot of potential and convinced her to study with him. When she joined his course, she ceased to be close with her old bassoon friends. Her mom, as Lisa’s parents, thought she was lucky to have joined that workshop.

María describes the teacher as a sly, extremely friendly control freak that used to sow discord. As the educational relationship progressed, the personal approach began. He would call her on her birthday, but talking to her mom first. Then he started to call María during the night. “He would say he was driving alone and needed my company on the phone. Or he would call me to read me a poem.” She was seventeen when he tried to make her tell him she loved him. Soon after, he offered his help to get her bachelor’s degree at La Sorbonne. “My mom and I met with him to discuss that possibility. We were thrilled. Obviously, that place for me in La Sorbonne never existed.” When he was transferred from Barquisimeto, he told her to move to an apartment in Caracas with him and Lisa, as three adult musicians who were to teach others, as equals. “The idea sounded great. We would live in Caracas, working on what we loved. According to him, El Sistema would pay the rent.” 

Meanwhile, her friendship with Lisa changed drastically. “Lisa and I were very close, we used to spend a lot of time together. We even traveled with her and her family. Suddenly, Lisa stayed apart from everyone.” 

Lisa remembers that her oboe teacher “used to talk about an older girl that would never be a good oboist because she didn’t let loose.” That student is Claudia (another fake name we use to hide her identity, as she requested), who found herself trapped in El Sistema and decided to continue her musical career in other institutions. 

Like María, Claudia remembers Lisa’s abrupt change. When Claudia met Lisa, she was under the impression Lisa was a girl full of life.

“But she joined the Saturday workshop, and in the corridors they said she and the teacher were together. To avoid those comments, Lisa started to avoid the rest of the people. She became a very isolated person.”

Claudia also remembers inappropriate advances from the same teacher. He put his hands on her neck to show her how to use the diaphragm, but her mother was there. He had tried to keep the mother out, but she didn’t trust him. “She sat in the corner,” said Claudia to Caracas Chronicles, “and when she saw the teacher touching me, she stepped up and said that was unnecessary. The teacher went mad, and responded that was why he wanted her to wait outside. My mom is a doctor and said to him that nothing about the functioning of the diaphragm needed external tact to teach how to control it. She also said that no lesson, under any circumstance, really required physical contact.”

The second time was at the teacher’s house. His wife was there. During a moment when the wife went to the kitchen, he approached Claudia like he intended to kiss her. “I stepped away immediately and his reaction was to tell me I was unable to control myself, that I need to learn how to feel things that led me to the music.” Claudia called her mother and asked her to pick her up at once. “The wife took him to a room and I waited for my mom in the living room.” 

After that, Claudia’s path in El Sistema faced one obstacle after another. She was stuck. She said the teacher worked to block her from access to seminaries with important masters and international tours. “I stopped moving forward in El Sistema, but not because of my talent or my capabilities,” Claudia assures. 

Lisa got away too. She says she reached a point where El Sistema started to suspect something bad was going on and sent the teacher to Vargas. “I stayed in Barquisimeto, but he used another strategy to keep the link with me: handing me his workshop. That’s typical in El Sistema, that the older students are responsible for teaching the younger ones.” Then came the time of going to college, and Lisa left for Caracas. She needed to be away from him. She tried to play for El Sistema siege in Chacao, but he knew she was there and started to teach there as well. She thought that, if she wanted to keep making music, she needed to leave the country. 

“I even stepped on a balcony and threatened him to jump if he didn’t leave me alone,” says Lisa. “Finally, he realized it was too costly to keep abusing me. He had found another victim.” 

El Sistema’s Response

“Legally speaking, we have done what is allowed,” said to Caracas Chronicles Cleopatra Montoya, the legal advisor of Fundación Musical Simón Bolívar, regarding Lisa’s case. Montoya says that the foundation knew of Lisa’s testimonial on May 18th and went to the Attorney General’s office to introduce a demand of investigation under the figure of notitia criminis. The case was assigned to the attorney with national competence on family Ronney Osorio, also in charge of investigations regarding other public cases of sexual misconduct or abuse denounced in the Venezuelan #MeToo. “We offered all of El Sistema’s structure to help this investigation reach its desired result,” assures Montoya. This demand, as notitia criminis, doesn’t mention a specific crime. “We reported the news as an interested party, but the attorney must determine the crime, based on the interviews with the victim.” 

The organization, according to Montoya, doesn’t know who’s the victim and who’s the perpetrator in Lisa’s case. Based on the leads they could extract from Lisa’s dates and details, they made a list with El Sistema’s manager in Lara, of people who could be Lisa and her abuser. “We gave sufficient elements to the attorney, and we understand that the notifications were issued last week to interview several former students that could be her, and several possible perpetrators.”

This isn’t the first case of abuse inside El Sistema the organization knows about, it’s the 12th.

Between 2002 and 2019, the office of the legal counselor had known of eleven cases of abuse, Montoya says, “most of them for crimes of harassment and lewd acts, almost all of them committed by integral academic instructors.” Those were eleven different abusers, in several regions, including Caracas, none of those cases happened in Lara. All the accused teachers were dismissed immediately. In all the cases, the foundation went to the Attorney General’s office and Child Protection Councils in the city where the case took place, and involved the victims’ families. “Three of the eleven cases made it to court and the accusers were sentenced for sexual abuse and imprisoned, in 2010, 2013 and 2014.” 

“El Sistema is a dynamic institution that can’t stay stuck in time,” the legal advisor says. Montoya says the organization has been strengthening “its internal structures to identify and deal with these situations” since 2004, through alliances with organizations dedicated to the protection of children and teens, like AVESA (Asociación Venezolana para una Educación Sexual Alternativa) and Unicef. They have made campaigns and workshops about abuse, harassment, gender violence and cyber violence, this one an increasing problem. “These are informative campaigns to raise awareness amid our employees and students on their rights and their duties. We have been using our workers’ code of conduct for eight years, and since 2005 cohabitation manuals in the núcleos, approved by the Children and Teens Protection Council at every location. Those manuals explain to kids that they must report irregular situations,” says Marbelys Rodríguez, a specialist in children and teens protection. She manages a counseling and protection office in Caracas. They have offices with teams made of a student, a counselor from the community with expertise in human rights, a parent or guardian chosen by the parents assembly, and someone from the administrative area. “In the state coordinations, we have a social worker, a psychologist and a lawyer who report to the legal counselor. A student that feels attacked can find specialists and talk to a superior within the organization,” Cleopatra Montoya says. 

“We can’t ignore this,” says El Sistema’s legal advisor. “We know this can happen, but this is not what we are, and our history of 46 years is immaculate. We made this public to let people know what we are doing about it. El Sistema will never support behavior that damages a child’s integrity. Inside the organization, we are trying to go a step ahead of what could happen. We are involving more personnel and allies with expertise on this, to manage this situation efficiently. We have created helplines and digital platforms, we are updating our codes and policies, and we are improving our filters for hiring personnel, to ensure that we only hire people who are properly aware of the right way of dealing with kids, and have the psychological conditions to be around kids.”

The Pending Balance

A source with direct knowledge of the situation at El Sistema says that the helplines and the platforms have not been created yet, and that the initial attention to the claims are being handled by NGOs. These NGOS are also helping with spreading the information, but lack the resources (as well as El Sistema) to ensure the messages reach the entire network. 

According to lawyer Selene Soto, who specializes in gender issues, “the discussion has been focused only on the legal aspects, but an internal investigation is key. This kind of strategy delegates the protocols to entities outside El Sistema, without assuming any institutional responsibility, which is far from being the right response. These are crimes that must go to court, but El Sistema must investigate and apply, at least, disciplinary and administrative sanctions. And I am sure they don’t have a protocol to receive these claims.”

Every institution has a discretionary capacity to create protocols of internal investigation, Soto says, but it’s important to have them, in order to comply with the legal obligation of guaranteeing a safe space, free of violence. Soto thinks “it’s worrying that a state attorney summons the victims to interviews, given the big problems with Venezuela’s justice system.” 

Lisa is aware that El Sistema reported her case to an attorney after she published her blog. “I went to the attorney too. I can’t speak about it yet. I haven’t made my name public, so El Sistema hasn’t reached me. They don’t have to do it if my accusation is under anonymity.”

For Lisa, that El Sistema had said it’s investigating this with an internal committee is the right step. “But I wonder why they waited so long. This isn’t new. I just presented my testimonial, but in 2014 Geoff Baker published a book where he described the structures at El Sistema that allow the abuse, and concrete cases he collected in his interviews. Baker’s book was read, in Venezuela and abroad, as an attack against El Sistema. But at that moment I was being abused in the institution. If they would have taken action then, I would have been protected, as well as other people. These things don’t happen in a void. Which structures make this happen, with a population of children and teens?”

Claudia says that she and her family never reported her case “because everyone there talks about those teachers who have other intentions toward the kids, and nobody pays attention. Today I feel El Sistema functions as the Catholic Church: everything is known, but nothing is done. We knew no one would listen to us.” 

About her experience, Lisa told Caracas Chronicles that she felt “shame, guilt, I didn’t want to talk about it. Those abuses were a known secret, but there wasn’t a protocol to go beyond the gossip. I felt exposed, vulnerable, a lot of people were talking about what was happening between that teacher and me, and no one could do anything. Even today I find people who say to me: ‘I heard the rumors, I’m sorry I didn’t understand how bad it was, but I think you were of legal age, not fifteen.’ The environment allowed people who heard the rumors to believe that our relationship was consensual when I was just a child.” 

Lisa says her abuser, trained in El Sistema, was the only oboe teacher in Lara. “The important thing here is that there are two sides,” says Lisa. “You have to acknowledge the good that El Sistema has done. But also, the damage it has done. I believe this is a moment to look inside, to reflect, to audit. There must be a public acknowledgment that there have been victims of abuse inside El Sistema, and we must ask ourselves what has been the cost of the institution’s achievements. Of course, El Sistema meant good things for a lot of people. But for me, it meant great pain, as a consequence of my desire of becoming a great artist. I’m still waiting for the moment of reconciling with music.” 

Claudia continued to study, but out of El Sistema, and graduated in oboe and as a lawyer. “I’m the musician I am, but not thanks to El Sistema.” She’s playing the oboe in a migrant orchestra in another country. “El ambiente es totalmente diferente,” she told Caracas Chronicles. “There’s a structure to prevent and report harassment; the decision-making and power structures are different and don’t depend so much on individuals. The teaching staff is way more equitative, there are as many women as men. It’s an environment where it’s almost impossible to allow harassment or inappropriate behaviors. We all feel very safe.”