The Dream Unstarted: El Sistema’s discordant notes

The Inter-American Development Bank identified El Sistema’s excessive centralization in Caracas as a key weakness when it became involved with the Venezuelan youth orchestra scheme in the late 1990s. In 2007, the bank made a loan to finance the construction of high-spec music centres in seven regional cities in order to decentralize the program. The new centres were the major element (more than 50%) of a $211 million package for El Sistema: $150 million provided by the IDB and $61 million by the Venezuelan state. One, in the city of Barquisimeto, was designed by Frank Gehry and was to be named Dudamel Hall, a reflection of the famous conductor’s warm relations with Venezuela’s political leadership.

The buildings were due to be completed by 2011. However, in my 2014 book on El Sistema, I drew attention to the fact that these centres had not been built, or even started, by that year. In a 2016 blog post, I noted that while the regional centres remained unrealized, El Sistema was pouring resources into a huge new building in Caracas, which was not in the original IDB plans – indeed, which flatly contradicted the bank’s stated goal of decentralization. As well as questioning the logic behind this move, I wrote that “there’s a real risk of this building becoming a white elephant.” Yet despite the global profile of El Sistema and the large sums of public money involved, no one else engaged with the story. I devoted a 2017 blog post to this topic under the heading, “Is anyone paying attention to the big issues?”, and asked:

Is there any mention or explanation or discussion of this 180-degree turn anywhere? […] El Sistema is a major classical music story that tens of thousands of people around the world follow avidly, yet no one seems to notice or care about the big issues. Far more attention is paid to trivial details like paper violins than to an illogical volte-face with a price tag of over $100 million.

Today, a team of Venezuelan investigative journalists published a detailed report on the phantom centres. They confirmed that, fifteen years after the contract was signed, not a single brick of the original seven centres has been laid. The half-built Caracas centre has been on hold since 2020 due to a lack of resources. The report highlights the illogicality of reducing a national program of decentralization to the construction of a single building in the capital. In the regional cities identified by the IDB, instead of the modern music complexes that had been planned, the reporters found borrowed or rented facilities in a poor state of repair, with some having closed altogether. A number of music schools in Venezuela’s second city, Maracaibo, were listed as operational on El Sistema’s website but were found to be shut or even non-existent – the kind of discrepancy between publicity and reality that I have been highlighting for a decade. Similarly, El Sistema’s CEO, Eduardo Méndez, claimed that demand was surging and he outlined plans for expansion; however, music school staff interviewed by the reporters spoke of declining numbers of teachers and students.

This decline is hardly surprising, given that many staff receive only “symbolic salaries.”  Of the huge sums allocated at the top of the program, only a few drops reach the bottom. The reporters interviewed a former El Sistema teacher who left after receiving no payment for a year, calling the program “a swindle,” and a current teacher who described what is almost a kind of indentured labour. He is paid a miserable $6 a month, yet he said:

I can’t leave. If I quit, they’ll take away my instrument.

Without an instrument, he would be unable to moonlight at the weekend, playing the gigs that allow him to maintain himself.

How much money has been paid out by whom and what it has been spent on remains something of a mystery; the report details wildly contradictory figures in official financial accounts, and the IDB and the Venezuelan government refused to clarify the situation to the journalists. This is the sobering, messy, murky reality of El Sistema – one that has long been obvious to serious observers but ignored by so many, at home and abroad, who only want to see a “Venezuelan musical miracle.”

That it has taken so many years for this story to be investigated and aired in the media simply illustrates the iron grip that El Sistema has maintained on the public narrative throughout its history. The program’s founder and long-time director, José Antonio Abreu, infamously used bribes and threats to keep the Venezuelan media on a tight leash and El Sistema’s scandals out of the news. To my knowledge, the last critical investigative report on El Sistema dates from 1994: Rafael Rivera’s “The Philanthropic Ogre.” (Today’s investigation is not the first to focus on financial murkiness: Abreu’s slush fund and “strange, improvised” movement of money was a focus of a 1990 article by Roger Santodomingo.) Now, nearly 30 years later, Venezuelan investigative journalists have once again pierced the heavy veil of silence that covers El Sistema and keeps its realities away from the ears of the world.

In 2014, I wrote that El Sistema had numerous skeletons in its closet and that more evidence would eventually come to light. This year it is failures of planning and infrastructure; last year it was sexual abuse. 2018 saw unpublished and unflattering evaluations of El Sistema emerge, including highly critical reflections by current and former members of the program; while in 2017 Abreu’s phantom PhD was rumbled and the IDB published evidence of a low percentage of poor beneficiaries and minimal social impact (undermining El Sistema’s two major claims to fame). The year before that, former El Sistema violinist Luigi Mazzocchi painted a detailed portrait of institutional malpractice to Larry Scripp for an article in VAN Magazine. That’s quite a few skeletons for what was once hailed as one of classical music’s biggest success stories, and yet the closet is far from empty.

UPDATE: 16 March

On the eve of the publication of this investigation, the IDB clarified to the reporters that responsibility for the failure to build the music centres lay squarely with El Sistema. The investigative team also noted that the decision to focus resources on a second HQ in Caracas, rather than the regional centres specified in the grant agreement, was described by Eduardo Méndez as “a strategic decision by Maestro Abreu.”

As explained in my 2017 blog post, the IDB identified decentralization via the construction of regional centres as a priority in 1997. Indeed, it argued that constructing a headquarters in Caracas “would be appropriate only if it were accompanied by the Regional Centres.” El Sistema failed to act on this directive in Phase I of the IDB project, building only the first Caracas HQ. So when the IDB issued its second and much larger Phase II loan in 2007, it reiterated that the central goal was “to deconcentrate El Sistema” via the creation of “an intermediate regional level.” But history simply repeated itself: again, the regional centres were forgotten; again, El Sistema only built a complex in Caracas (this time unfinished).

From the point of view of infrastructural development, the last 25 years of El Sistema – and the IDB’s relationship with the program – have been a resounding failure. The desolate picture in regional cities today contrasts starkly with the elaborate plans that were made (and financed) all those years ago. And as Méndez revealed, the buck stops with José Antonio Abreu, who was responsible for the abandonment of El Sistema’s top strategic priority over the last quarter of a century.

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