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Elevating the Elite in Music: El Sistema and Cultural Hegemony

photograph of a girl playing the trumpet in a group of young students

Since 1975, the Venezuelan program known as “El Sistema” has brought European classical music to the disadvantaged youth of the Latin American nation. Similar programs have been initiated in at least sixty countries around the world, sparking a global movement which aims to use classical music as a force for social change. El Sistema and its founder, José Antonio Abreu, have been showered with praise and awards by the international community; supporters say it produces not just excellent musicians but also model citizens, preventing widespread violence and criminality in society. Implicit in this philosophy, however, is the proposition that European classical music is both aesthetically and morally superior to other forms of music. While promoting or preferring classical music is not necessarily harmful, the tendency to elevate it over other musics, including local musical traditions, has the potential to enforce a harmful European cultural hegemony and suppress otherwise vibrant artistic practices.

The argument for El Sistema as an agent of social change references both the music and the performance practice of European classical tradition. The discipline required to learn an instrument, conduct rehearsals, and perform the music instills in children the values of hard work and commitment, keeping them from the path of immorality. Child’s Play India Foundation, a program inspired by El Sistema, uses strong language to describe the division between those “who may have otherwise gone down the drugs and drink route” from those who “lead a life of dignity, joy and empowerment.” This sort of language is reminiscent of historical criticism of various popular music genres, including jazz, rock, and rap. Valorizing the discipline and training of classical musicians implies that successful musicians in popular, commercial, and folk traditions lack the same work ethic, talent, or requisite moral fiber. Taken to its most egregious extreme, this attitude can be used to support racist portrayals of native people in historically colonized countries like Venezuela and India as lazy, hedonistic, and unrefined.

Although race-oriented denigration of popular music is obviously unacceptable, there may be some merit to the notion that European classical music, being an “art music,” requires more training and technical skill than other forms. (Some styles of popular music even emphasize accessibility while criticizing classical music as elitist.) On the other side of the coin, the time and resources required to play classical music is often cited as a barrier to entry for disadvantaged people — in fact, righting this imbalance is one of the primary purposes of programs like El Sistema. That said, the focus of the Child’s Play Foundation in India on European classical music is difficult to defend, considering India is home to two major classical traditions of its own, each of which bears comparable complexity and historicity to European classical music. While I cannot presume to have a complete grasp of the moral and social context of Indian classical music, one worries that Eurocentricity has played a role in the promotion of European classical music over local traditions in India.

This is not to argue that the people of Venezuela and India should not play European classical music or should be restricted to their own local traditions. Cross-cultural exchange and participation ensure vitality in the arts, and to suggest that only musicians native to a given region can play music from that region would be to impose an overly simplistic view of race, geography, and history. Music, art, and culture are ever-changing and ever-blending entities. On the other hand, when European music is elevated socially above local music traditions, even by local musicians themselves, Eurocentric elitism threatens to cause great and lasting damage to the cultural identity of a people and rob the world of artistic contribution and much needed diversity.

The Venezuela Crisis and National Self-Determination

Photograph of a Venezuelan flag in the foreground and a crowd of protesting people in the background

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

In January, the political turmoil facing Venezuela escalated when National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó declared himself interim president of the nation, directly challenging the authority of the recently sworn-in President Nicolás Maduro. This event has further fractured the government of Venezuela, which was divided in 2017 when Maduro formed a new legislature, called the National Constituent Assembly, to compete with the opposition controlled National Assembly. Guaidó has defended his action under Article 233 of the Venezuelan Constitution, which allows for such a declaration in the event of a president’s absence or inability to serve. According to Guaidó and other members of Maduro’s opposition, Maduro’s 2018 re-election was fraudulent and invalid, leaving Venezuela without a true president.

Alongside these political controversies, an equally serious economic crisis has unfolded. Venezuela’s struggling economy has collapsed under the weight of hyperinflation over the past few years, with the annual inflation rate up to November 2018 reaching 1,300,000 percent. This has caused widespread shortages in food and medical care. The failure of Maduro’s administration to prevent this financial crisis contributed to his low popularity in 2018. Opponents say his desperate grasp for power in the face of a possible election defeat resulted in illegal measures and a rigged election.

Many foreign governments have taken sides in the dispute over the presidency, recognizing either Maduro or Guaidó as the legitimate leader. The United States and most South American countries support Guaidó, whereas Russia, China, Iran, and Turkey support Maduro. The U.S. has also contributed aid in the form of food and essential supplies to ease shortages. While this aid may seem immediately to be beneficial to the Venezuelan people, Maduro has argued that accepting the aid would constitute a fatal blow to the self-determination of the nation. In a speech regarding the aid, Maduro denounced the effort as a ploy to undermine the sovereignty of his government, saying “We are not beggars.” Following this reasoning, the military, which supports Maduro, has blocked the aid shipment from reaching Venezuela.

Is the U.S. aid effort a cover for a more nefarious foreign policy aim? It seems far-fetched, but some people and organizations have lent support to the theory. Notable independent aid organizations, including the Red Cross, have decided not to get involved for fear of politicizing their efforts. Former United Nations special rapporteur Alfred de Zayas has argued vocally against U.S. involvement in Venezuela. According to de Zayas, the sanctions imposed by the U.S. against Maduro’s government were a major factor in the economic crisis now facing the country. He also claims that the goal of U.S. intervention is not to help the citizens of Venezuela, but rather to gain access to the country’s significant oil reserves. De Zayas was among over 70 academics who signed an open letter to the Trump administration decrying the United States’ involvement in Venezuelan domestic affairs. The current U.N. organization has also made a statement against U.S. sanctions in Venezuela, and the U.N. charter includes “self-determination of peoples” as part of its mission.

It is also important to note that the U.S. has a long and well-documented history of interference in Latin American governments. According to John H. Coatsworth, the U.S. has successfully brought about regime changes at least 41 times, usually to bring about political or economic goals. Although there were many direct interventions, some of the interventions were more indirect. Whether any coup d’états came about because of humanitarian aid is debatable, but Bolivia did expel USAID, the agency providing aid to Venezuela, from its borders after the Bolivian President Evo Morales accused the agency of a conspiracy against the country.

Considering the evidence, it is difficult to determine who is telling the truth. The United States may be genuinely interested in preventing further starvation and disease, or it may be seeking to undermine the Maduro government and install a pro-U.S. regime. Maduro might be working to head off a hostile coup d’état, or he may be clinging to power against the will of people. In all likelihood, each story carries some truth to it, but neither shows the whole picture. Assuming some degree of truthfulness, there is still a salient ethical question of values. In the U.N., Russia and the United States have presented opposing proposals for action; Russia has argued for a non-interventionist policy, while the U.S. argues for the rescuing of human life at all costs. Is human life worth the cost to national self-determination? Aside from the possibility that the lot of Venezuelan citizens would be worse in the long term after taking U.S. aid, is self-determination alone a value worth sacrificing lives for? The starving masses are innocent and probably had nothing to do with any of the political decisions which led to the current situation—do they deserve to die as a result of political forces outside of their control? On the other hand, some would argue that a life without dignity—national or otherwise—would not be worth living.

Reckoning with Democracy in Decline

Photograph of several flagpoles, with Chinese and Hong Kong flags visible

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of our discussion questions, check out the Educational Resources page.

In the light of the recent decisions coming from People’s Republic of China regarding the elimination of the two-term limit on presidency, it is worth exploring the state of democracy in the world, and more specifically prospects for its survival. Even though China has never significantly approached fulfilling procedural minimum requirements for democracy, this move comes as a significant step away from classical conception of Chinese authoritarianism towards an even more closed political system. Setting China aside as just one among the sea of examples, one ought to focus on the reasons for which democracy or the ideals associated with democracy are globally in decline. Continue reading “Reckoning with Democracy in Decline”

How Venezuelan Democracy Died

A portrait of Nicolas Maduro

Venezuela is scheduled to have presidential elections in April 2018. Although not technically illegal, this is unexpected. In 2016, Venezuela was expected to have regional elections, but Nicolas Maduro’s regime suspended them until 2017. He claimed it was due to economic reasons, but everyone suspected that he did so in order to gain some time, as his party was extremely unpopular at the time. Now, presidential elections have been called for April, although they were originally scheduled for December. Again, this is widely seen as a cynical ploy: the opposition forces are currently at a very weak point, and Maduro seizes the opportunity to defeat his rivals.

Continue reading “How Venezuelan Democracy Died”

Should the United States Invade Venezuela?

A landscape image of Caracas, Venezuela

Harvard’s Ricardo Hausmann has recently written a column claiming Venezuela is approaching D-Day: options are running out in the solution of the South American country’s crisis, and the only remaining solution, according to him, is the participation of a coalition of regional forces. Hausmann is quite explicit arguing that such a coalition should be led by the US.

Hausmann does not use these phrases in his article, but he is clearly thinking of “humanitarian intervention” and “responsibility to protect” (R2P). Both concepts are now common parlance in security studies and international law, yet they give rise to heated debates.

Continue reading “Should the United States Invade Venezuela?”

Can There Be a Democratic Socialism?

A photo of Salvador Allende waving to a crowd.

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro recently said that he is willing to become a dictator in order to ensure “economic peace” in his country. This is very strange, as commentators have widely argued that Maduro has already been a dictator for quite some time. Latin American countries had long endured dictatorships, but for the most part, dictators acknowledged their condition. They rarely pretended to be democratic. The only exception was Cuba. There, a leftist dictator pretended to be democratic, ala the German Democratic Republic, which everyone knew was democratic only in its name.

Continue reading “Can There Be a Democratic Socialism?”

Has Venezuela Become a Dictatorship?

Is Venezuela a dictatorship? The words democracy and dictatorship should be defined on a continuum. But, it should by now be clear that Venezuela is closer to the latter than to the former. Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro clinched power in a contested election in 2013. He promised a recount on national TV, but only hours later, he retracted. Ever since, he has claimed American imperialism is the real power standing behind opposition forces in Venezuela.

Continue reading “Has Venezuela Become a Dictatorship?”

Free Speech and Passport Fraud: On CNN’s Ban from Venezuela

Progressives in the United States are decidedly against the policies and ideology of Donald Trump. And, predictably, when President Trump has displayed aggressiveness towards CNN and other media outlets, these progressives uphold the values of free speech. Yet, last month, CNN was expelled from Venezuela, a country whose socialist regime has been lauded by the likes of Noam Chomsky, Oliver Stone, Sean Penn, and other visible figures of the left. There has been little (if any) uproar over this. This is at best inconsistent, and at worst hypocritical.

Continue reading “Free Speech and Passport Fraud: On CNN’s Ban from Venezuela”

The Case of Ezequiel Zamora: Are Latin American Bandits Heroes?

Last week, Venezuela’s government honored the 200th anniversary of Ezequiel Zamora’s birth, in national celebrations. According to the official leftist party line, Zamora was a national hero that led guerrilla warfare against Venezuela’s corrupt governments in the mid-nineteenth century. Hugo Chavez’s political ideology was founded on the so-called “tree of three roots” (árbol de las tres racíces): Simon Bolivar, Simon Rodriguez and Ezequiel Zamora.

Bolivar and Rodriguez are heroes universally admired and respected by Venezuelans throughout the political spectrum. Zamora, on the other hand, is a much more divisive figure. According to historical revisionists, Zamora is no hero.

Continue reading “The Case of Ezequiel Zamora: Are Latin American Bandits Heroes?”