He has played his violin amidst explosions of tear gas. He has lifted spirits of countless marching protestors. He has faced lines of riot police holding nothing more than his bow and his fiddle.
As the political crisis worsens day by day in Venezuela, the forces of resistance have found an unlikely symbol in a slight-framed 23-year-old violinist named Wuilly Arteaga. Dressed in the colors of his country, he plays his violin at the front lines of pro-democracy protests, often floating, with a pure tone and a classical vibrato, the notes of the Venezuelan national anthem while armored vehicles fill the streets and fires rage nearby.
Yet as his public stature grew this summer, so did the danger facing him. His violin was destroyed. On more than one occasion, he was severely beaten. In one wrenching videotweeted from his hospital bed, he appears with his face disfigured from injuries and his shirt stained with blood. “Neither rubber bullets nor pellets nor smashing my violin” will stop us, he declared. “Because whatever happens, we are going to continue the fight, Venezuela.”
Since July 27, Arteaga’s violin has fallen silent. While playing at a demonstration only days before Venezuela held a controversial election, he was arrested and is now being detained in a military facility under the control of the Bolivarian National Guard, according to his lawyer, Alfredo Romero. “He told me he has been tortured,” said Romero, executive director of the NGO Foro Penal Venezolano, speaking by phone from Caracas. “He was beaten with his own violin, and beaten in a way that he lost hearing in his right ear.”
Words failed me when I heard this.
Arteaga’s alleged treatment is particularly grotesque in a country renowned for its government-supported national music education program, known as El Sistema, which has empowered thousands of impoverished young people, created a network of youth orchestras across Venezuela, and even launched a global conducting superstar, Gustavo Dudamel. Arteaga has said he taught himself violin through YouTube videos, but he later won a spot in El Sistema’s Youth Orchestra of Caracas.
As his protest performances have garnered worldwide attention, his humble yet mighty message has been resonating here in Boston, where the seeds of El Sistema’s empowerment-through-music philosophy have long been bearing fruit. Many in Boston still vividly remember the exhilarating night in 2007 when Dudamel led El Sistema’s most elite orchestra in a Symphony Hall concert like no other. Two local schools, the Longy School of Music of Bard College and New England Conservatory, have been at the forefront of spreading El Sistema-inspired music education methods to disadvantaged urban communities across the region and beyond. That work has only grown more complicated in recent months.
“I get asked about whether we’re going to continue with El Sistema-inspired programs given what’s going on in Venezuela,” said Longy president Karen Zorn by phone Saturday. “My answer has always been yes. This is not an endorsement of the Venezuelan government. You have to be able to hold these two opposing ideas in your head at the same time. It’s such a terrible situation there. Yet we are proceeding because the principals of El Sistema are far bigger than what’s going on with this regime. It’s about teaching a child that they matter, and that there’s a way they should be treated as a human being.”
In June, Arteaga came to the United States to meet with members of Congress, and then he returned to the streets of Caracas. His fate remains alarmingly uncertain.
At press time, efforts to reach Venezuelan government representatives for comment on Arteaga’s case were unsuccessful. But a July 30 statement from the public ministry, which was run at the time by the recently ousted Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz, stated that “a legal-medical examination determined [Arteaga] was subjected to cruel treatment.”
“When I saw first saw him [after his arrest], he said was extremely sad and frustrated,” related Romero, his lawyer. “When I told him many people were paying attention to his case, he kind of [perked] up again. Yesterday he was again very sad and worried. He doesn’t understand why he’s there.”
Others have their own theories regarding Arteaga’s detention. “In this confrontation between civility and barbarism, barbarism decided to pay the political cost of putting a well-known symbol in jail to create more fear, to try to convince people not to protest,” Ricardo Hausmann, director of Harvard University’s Center for International Development, told the Globe.
Meanwhile Arteaga’s many admirers at home and abroad are not remaining silent.
“The illegal detention of Wuilly Arteaga is an atrocity that shows the world how the Venezuelan government treats Venezuela’s dissidents,” said Robert Carmona-Borjas, a cofounder of the D.C.-based Arcadia Foundation, which brought Arteaga to the United States. “We urge the world to call on the Venezuelan government to grant full freedom to a citizen who has committed no crime, but to express with his music the rejection of the government.”
Arteaga stood in front of an armored vehicle during a May 24 protest against President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas.
Members of Congress are also taking up Arteaga’s case. “Music inspires people. It speaks to our yearning for freedom,” Representative Ted Deutsch, a Florida Democrat, told the Globe through a spokesperson. “Tragically, [Venezuelan President Nicolás] Maduro and his thugs are systematically crushing those dreams of the people of Venezuela.” Representative Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat, also released a statement: “I am horrified and dismayed to learn of the Bolivarian National Guard’s arrest of Wuilly Arteaga, a celebrated young leader in the movement for justice and peace in Venezuela. The Venezuelan authorities should know America is watching the situation carefully.”
Arteaga may seem to be the ultimate embodiment of El Sistema’s motto of “Tocar y Luchar” — to play and to fight — but his case actually underscores a painful dilemma facing El Sistema. For years, critics have called on its leaders and ambassadors to take a firmer stand against the regimes of Hugo Chávez and his successor, Maduro. But El Sistema receives the lion’s share of its funding from the national government and has assiduously maintained that it is a neutral actor, no more political — in the words of one former leader — than the state’s electricity grid or its water systems. Caught in the crossfire are the hundreds of thousands of children who, as I glimpsed in a visit to Caracas in 2010, regard music as one of the few sources of hope and joy in their lives.
Arteaga has publicly criticized El Sistema’s neutral stance. One has to wonder how long that neutrality can last, at a time when Maduro has been officially sanctioned by the United States, which branded him a “dictator.” For many years, Dudamel, now music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, remained reluctant to enter the political fray for fear, his supporters say, that his words might affect El Sistema’s already precarious condition. But since the shooting of Sistema violist Armando Cañizales during a protest, he has begun publicly addressing the erosion of democracy in his native country, telling the Venezuelan government, “Enough is enough.” Dudamel declined to comment for this article. And El Sistema leadership within Venezuela did not reply to a request for an interview.
Meanwhile other musicians are expressing their concerns for Arteaga. “He had become the embodiment of what the power of music can do, and I hope that he would not be penalized for focusing all of our attention on our common humanity,” said Katie Wyatt, executive director of El Sistema USA and a member of the first class of educators trained in the Venezuelan program’s methods in Boston at New England Conservatory.
“With his violin, with his music, he spoke in front of tyranny,” said Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero by phone from Switzerland. “Because of that public prominence, he is a target and unfortunately could suffer very much during this arbitrary imprisonment. We are all very worried about him — and every other prisoner political who is at the hands of the regime.”
According to Romero, Arteaga is one of 5,058 people who have been detained since April 2017, and one of 1,389 who remain in detention. Protesters are watching the case closely, for his own sake and for what he has come to represent.
“Wuilly is a symbol of the kind of Venezuela we want,” said Roberto Patiño, a community organizer, by phone from Caracas. “We don’t want violence. This is a civic movement. And music is one of the best expressions of that.”