It would seem that the New York Times has run out of substantive issues with which to present Venezuela in a negative light and has now decided to focus instead on a rather silly effort to tarnish Venezuela’s world-renown and highly acclaimed classical music education program known as “El Sistema” (“Music Meets Chávez Politics, and Critics Frown” NYT, Feb. 18, 2012, p.1). In this article, Daniel J. Wakin (who is a culture reporter for the Times and not the regular Venezuela correspondent), presents El Sistema as being under attack in “recent years” by opponents of the Chávez government.
Wakin goes on to quote a number of opposition supporters, who claim that the Chávez government has “politicized” the music program. For example, one opposition-supporting pianist, Gabriela Montero, says, “Chávez has taken Sistema as his own child, and it’s not.” She goes on to make the potentially racist statement that Chávez “dirtied [the program] with his presence.” Wakin then writes, “…most people are loath to criticize anything associated with [El Sistema] publicly,” implying that most would criticize it privately – no doubt most critics would not want to make potentially racist criticisms public.
But what does this criticism actually consist of? Is it merely that the Chávez government is trying to associate itself closely with one of its most admired social programs, under which over 300,000 youths learn to play classical music and which is now being emulated in more than 25 countries? Obviously Wakin is extremely skeptical of anything the government says, writing that Chávez is known for the “social programs that the government claims have raised the standard of living for the poor.” Here he sides with the opposition, which regularly argues that Venezuelan statistics on poverty are “claims,” even though all international agencies, such as the UN and the World Bank, audit and use these same statistics regularly. A brief glance at these statistics clearly show that Venezuela has more than halved poverty and reduced extreme poverty by more than two-thirds during the Chávez presidency.
Returning to the heart of the article, the supposed politicization of El Sistema, Wakin gives a few isolated examples, such as three children who played violin at the National Assembly last month, where the Assembly president commented that the children had been born during Chávez’s presidency (“born in revolution”). Then, in another example, opposition supporters highlight the fact that Chávez met with the program’s director, José Antonio Abreu, and quotes this opposition supporter, Gustavo Coronel, as saying that this is akin to “Chamberlain’s meetings with Hitler” or “Ezra Pound’s [meeting] with Mussolini.” Wakin doesn’t stop for even a second to question his interlocutor about this absurd comparison of Chávez with Hitler or Mussolini, giving the impression that the comparison is justified. He also accepts without counterpoint the opposition claim (in a Venezuelan newspaper, no less!!) that the Chávez government is “one of the governments of the world that most violates human rights.”
Wakin finishes his article by quoting Moises Naim, who was Development Minister under president Carlos Andrés Pérez, during one of the darkest periods of Venezuelan history, when IMF-imposed austerity policies provoked riots and a military and police response that killed between 400 and 1,000 innocent Venezuelans. Naim claims that the only reason Abreu hasn’t criticized the Chávez government is because he “has to stay silent about the government” in order for it to survive, implying that if he were free to criticize, he would.
Perhaps the most glaring problem with Wakin’s article is that at heart it is about how the Chávez government has claimed El Sistema as a flagship program and has politicized it, but Wakin presents practically no evidence that it is not a flagship program whose funding has increased exponentially under Chavez or that it has been politicized. All he does is present opposition commentators who chafe at the accolades the program has received during the Chávez presidency. This is front-page news? Indeed, while Chavez critics frown, the NYT smiles.