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Crisis threatens education in Venezuela

Reese Erlich Caracas
May 18, 2017

Venezuela has been battling with a political and economic crisis for months which has now started to affect even music schools in the country. Anti-government protests and lack of money means kids rather stay home.

Orchestra in Venezuela
Image: Reese Erlich

In a classroom in Venezuela's capital Caracas, four-year-old children sit in a circle holding rhythm sticks, shakers and a drum. A teacher sings to them and after a few moments, the students start to sing along too, playing body percussion and joyfully pounding on their drums. 

This is just one school that runs Venezuela's famous music program, El Sistema. Los Angeles Symphony conductor Gustavo Dudamel, as well as the conductor Carlos Izcaray and famous clarinetist Alcides Rodriguez attended the program, which teaches 827,000 students at 440 schools. 

No money for musical instruments

But the nationwide education program, which has helped working class students to study European classical music for over 40 years, now faces financial difficulties brought on by the country's severe economic and political crisis.

My picture of the week | Music against violence in Caracas

El Sistema receives 80 percent of its funding from President Nicolas Maduro's socialist government.

However, for the past two years, government subsidies failed to keep pace with inflation.

A drop in international oil prices has led to an economic crisis in Venezuela; the country faces 750 percent inflation and 25 percent unemployment, and food and medicine are in short supply.

Lack of foreign currency also makes it hard to import musical instruments and spare parts.

Protests and violence put students at risk

Protests against the Maduro government disrupt the country, as opposition supporters regularly block highways and shut down major cities.

And when demonstrators throw rocks and fire bombs, police shoot teargas back at them.      

"In some cases the parents prefer to keep their children at home," said Tupac Amaru Rivas, who runs an El Sistema school in central Caracas. 

"Sometimes the teachers can't make it to school and we cancel the class."

Venezuela Erneut Proteste gegen die Regierung
Opposition supporters block the city's main highway during a rally against Maduro in CaracasImage: Reuters/C. Garcia Rawlins

After weeks of violent protests, an 18-year-old student in El Sistema's national orchestra was killed at a rally in Caracas at the beginning of May.

Conductor Dudamel responded by denouncing government repression, saying the "just cry of the people can't be ignored."

"My entire life has been devoted to music and art as a way of transforming societies," he said. "I raise my voice against violence. I raise my voice against any form of repression. Nothing justifies bloodshed."

School as refuge      

The crisis impacts teachers as well. Ollanton Velasquez, orchestra conductor at a school in Caracas, told DW that inflation eats away at their pay.

"We were once able to live entirely from our orchestra salaries," he told DW. "Now we look for other ways to supplement our income. Teachers can earn another salary by teaching at private high schools."

Students are also suffering because of the economic crisis. Teachers provide them with food or transportation, if they are unable to get it themselves.

Despite the difficulties, the school tries to carry on as usual. For younger children, El Sistema functions as a safe, after-school program for poor parents. 

"Children from poor and working class backgrounds always participated," Rivas said. "A lot of people consider classical music something for elites, but that's not true."

Students and staff remain optimistic that El Sistema will overcome its current troubles. The Maduro government is increasing its subsidies in an effort to compensate for inflation, while El Sistema is working hard to increase private donations. It's on track to enroll one million students by end of 2017.

But while El Sistema may overcome its current difficulties, the path may be more difficult for the country as a whole.