A History of sexual abuse in Venezuela’s lauded youth orchestra system

Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

 

The cases called out during the Venezuelan MeToo aren’t the only ones. We spoke to some of the victims, the organization, and specialists to get a wider picture of how bad the situation is.

By Caracas ChroniclesGabriela Mesones Rojo and Rafael Osio Cabrices

Jul 1, 2021

April’s “Venezuelan MeToo movement” came to an abrupt stop after the suicide of a poet who had been called out for statutory rape. All the testimonies flooding social media were overshadowed by this shocking event. While the Venezuelan cultural scene was still recovering from the shock, not many people realized that El Sistema, Venezuela’s youth orchestra system that has been celebrated all over the world, was being signaled by women who suffered harassment and abuse when they were underage students at the organization.

On April 23rd, Angie Cantero said on Facebook she was sexually harassed in El Sistema since she was nine years old. Soon after, on Twitter and a blog she created to speak up, a former oboe player from Lara, who only identifies herself with the nom de plume “Lisa”, told her story of abuse under two teachers, one at the Barquisimeto Music Conservatory and one working for El Sistema. The second one seduced her (and her family, in a way) for years. He isolated her from her friends, destroyed her relationship with music and her future as a professional musician, and had sex with her when she was his pupil and was a minor.

Lisa’s testimonial led to a public response by the Fundación Musical Simón Bolívar, the entity that manages El Sistema, with a communiqué and a petition for an investigation at the Attorney General’s office. Meanwhile, other stories have came to light; at least two organizations that follow El Sistema’s method for teaching music expressed their concern for what’s described in the testimonials; and articles on the matter have been appearing in the press abroad, in general interest outlets and magazines of the orchestral world. Pianist Gabriela Montero said that the victims had lived in a “fear bubble” and humanitarian expert Susana Raffalli suggested that UNICEF remove El Sistema’s honorary goodwill ambassador title.

The Closed Door

The love between music and Lisa started late, but with vigor. Even when music is a craft that demands an early beginning, she discovered she had what it took when she started to play the flute in school, two years after she moved to Barquisimeto from San Cristóbal. Later, she found the oboe, a complex instrument that she felt close to her, that made her feel unique. She started to study oboe at the Barquisimeto Conservatory and she applied to join a children’s orchestra, taking advantage of an evident talent. From there, she could be promoted to a youth orchestra and become a professional musician.

The orchestra helped her with integrating into her new life in Lara. “I liked it a lot,” said Lisa to Caracas Chronicles. “The conductor could be very strict, but that wasn’t a problem for me. I was surrounded by many other children, from strata. I got along with everyone, we’d go out, have ice cream at a neighboring place, would spend hours chatting in the garden… it was a valuable space of exchange and socialization that I couldn’t find anywhere else.” At that moment, her training started to divide between the Conservatory, where she spent most afternoons, and El Sistema, different institutions that, for the students’ points of view, were practically the same.

The first abuse came from an oboe teacher who was working for the Conservatory. She was eleven. He was in his forties.

“The oboe lessons at the Conservatory were taught behind closed doors,” Lisa said. “That was a situation in which inappropriate approach was possible. When you are teaching how to play an instrument, you frequently touch the student to indicate how to use the diaphragm. That has been quite problematic and it’s been increasingly banned in Europe. In Venezuela it was very common.” That’s how the first abuse took place. “It was traumatic. The teacher ordered another student to leave, closed the door, and came so close to me that I felt the need to get away from him. But I was frozen, I didn’t know how to react. He started to massage my neck, to go down my back, alleging I was tense, that I needed to relax. During those moments, the lesson stopped.”

It wasn’t the last time. Lisa was already being called a very beautiful girl by older students and that teacher. “I was uncomfortable. Why does an adult man have to notice it?” Once and again, she heard she had to use her talent. “For me, talent meant something entirely different than for my male friends. From the first moment, they said I was very talented. That seemed evident for me, because it was being confirmed by other people in other places, so I couldn’t see that the teacher was using my talent as an excuse, as a seduction strategy.”

As she grew more displeased with that oboe teacher, her interest in the instrument diminished. Lisa started to arrive unprepared for class, or tried to skip it. Then, she knew about another teacher who didn’t work for the Conservatory but was granted the use of a classroom. He was the woodwind workshop teacher of El Sistema and used to work in several parts of the country. He was so prestigious that he could choose the students of his “experimental” course, as he used to call it. He managed that class as an independent entity, teaching on Saturdays. He was also in his forties. But his classroom door was open. He even said that the parents could attend. Lisa was curious. She took a class and liked it. There were a bunch of children and they were talking about many things, not only about classical music. She wouldn’t be alone in that class, because two of her closest friends were there.

“That teacher made great efforts to attract me to his class,” Lisa remembers. When she wasn’t yet a student of the course, the teacher invited her to outings with the group, to eat with them, to go bowling. He convinced her that he was the only person able to develop her potential. “In fact, the three best teen oboists in Lara were his students. That was my way to get over the level of the Conservatory class.” She joined the group. She was already thirteen years old.

The Manipulation Plot 

With this second oboe teacher at El Sistema, what Lisa calls “a plot of manipulations” began. This man dedicated himself to get close to her family to establish the idea that Lisa’s fulfillment as a musician depended on a whole education as an artist, not only as an oboe player. When Lisa had the conditions to enter the youth orchestra according to El Sistema standards, the teacher argued that she wasn’t ready and she needed to keep studying with him. Friends of her that had her same level, that could play the same repertoire that Lisa, went forward and joined the youth orchestra, so she found herself separated from her friends. She stayed in the class where the door was open but she was taken to a world that only the teacher could control. “For me, that made no sense and it was unfair. But it meant that I was still the main oboist in my old children’s orchestra, too.”

One day, when Lisa was fourteen, the teacher closed the door and kissed her in the mouth. He said that was normal amid people with an artistic temperament.

After that, his presence was more intense in Lisa’s life. He would knock on her door to drive her to class. His lessons were free, so her family felt grateful. At some point, he told Lisa’s parents that she was a troubled child, and that of course he had the solution for that problem. “I was just going to parties with my friends and could have a beer, as you can expect from anyone my age. I wasn’t doing crazy things, I was taught to behave in my Tachirense family,” says Lisa.

But the physical contact escalated. The excuse was always the same: Lisa needed to experience things, “to make contact with my inner world and find a better sound for my instrument.” He started to touch her more, to rub against her while he read poetry to her in her room, and as Lisa wrote in her blog, “he appropriated the beginning of my sexuality.”

She didn’t know what to do. She had no references to assess the situation. She noticed that others were progressing and she was stuck in her music career. She tried to escape, to resist, and it only made him insist more and more.

María and Claudia

María (the name we gave her to protect her identity) left her career because of the constant abuse of that same oboe teacher. “ I now regret quitting music, like someone who divorces a person they still love. I left El Sistema when I was twenty, and by that time I was going to practice out of habit only.” She was friends with Lisa during their first years; Lisa played the oboe and María the bassoon, they sat side by side in the orchestra. María was also interested in that eccentric class. The teacher started to tell her she had a lot of potential and convinced her to study with him. When she joined his course, she ceased to be close with her old bassoon friends. Her mom, as Lisa’s parents, thought she was lucky to have joined that workshop.

María describes the teacher as a sly, extremely friendly control freak that used to sow discord. As the educational relationship progressed, the personal approach began. He would call her on her birthday, but talking to her mom first. Then he started to call María during the night. “He would say he was driving alone and needed my company on the phone. Or he would call me to read me a poem.” She was seventeen when he tried to make her tell him she loved him. Soon after, he offered his help to get her bachelor’s degree at La Sorbonne. “My mom and I met with him to discuss that possibility. We were thrilled. Obviously, that place for me in La Sorbonne never existed.” When he was transferred from Barquisimeto, he told her to move to an apartment in Caracas with him and Lisa, as three adult musicians who were to teach others, as equals. “The idea sounded great. We would live in Caracas, working on what we loved. According to him, El Sistema would pay the rent.”

Meanwhile, her friendship with Lisa changed drastically. “Lisa and I were very close, we used to spend a lot of time together. We even traveled with her and her family. Suddenly, Lisa stayed apart from everyone.”

Lisa remembers that her oboe teacher “used to talk about an older girl that would never be a good oboist because she didn’t let loose.” That student is Claudia (another fake name we use to hide her identity, as she requested), who found herself trapped in El Sistema and decided to continue her musical career in other institutions.

Read More: Caracas Chronicles – A History of sexual abuse in Venezuela’s lauded youth orchestra system

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