Venezuela’s musicians rise up after violist (18) is killed in anti-government protest

Political unrest testing the loyalties of country’s state-funded orchestra members

Venezuelan violinist Wuilly Arteaga (centre) performs next to other young musicians during an anti-government protest in Caracas on  June 4th. Photograph:  Marco Bello/Reuters

Venezuelan violinist Wuilly Arteaga (centre) performs next to other young musicians during an anti-government protest in Caracas on June 4th. Photograph: Marco Bello/Reuters


Armando Cañizales left his viola at home that day. Eighteen and talented, he was a success story of Venezuela’s state-run music programme for the poor. But he decided it was time to join the street protests against the government that had supported his career.

As teenagers throwing rocks retreated from a line of soldiers, Cañizales moved forward alone. He said nothing as he advanced, arms outstretched, palms facing up. Then the fatal shots rang out. “When he fell, I didn’t even know it was him,” said William Hernández (19) a friend and fellow musician a short distance from Cañizales during the protests last month. He never expected Cañizales, who had expressed no political views to him, to be at the march. The viola had seemed to be the only thing on his mind.

Venezuela’s political unrest is testing the loyalties of many who have benefited from the socialist-oriented government – and at times were its strongest defenders. Doctors and nurses at public hospitals hold marches to demand supplies for empty clinics. Police officers, themselves suffering shortages of food, now question the government’s battle with protesters.

Yet no group has been tested quite like Venezuela’s classical musicians, who for years have been drawn from the country’s working-class barrios. They belong to the Simón Bolívar Musical Foundation, known to Venezuelans simply as El Sistema, Spanish for “the System”. For four decades, the state-financed programme trained hundreds of thousands of musicians across social classes, an achievement unheard-of anywhere else in Latin America and one that has left the music world in envy.

El Sistema’s youth orchestra toured the United States during years of tense relations between the countries. Its young prodigy, Gustavo Dudamel, became an international star and now leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic. A source of national pride, the classical music programme was one of the few institutions that seemed exempt from Venezuela’s growing polarisation and was protected by successive governments in return.

“In its 42 years, El Sistema somehow managed to keep an impartial position,” said Ollantay Velásquez, the director of Cañizales’s orchestra. “It has stayed that way until today.” Yet the young man’s death is rupturing that neutrality, underlining the kinds of dilemmas faced across Venezuela’s institutions as street protests approach their third month, with at least 67 people dead in the turmoil.

Memorial concerts

From Los Angeles, Dudamel broke his silence about the protesters’ demands, dedicating a concert in Cañizales’s memory from the stage in May and issuing a fiery statement against the government’s repression of demonstrators. “We must stop ignoring the just cry of the people suffocated by an intolerable crisis,” Dudamel warned. “I raise my voice against violence. I raise my voice against repression.”

In Venezuela, orchestra members have played memorial concerts for Cañizales, using performances to denounce government officials as traitors. Other musicians say they are now following Cañizales’s example in the streets, as well, heading into the front lines of protests with their instruments in tow.

On a recent afternoon, Wuilly Arteaga (23), stood in the centre of a crowd of demonstrators, his violin on his shoulder. His case was strapped to his back, his helmet painted with the colours of the Venezuelan flag. He played the national anthem.

Explosions of tear gas canisters erupted between the notes he played. Finally, other protesters grabbed him by a shoulder and dragged him back from the security forces. “I remembered my friend Armando,” Arteaga said afterward. “I have spent ages now playing and living on the streets, and I see that so many talented Venezuelans have had to eat from the trash.”

Anthony, another classical musician, now spends his days on the front lines of the clashes with security forces, dodging tear gas canisters and rubber bullets. Some of the instructors have told him not to go, he said. “They’ve begged us not to become polarised, not to show our political stripes,” said Anthony, who asked that his full name not be used because he feared reprisals. “Many of us go out concealed.”

Like most teenagers, Cañizales grew up under former president Hugo Chávez and his leftist movement, which took power in Venezuela the year he was born. Chávez, a populist buoyed by oil prices that skyrocketed after he came to power, used the money to reshape the country’s political and economic order, expropriating foreign assets, building thousands of public housing units and schools, and directing profits from Venezuela’s state oil company toward the poor.


El Sistema was founded long before Chávez’s movement, in 1975, by José Antonio Abreu, a conductor working with an initial class of 11 students in a parking garage. But Chávez soon saw it as a driver of change in the country’s poorest neighbourhoods and a way to raise Venezuela’s cultural profile abroad.

“Revolutionary Venezuela is aware of the infinite value of music as a bastion in the fight for equality and happiness,” Chávez wrote in a 2011 letter to Abreu. Around age 10, Cañizales took up the viola. Though he had planned to be a doctor one day, the instrument became an obsession for him – no less than “his life”, recalled Jesús Pérez, his El Sistema professor.

He loved Beethoven, said those who knew him. He practised Georg Philipp Telemann, a Baroque composer whose Viola Concerto Cañizales once played in a recital, perhaps with a bit of stage fright, missing a few notes. “He played for the love of it,” said Velásquez, the orchestra conductor.

Chávez died in 2013, replaced by a handpicked but much less popular successor, Nicolás Maduro, who soon was saddled by falling oil prices. By 2015, basic foods, once imported by the government cheaply on oil dollars, had become scarce, demoralising the country.

El Sistema was beginning to suffer, as well. Salaries of teachers were eroded by inflation, which reached triple digits. Basic maintenance of the main concert hall in the capital, Caracas, was neglected, and it suddenly flooded one night in 2016. Cascades of water dripped on the timpani drums stored there.

“Just to put strings on a viola became impossible,” recalled Pérez, the teacher. Yet Cañizales “was a boy of few words”, Pérez said. The teenager kept his own counsel, and few said they had known he was considering joining the street protests when they began to erupt in late spring.

May 3rd was a tumultuous day in Caracas. An armoured vehicle drove into a crowd of protesters who attacked it. Four opposition members of parliament were wounded in clashes. Even the leftist attorney general came out that day to condemn the police repression as excessive.

In another part of the city, young protesters were throwing rocks at a long line of national guardsmen. In a video clip, recorded by a Venezuelan journalist for an online news site, a lone figure wearing a backpack and a helmet appears, approaching the guardsmen from a distance with his arms outstretched. The man is Cañizales.


There is no record of the shooting. The next clip recorded by the journalist, Luis Olavarrieta, shows the young musician being rushed into an ambulance. “No, Armando, no!” someone screams. Pérez, his viola teacher, learned of the news when he saw his student’s name suddenly appear on Twitter that day.

“I couldn’t imagine it,” he said. “I saw ‘Trending Topic, Armando Cañizales,’ and I said to my wife, ‘What was Armando doing there?’” Velásquez, the orchestra conductor, was himself out protesting that day when he got a call. “They asked me if the boy was in my orchestra,” he said. “I felt impotent, like I had lost my son.”

In the weeks since, the government and its rivals have pointed fingers at each other for Cañizales’s death, with opposition members blaming security forces. The government has suggested that a stray bullet from a protester was the cause. Olavarrieta, the journalist, said the shots had come from the side of the national guardsmen. “The discharge came from in front of him, and there was no one else there” besides government forces, he said.

Hundreds turned out for Cañizales’s funeral. Members of his orchestra set up their music stands in the cemetery to play. Someone held a Venezuelan flag. Cañizales’s mother, Mónica Carrillo, went up to the teacher, Pérez, and handed him her son’s viola.

“I can’t describe what I felt when I opened the case and took Armando’s viola into my hands,” he said. “There was a pressure on my chest so strong, I just wanted to cry, it was so terrible.” He added: “His mother said, ‘I want that Armando’s viola gets played today.’”

New York Times

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