In late December, 2008, as I was boarding a flight for New Zealand with my two girls, the phone rang. An ordinary occurrence but, on this occasion, an extraordinary request. I had been invited to play John Williams' "Air and Simple Gifts" at the inauguration of President Obama, with Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman and Anthony McGill. I had many hours to ponder the implications of this request. I, a Venezuelan, had been handed the opportunity to represent my native land in my adopted one, on this most historic and conciliatory of occasions. It was an incalculable honor.
If the inauguration of President Obama symbolized anything, it was the overdue victory of human dignity over barbarism, equality over division. Back home in my native Venezuela, however, human dignity is suffering its most brutal assault in our nation's history.
In 2011, the UNODC reports 19,336 Venezuelan citizens were murdered, establishing Venezuela as the most deadly country in South America, and the third most deadly in the world behind Honduras and El Salvador. To relativize that figure, a country NOT at war produced more violent deaths in 2011 than all of the war-mired, Middle Eastern theaters combined. The death toll was ten times that per capita of the U.S. in its darkest days of urban violence before zero-tolerance. More Venezuelans were murdered in 2011 than all Syrians killed in the first 16 months of the current uprising, including government forces, rebel forces and civilians. Caracas is now the world's most deadly capital city, with a murder rate in the region of 130 per 100,000. The Corruption Index on transparency.org has condemned Venezuela to a shameful 1.9 points from a possible 10. Mugabe's Zimbabwe, widely considered a failed state, manages to scrape a 2.2.
These figures are simply unacceptable in any civilized nation state. They represent a nation at war with itself. Behind them lies a broken system in which 90 percent of murders pass without an arrest being made, and a vicious class struggle whose arbitrator is the gun and the thug. They are fueled by the new rhetoric of the Bolivarian Revolution, in which a place at the table should be secured by any means, fair or foul. "Secuestro express" is a daily menace, often deadly, and sometimes carried out by the police themselves to supplement their poor wages. Armed gangs profile and seize a victim, and wait for thousands of dollars to be paid in ransom. If a glitch is perceived, the victim is simply killed and dumped.
Underpinning this dehumanization and chaos is the central and tragic irony that Venezuela ought by now to have proudly established itself as the Norway of Latin America. In the current market, its abundant mineral and oil resources should have fueled a thriving Venezuelan economy, well able to provide the social services promised by the current administration. With systemic corruption and violence of this magnitude, however, comes gross inefficiency and structural decay. Venezuela refines 30 percent less crude oil than it did twenty years ago, and inflation peaked at 27 percent earlier this year.
The Venezuelan who speaks out in opposition to systemic murder and corruption inevitably faces a chorus of non-sequiturs and the accusation of opposing the broader ideal of fairness and justice for all Venezuelans. I witnessed this opprobrium first hand, when I chose to compose "ExPatria" -- a tone poem for piano and orchestra illustrating extreme violence and corruption. Most Venezuelans embrace the principle that a nation should benefit uniformly from the fair, efficient and transparent distribution of its resources. The fact remains, however, that this Scandinavian social utopia has simply not been delivered. A violent kleptocracy is the daily reality for the Venezuelan people, and it has no right to call itself a democracy, simply because a majority was fooled and cajoled into voting for it.
In glaring contrast to the optimistic view of Venezuela exported by the success of "El Sistema," the now celebrated youth orchestra program, it is my duty as an artist to expose, with what small voice I have, the tragic predicament of a country under curfew, whose citizens live in a real and present fear of the next murder, the next kidnapping and the next expropriation. We are all immensely grateful for the continued existence of "El Sistema," founded some 37 years ago, and for its contribution to global musical life, but I am only too painfully aware that these small pockets of music represent a cultural and human oasis in a wider chaos whose malevolence is a constant and deadly threat to each and every member of society. What dangers do these youngsters face when they leave the sanctuary of the concert hall? To what can they look forward, when the music stops?
I am not a politician. I am a musician. Far from wishing to stoke the flames of partisanship, my music is an unsolicited, personally financed, non-affiliated protest and personal expression of regret. It is my appeal for national reconciliation and regrowth. It is my attempt to emotionally and metaphorically inform those around the world who are unaware of, or actively mis-informed as to, the daily reality of life in a disintegrating, yet abundant and beautiful Venezuela. It is a counter-cry to those with a far louder voice than mine, respected members of the artistic community like Sean Penn, whose harmfully romanticized view of the Bolivarian Revolution bares no resemblance to the daily insecurity faced by a nation which can afford to do so, so much better. The Venezuelan people must now insist upon it, and the international community must keep vigil to ensure a peaceful and democratic presidential election on October 7th.