"My heart breaks for Venezuela," says conductor Gustavo Dudamel

Classical musicians from Venezuela's "El Sistema" music program are rising up against the government that sponsors it

The political unrest rocking Venezuela daily is testing the support of many who have benefited from the country's socialist-oriented government -- including its musicians.

The Venezuelan music program El Sistema, Spanish for "the system," is known around the world. For decades, this state-financed program has trained hundreds of thousands of musicians across social classes. When correspondent Bob Simon profiled the program on 60 Minutes in 2008, he described it as "so extraordinary, it's been hailed as the future of classical music itself."

But presently, the musicians of El Sistema find themselves in a tricky position. Protests against the country's government -- the government that subsidizes El Sistema -- are growing, and its musicians are caught in the fray.

In May, Armando Cañizales, a teenage viola player in the orchestra, was shot and killed by soldiers during a protest. Since his death, musicians from El Sistema have joined the fight against the government, ending the neutral position the group had assumed for years.


A young member of El Sistema in 2008

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The shift is notable, largely because of the outsized role El Sistema has played in Venezuela.

As Simon reported in 2008 (excerpted in the video player above), Venezuelan children spend up to four hours a day, six days a week learning classical music. The program's founder, José Antonio Abreu, built it with religious zeal, based on his belief that what poor Venezuelan kids needed was classical music.

"At its root, this is a social system that fights poverty," Abreu told Simon. "A child's physical poverty is overcome by the spiritual richness that comes from music."


Members of El Sistema in 2008

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Music, Abreu felt, would be the vehicle for social change, and in time, Venezuelans took notice.

"The orchestra now is a symbol of the country," Gustavo Dudamel told Simon in 2008. "It's like the flag."


"I understand and support that the musicians of El Sistema, as citizens, express themselves peacefully and democratically," said Gustavo Dudamel, currently the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic

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At the time, Dudamel was El Sistema's conductor. He was the orchestra's first international superstar -- and himself a product of the state-sponsored system. Today, he leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic and is speaking out in support of the protesters' demands.

In a statement to 60 Minutes Overtime, Dudamel wrote:

Nothing can justify the bloodshed in Venezuela, so I am raising my voice against the violence and repression. The only weapons of the people are the tools to forge their own future: musical instruments, brushes, books, in short, the highest expressions of the human spirit. My heart breaks for Venezuela, particularly when I learn about each and every instance in which a precious life is lost. I understand and support that the musicians of El Sistema, as citizens, express themselves peacefully and democratically.

In May, Dudamel dedicated a concert in Cañizales' memory.