The Venezuelan Cuatro Made in China

The Government of Nicolás Maduro gave China the large-scale manufacture of the Venezuelan cuatro (four in English, as it has four strings). The policy of mass production of the instrument, with the purpose of adding it to the well-known National System of Children and Youth Orchestras, created by José Antonio Abreu, has prevailed over the quality entailed in its handcrafted frame. It is not, as it seems, just a cultural resignation or a contradiction with the nationalist discourse of the historical comrades of the self-styled Bolivarian revolution. Each unit manufactured in the Far East is a business for importers and ends up costing almost the same as the guitar manufactured in the country.

18 December 2016
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Yo nací en esta ribera del Arauca vibrador… (I was born on this bank of the vibrating Arauca River)

The Venezuelan cuatro sounds different. Extolled by the qualification of "National Cultural Heritage" by the government of President Nicolás Maduro in 2013, it suffered in parallel the contempt of the authorities, who chose to have this four-stringed small guitar for the children of the Alma Llanera project of Venezuela’s National System of Children and Youth Orchestras (Fesnojiv) built in China.

For three years, it has been an open secret, but even today, one reacts with astonishment and some embarrassment in the corridors of the "system"—as the project founded in 1975 by maestro José Antonio Abreu is commonly known—when you ask about the cuatros manufactured in China. "I have seen few, the ones in the center for children," replies with fear a luthier in one of the 440 seats of Fesnojiv.

The figures rather confirm that there are thousands of cuatros imported from China by the Simón Bolívar Musical Foundation (Fundamusical), an entity created in 2011 and attached from its birth to the Ministry for Presidential Affairs and Administration to govern Fesnojiv.

Fundamusical used 11.7 million dollars from money financed to the system of orchestras of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) to import 31,465 native musical instruments like the cuatro, according to figures from the multilateral organization. Hugo Chávez, who frequently played llanera music (music from the Venezuelan plains) in his marathon television broadcasts, gave in 2012 a great compliment to the Alma Llanera project by allocating over 395 million bolivars to "strengthen" the plan and help it achieve "expansion throughout the national territory." Chávez, who was born in the state of Barinas, in the plains of the center west of the country, wanted to include the teaching of Venezuelan traditional music in the model of maestro Abreu.

The initial goal was to incorporate 41,170 children into the project. But the cuatros to be distributed since November 2013 among new musicians did not arrive from Carora, a town in the state of Lara, known for its tradition in the manufacturing of the instrument, but from China.

The Year of the Cuatro… in China

Year 2013 could be the year of the Venezuelan cuatro, but ended up being the Chinese cuatro. "Once again the Bolivarian Government extolled the Venezuelan cultural heritage, because on Tuesday, April 9, the Cuatro was declared a Cultural Heritage of the Nation,” informed the Institute of Cultural Heritage (IPC), attached to the Ministry of Culture, in a press release of April 2013, one month after the death of Hugo Chávez.

Precisely four were the reasons that the entity considered to elevate this instrument that often adorns the walls of some homes, the origin of which goes back to the "Renaissance Guitarrilla" brought by the Spaniards to Venezuela in the 16th century to the status of cultural symbol. First, that the cuatro is an instrument that "is played almost in the totality of the Venezuelan folkloric musical genres;" second, that the "Venezuelan population has sentimentally conferred the cuatro the rank of national instrument;" third, that the cuatro "provides and grants Venezuelan identity to the diversity of genres and musical expressions;" and fourth, that the cuatro, unlike other Venezuelan instruments, is the one with " the most designs, manuals, methods and guides." That justification was not useful to prevent that a government agency almost simultaneously ordered the manufacture and importation of the cuatro from China.

Nor did it avoid the astonishment that in November 2013, two senior officials of the government of Nicolás Maduro showed when, in the midst of the wave of audits to private stores, named "Dakazo", they ran into the sale of Chinese cuatros in Allegro, a retail chain of musical instruments. "We have a cuatro imported from China, whose original value is 12 dollars (...) Even if it is made abroad, it is still symbolically ours," warned the then Minister of Culture Fidel Barbarito in front of the television cameras and after stopping at the "speculation" margins.

The indignation of the official did not stop there. "It is an usurpation, a robbery not only of the economic rights , but of the cultural rights of our people," Barbarito continued, while highlighting the "productive capacity of development" that Venezuelan luthiers had, as well as knowledge passed from "generation to generation" in families dedicated to that musical instrument "that precisely the Bolivarian revolution has declared a national cultural heritage." "These things shake us for the insensitivity, the tragedy that means for so many families to stop producing the good with which they have lived and raised their children and their families, and there are entire towns in the Bolivarian Venezuela, the Venezuela of Chávez, that are engaged in the manufacturing of this instrument," he said.

The then Vice President of the Republic, Jorge Arreaza, joined the complaint about the finding of cuatros made in China. "This should teach us, from the Government, from the State (...) that a productive process should be deployed throughout the country to build our instruments and also no native instruments for our classical music orchestra. We have to go there, these are reality lessons.”

But reality and business prevailed. The alarm of Barbarito and Arreaza sounded late. Already thousands of native stringed instruments like the cuatro or the mandolin came in ships from China to Venezuela, bought by Fundamusical.

A Four-String Business

The details of the business between Fundamusical and several companies are known thanks to an audit of the firm Deloitte, which includes the "combined statement of expenses." In 2014 statement, it can be seen that of the 11.7 million dollars allocated to purchase the 31,465 instruments for the Alma Llanera project, almost 3 million dollars were used to acquire around 17 thousand Chinese cuatros.

"They wanted the cuatros for the following month and nobody here has that capacity. The first batch was for 12 thousand cuatros," recalls a businessman who participated in the bidding process. The source adds that the Chinese, who had no idea how the instrument was made, were instructed by Fundamusical to carry out the commission of the Bolivarian government.

Taixing Feng Ling Violin Manufacture was one of the benefited companies. Fundamusical awarded it a contract of just over $ 2,060,800, according to the website of the UNDP Venezuela. The auditors' report shows that almost all of it was used to purchase 11,688 cuatros -of different models- valued at 1,966,960 dollars. So Venezuela paid 168.2 dollars for each small guitar, more than double of the price per unit that scandalized Minister Barbarito in 2013. The instruments were acquired between June 9 and October 17, 2014.

That was not the only company that sent cuatros for Fundamusical. Another five thousand arrived with the seal of Ideal Music Corp, a company registered in Panama in 2007 and related to the Venezuelan Ideal Music Venezuela C.A., registered in Caracas in 1999. In both companies, Reinaldo José Vivas, Sara Pineda de Vivas, Luis Edgardo Vivas Díaz and Reinaldo Andrés Vivas Pineda appear as owners or directors.

The figures of the UNDP Venezuela show that Ideal Music Corp was awarded a contract for 1,048,790 dollars. Of this total, 799 thousand dollars correspond to the payment of five thousand cuatros, acquired on November 20, 2012, which represents an average of 159.8 dollars per unit. Although it is a company with principal office in Panama, the company ordered Chinese factories to manufacture the instruments that would then be marketed under the Ideal Music brand. "They place the order to the factories, tell them how to do it and then use their brand," explains a source linked to the music industry. The auditors' report shows that Ideal Music Corp also sold timbales, bongos and mandolins to Fundamusical.

Based on information from the National Register of Contractors (RNC), this was not the first time that the group benefits from a contract. In 2010, Venezuelan company Ideal Music Venezuela C.A. closed deals with the system of orchestras, the Vice Presidency of the Republic and the "Foundation for the State of Youth Orchestras of Venezuela", among other organizations, for the supply of xylophones, cellos, violins and double basses, among other instruments. The company did not respond to the interview requests for this report.

Ossia Music Corp, another company registered in the isthmus, was in charge of supplying Fundamusical with "small drums", mandolins, mandolas, guitars, congas and claves for a value of 2,657,393 US dollars. Like Ideal Music Corp, Ossia Music has a subsidiary in Venezuela, created in 2011 but unable to enter into contracts with the State, according to the RNC. The rest of the allocation was awarded between Yamaha Music Latin America, Buffet Crampon, Schagerl and company Eastman String.

A "memorandum of observations and recommendations" issued by the auditors to the UNDP Venezuela plan with Fundamusical, after evaluating the 2013 fiscal year, reveals some administrative irregularities. "Better financial-budgetary management or control is necessary, since it is evident that unplanned purchases were made using the budget, in the case of the Alma Llanera component, acquiring 20,000 more units than planned," the report reads.

Sources consulted argue that the average price of 168.2 dollars for the Feng Ling cuatros, and the 159.8 dollars for those of Ideal Music Corp are high. Fundamusical did not respond to the interview request for this report either.

In the portal, the cuatro manufactured in China is below those prices, while those handmade by Venezuelan luthiers range between 130 and 190 dollars. In music stores in Caracas, the Venezuelan cuatros range between 20 thousand and 600 thousand bolivars.

"You can acquire high quality instruments in Venezuela. To me, it seems odd that a company in Venezuela is willingly buying instruments in China," says Adriann Moya, executive director of the portal, dedicated to the promotion of the instrument, as well as Venezuelan luthiers.

Critics Reverberate

Some manufacturers have also questioned the importation by Fundamusical. When the chords of the Chinese cuatro began to be heard, there was even a public condemnation of the business. "We denounce the irrational purchase abroad of musical instruments currently considered part of our heritage, against public policies to protect artisan production, to the detriment of family and local economies that are generated around this traditional trade. They bend us, they break us, they disrespect us with actions that go against national sovereignty," complained the artisans in a statement after a congress held in August 2013 in Tunapuy, on the Paria peninsula, state of Sucre (eastern Venezuela).

Alexander Paredes, Venezuelan luthier and member of the Network of Sound Builders, sponsored by the Ministry of Culture, also launched criticism in 2013. "I have seen three or four that look a lot like Venezuelan cuatros, but they do not sound like them", he declared to the daily newspaper Correo Del Orinoco.

Three years later, Paredes sustains his opinion. "They have been improving, but I think that has to be stopped. It does not sound Venezuelan. It can be a matter of habit of hearing," he says. Although he considers that the process of importing cuatros  "cannot be prohibited or stopped" and that "China is supporting the country", he warns that the Government must "pay attention to the artisanal sector; otherwise, it will disappear."

Other luthiers confirm the warning. Impossibility to buy imported woods, strings, pegs or lacquers

Other luthiers confirm the warning. Impossibility to buy imported woods, strings, pegs or lacquers due to the currency distortion that prevails in Venezuela, scarcity of national woods like cedar, mahogany or oak, some of them only available through the illegal market or smuggling, are just a few of the obstacles they face. "We work with bare hands, it is very difficult to obtain the raw material", recognizes Edgar Ramírez Roa, luthier of the state of Táchira, recognized by several professional musicians.

Ramírez Roa is aware that there is no infrastructure in Venezuela to quickly build thousands of cuatros, as the system of orchestras may demand, but he suspects that the massive importation of cuatros is a consequence of the "haste to give everyone access the instrument without thinking about quality."

Cosme López, another renowned Venezuelan luthier, agrees with Ramírez Roa as to the current obstacles to develop his trade. "If the State had resorted to me, I would not have been able to respond to that demand, but there are people who are capable," he says of the purchases made to Chinese companies.

"The State does not support the sector. There is no entity that presents the president how it should be," insists Paredes. President Maduro announced in 2014 that a musical instrument factory would be installed in Venezuela to meet the demand of the system of orchestras with the support of China. "It is a requirement we must meet, to combine the quality and patience used by artisans to manufacture cuatros, guitars, drums and maracas with which they nurtured our culture (...) Resources are already approved. It will be a national company with Venezuelan-Chinese capital," the president said two years ago in October.

Last year, Maduro repeated the idea while handing out musical instruments to children of the state of Vargas. "We are setting up the instrument factory here, so that we have an instrument factory, the most cutting-edge possible," he said. He also exhorted artisans to participate in the project. "I think we could do some sort of a central artisan fair, call them soon. I offer all the support through the Vice President of the Social Area. We have to set up a powerful industry of musical instruments in Venezuela. We are making a big investment with People's Republic of China. We have everything here, we have wood, we do not need anything, we also have love and we want to do it for all the instruments we give to our orchestra to be made in Venezuela."

Currently, the luthiers do not know anything about that pharaonic project that the president offered a year ago. Perhaps at that time, the President of the Republic did not know that the cuatros he gave to several children were made in China. "Here is your beautiful cuatro," he told Genesis, a girl who must be learning Venezuelan music with an imported cuatro.

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