Music stars return to Venezuela after ignoring it for years
CARACAS, Venezuela — The ground shook as the voice of Mexican music star Alejandro Fernandez collided with deafening cheers from fans gathered for his first concert in Venezuela in more than a decade.
After a shocked first break at finally seeing the artist take the stage, the crowd, cellphones in hand, joined him in singing “Sin Tantita Pena” – “Without Too Much Mercy.”
“It’s beautiful to be in Venezuela,” he said to the screams and whistles of sold-out audiences, some of whom had taken out loans to see him perform at a 5,000-capacity theater this month. squares in Caracas, the capital. “Magnificent, dear, the Venezuela that I always carry in my heart.”
Prominent artists are returning to the stages of the South American country this year after keeping it out of touring for years. Multilingual vocal group Il Divo and Latin Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Kany Garcia are among those who have scheduled concerts.
But with ticket prices ranging from $55 to over $600, the events are symbols of great inequality in an impoverished nation.
Superstars like the Backstreet Boys once tricked fans into sleeping outside a Caracas arena for days as they lined up for tickets. Guns N’ Roses and Shakira have come to town. So did Juanes, whose 2008 tour included several cities in Venezuela.
Large concerts, however, became more sporadic from around 2010. They almost completely disappeared a few years later when the country fell into a political, social and economic crisis that eliminated jobs even as inflation shattered the purchasing power of millions of people.
Today, about three-quarters of Venezuela’s population still live on less than $1.90 a day, which is considered the international standard for extreme poverty. But for those who have found good jobs in the private sector, entered the gig economy, or have a business, especially in Caracas, things are looking up.
This shift is partly due to the government’s decision to abandon its long and complicated efforts to restrict US dollar transactions in favor of the local bolivar, the value of which has been wiped out by inflation.
It means promoters again feel like people have money to spend on music – and the changed rules make it possible to fund events again.
“They’re going to reserve cities and venues based on venues that they might sell,” said Jeffrey Dorenfeld, music industry professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston. “Artists won’t want to play half houses. They don’t like to see empty chairs. The goal is to fill the paid attendance room.
Business administrator Edgar Villanueva attended Fernandez’s concert with his wife, two daughters, and son-in-law. One of her daughters learned about the concert on Instagram and immediately bought the tickets.
While waiting to step into the theatre, Villanueva acknowledged his country’s challenges, but said he was not a politician and just wanted to have a good time with his family. They hoped that Fernandez would sing “A Qué Sabe El Olvido” – “What does it taste like to be forgotten”.
“Well, we decided to sort out our own issues, and every once in a while as a family we get together and say let’s enjoy this gig,” Villanueva said. “We have always been fans of Alejandro. We are passionate about his songs.
An equally enthusiastic fan, Mileydi Villamizar, came along with some smiling friends in line. She loves live music and, before the crisis, attended concerts about every two months.
Getting to this one wasn’t that easy.
“Yes, it is expensive. There is a part of the population that can still afford it, and there is another that, like us, had to stick together and even get a loan,” said Villamizar, who paid around $75 for his ticket, “For many years they didn’t consider us for gigs or anything like that, so whoever can get into it will.”
She hopes to see the Backstreet Boys return to Venezuela one day. Mexican rock band Mana is also on his list.
Today, more than 60% of transactions in Venezuela are made in US dollars. Public sector employees, who are paid in local bolivars, are therefore in difficulty. Their monthly minimum wage has risen from around $2 to around $30 this month, but that’s still not enough to buy groceries, and inflation – although slower – is still steadily eroding it.
The changed monetary policy also helped make gigs a reality by allowing promoters to once again get the dollars needed to pay performers.
The government used to subsidize official exchange rates with oil revenues, but it has become increasingly difficult for concert organizers to get dollars at a preferential rate as state revenues have started collapsing with the economic crisis around 2012-2013, said Asdrubal Oliveros, managing partner of Caracas-based firm Ecoanalitica.
“So this is a process that started even before hyperinflation and has more to do with the phasing out of the foreign exchange subsidy,” he added.
Now it is clear that some Venezuelans, at least, still have money to spend.
At the Fernandez concert, a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label whiskey was $500 while the most thrifty could spend $180 on a Buchanan Special Reserve. A burger costs $10 and water $2.
Fernandez played for over two hours as the crowd sang song after song. Those in front were seated at tables while behind them – in a mall parking lot – there was standing room only. People also watched from the windows of nearby office buildings.
During the concert, a fan reached out to hand a rosary to Fernandez – a symbol perhaps of the joy many felt at the return of the musicians.
“They had abandoned us,” Villamizar said,