Close to Home

For Alabama Symphony Orchestra Director Carlos Izcaray, the crisis in Venezuela is a very personal matter.

Written by Tom Gordon, portraits by Beau Gustafson

Carlos Izcaray likes batons. When he wields one as music director of the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, it is more like a wand because of the magical sounds it brings forth from the ASO’s assembled musicians.

These days, Izcaray wishes his wand could bring forth a magical transformation – economic, political, social and nutritional – in the country of his birth, Venezuela. Ask him about Venezuela, and he will talk of “the walking dead,” death by “political leukemia,’’ or the wasted world of Mad Max.

“What people don’t realize is that we as Venezuelans are going through a war,” Izcaray said last month, as opponents and defenders of President Nicolás Maduro’s regime fought in the streets of Caracas, the capital, and elsewhere in the oil-rich, deeply divided and desperately impoverished country. “It has not been notarized or been made official by the people high above, but this is what I’d call trickle-down terrorism by …this dictatorship. People have a hard time realizing the Venezuelan situation is as horrible as things you are seeing in official wars … People are starving. This whole nation has been dismantled and ransacked little by little but pretty much in plain view for the last two decades.”

Izcaray at home with wife, Yolanda

Izcaray’s wife Yolanda can echo him in a knowledgeable way. That’s because, like him, she also is a Venezuelan citizen. The daughter of a Bulgarian father and a Venezuelan mother, she was born in England, and moved with her family to a very different Venezuela when she was 11. For her and her husband, life here in metro Birmingham conveys daily reminders of so many things that are now missing from the life in Venezuela they used to know.

“If someone comes to me and tells me that one day in Birmingham, ‘you’re going to go to the Piggly Wiggly and you’re not going to find any food there,’ … I’m gonna laugh in his face and say ‘Oh no, that’s not gonna happen.’“, Yolanda said. “Or someone says, ‘I come from the future and, you know, your house? It’s not gonna have water for a month.’ And I’m gonna say, ‘Get out of here, … you’re on drugs.’ If someone from the future had come to me in Venezuela in those (past) days and told me, ‘Ohh, this is gonna happen’ … , I would have laughed in his face and said, ‘No way, not here.’”

There’s little to laugh about now. While the so-called Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela has been in and out of the headlines, very few of them favorable, for the past two or so decades, things there had gotten even worse at the time of this writing. The United States and other nations had challenged the legitimacy of the Maduro government, citing its lack of transparency, its support from authoritarian Cuba and Russia, its suppression of free media and political opponents, its mismanagement of an economy that is now running on fumes and its manipulation of election results. The U.S. had levied sanctions against various officials and business linked to the Maduro regime and had even said military action is an option if Maduro did not step down. In addition, the U.S. and its allies had recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country’s legitimate president.

Beyond the rhetorical exchanges, demonstrations for and against the regime, and the recent street fighting, there’s a lot of dismaying data. In a May 7 speech, Vice President Mike Pence said crooks no longer rob banks in Venezuela because the inflation rate runs at 1 million percent per year, and that Venezuela has the world’s highest murder rate.

According to a study issued in 2018, Venezuelans lost an average of 24 pounds in 2017, and 90 percent of the country’s 30-plus million people were reported living in poverty. Contrast this situation with that here in Alabama, where the Census Bureau’s Quick Facts lists the poverty rate as almost 17 percent compared to 12 percent for the U.S. as a whole, and where adult obesity – a rate of 36 percent in 2017, fifth highest in the nation – is a far bigger issue than adult weight loss.

Since Maduro’s predecessor in power, the late Hugo Chavez, began his Bolivarian revolution in 1999, people have been leaving the country, and the Organization of American States reported in March that as many as 5 million Venezuelans may be refugees by the end of this year.

If 5 million people were gone from Alabama by the end of this year, the state would be empty of humans.

The Yellowhammer State is about 2,000 miles northwest of Venezuela, and Carlos and Yolanda Izcaray have called it home since 2015 when Carlos became the ASO music director. Because of a contract extension the ASO gave Carlos last fall, they now look to be here through at least 2023. Their daughters Sofia, now 8, and Alicia, now 6, came with them, and their son Sebastian, now 3, was born here. Sebastian’s birth, of course, was expected. What was not expected was the cancer that came later and afflicted both of his parents. Carlos, now 42, is in remission, while Yolanda is still doing weekly rounds of chemo.

Izcaray and his father, Felipe Izcaray, an accomplished musician and conductor in Venezuela.

As Carlos and Yolanda try to stay healthy and raise their children here, their thoughts are afflicted with what they hear from Venezuela, because they know and love people who illustrate the country’s sobering statistics.

Carlos “gets calls all the time from family members and friends who want to leave,” Yolanda said.

One of those friends, a clarinetist named Gorgias Sanchez, has relocated to Mendoza, Argentina. In an email, he was as blunt as his Alabama-based buddy – “a friend that I cherish” – in assessing what he left behind.

“I see myself of no use in a society that needs to be reconstructed basically from scratch,” Sanchez said. “It will take quite a while to do so and I want an immediate improvement in my lifetime and that of my family.” That same desire has driven about 500 of his “friends, relatives, acquaintances and colleagues” elsewhere – not just to South American countries like Argentina, but to the U.S., New Zealand, Australia, Norway, Singapore, and Japan.

During a conversation one morning at Seeds Coffee Co. in west Homewood, Izcaray showed a photo he had recently received on his cell phone, from a friend and fellow musician in Venezuela named Maria Gabriela Rodriguez. The photo’s contents were like things you would see in a still life painting – a block of cheese and a single carrot. For Maria Gabriela, those two items cost nearly half of her monthly salary. Maria Gabriela also has been battling breast cancer, and in a country where internet service is spotty and power outages recurring and vital medicines often impossible to find, a friend mounted a GoFundMe campaign last year to get some of the medication she needs.

“That’s just one colleague,” Izcaray said. “I don’t know how many stories like that I can tell you. There are so many more.”

There is one story he has been telling, to reporters, to human rights groups, to U.S. lawmakers, and its subject is none other than himself. His account of what happened to him on March 2, 2004 is part of a letter of protest that Human Rights Watch sent to then-President Chavez that same year. At the time, Izcaray was the solo cellist with the Venezuela Symphony Orchestra and he happened to be watching an anti-government protest in his Caracas neighborhood. Here are more details from the Human Rights Watch letter:

Izcaray told Human Rights Watch that the National Guard had come under a barrage of stones and fireworks and had charged the demonstrators, who ran in all directions. He decided to walk home but was intercepted by a National Guardsman riding a motorbike, who stopped him for questioning. Ignoring his protests that he was only a bystander, the guardsman beat him repeatedly around the head, insulted him, and forced him onto the back of the motorbike. He was later put into a truck in which there were five or six other detainees. He told Human Rights Watch:

The guardsmen in the truck continued to hit me on the neck and body with their nightsticks, helmets, and even traffic cones. One hit me on the elbow with a stick so hard that my arm and hand went numb. Another emptied a teargas bomb and smeared the contents on my hair and face, then set light to my hair, burning my neck. One guy put a pistol in my mouth and made me repeat a phrase after him, “I am going home to my husband.” I suppose it was meant to humiliate me.

After a while they moved us into a second truck. Inside, they made us inhale tear gas after closing the canvas sides of the truck and putting on their gas masks. They threw one of the big [teargas] bombs inside, closed all the doors and if any one pushed on the canvas sides to escape they got beaten. My lungs were burning and I really thought I was going to die. Eventually I managed to get out the side of the vehicle and they didn’t try to stop me.

We were taken to the 51st Detachment of the National Guard at El Paraíso in Western Caracas. They made us all kneel in a corner looking at the ground and they hit anyone who moved with their helmets or sticks. Then they gave me electric shocks on the neck and arms from some equipment I couldn’t see because it was above my head.

About 24 hours later, Izcaray and some others were released, but emotional scars from that incident stay with him. And the nerve damage to his right elbow, in the arm with which he holds the bow to his cello, the arm with which he wields his baton, has never fully healed.

There’s even more that makes Venezuela so personal for the Izcarays. At the time of this writing, Yolanda’s mother and Carlos’ father were still there. Yolanda’s mother, whose name has been withheld because of family concerns for her safety, lives in Caracas. Today, like millions of her fellow Venezuelans making do with what many of them derisively call the “Maduro diet,” she is thinner, about 70 pounds thinner. A few weeks ago, friends from a ranch brought her the first meat she had seen in nearly a year. In late April, Yolanda and Carlos sent her a box full of contents that included socks, rice, pasta, yeast, packages of Jello mix and cans of tuna.

“It sounds like a box you would make for a homeless person,” Yolanda said.

A few weeks ago, to help her mother deal with the constant power outages that now afflict the country, Yolanda’s brother Henry shipped her a $700 generator that he bought in Miami. The dealer there told Henry he was making a mint from all the Venezuelans who are buying generators to ship home.

Meanwhile, Carlos’ father Felipe Izcaray, an accomplished musician and conductor who has been a fixture in Venezuela’s El Sistema, a national program that provides musical training to underprivileged youngsters, is also thinner. Living in his hometown of Carora, he is accustomed to daily power outages and a recurring lack of running water. Like most of his fellow Venezuelans, he did without electricity for five consecutive days in March. Felipe also needs a generator, and he has relied on one owned by a family member to store the insulin he takes for his diabetes. On an April night, this 69-year-old man, whose work has earned him showers of praise, took a shower – in the rain.

“I had not done that since I was a kid,” Felipe said during a telephone interview on May 13, a day in which he was without power for five-and-a-half hours.

“Being without electricity for five straight days is no fun, no fun at all,” he added. “Especially in a town where our temperature every day rises to at least 35 degrees Celsius (95 Fahrenheit). In the evening, it is also very hot and very dark.”

The recurring outages have even  affected rehearsals with Sinfónica Pedro León Torres,

the youth orchestra he conducts. At the start of a rehearsal in May, after Felipe said to step up the pace because the power could go out, the power did just that.

“So we had to take the chairs and the stands to the hallway, where there was sunlight, and   open windows,” Felipe said.

Meanwhile, the bus that is supposed transport Felipe’s young musicians home after rehearsals has become a microcosm of Venezuela. It no longer runs because some of its essential parts have broken down, and it is too costly to repair or replace them.

In many ways, Carlos Izcaray says, Venezuela has become the dystopian world fictionally portrayed in Mad Max movies.

“This is the real deal,” he said. “People are starving and they’re going thirsty. They’re looking for water like in Mad Max. They’re getting it from the sewers. If you are in rural areas and other parts of the country like my father, you’re paying a hyper-inflated price for just plain old water.”

In Felipe Izcaray’s neighborhood, he and others often get their water from a guy driving a water tank truck and they pay his hyper-inflated price in dollars. With his $10 monthly salary, Felipe would be hard-pressed to pay that price, but some local citizens who believe in his work with local youth are subsidizing him.

The story does not end there, because Felipe Izcaray and Yolanda’s mother illustrate another result of the Venezuelan mess – the separation of families. Felipe’s wife Norma, a longtime arts administrator, now lives in Argentina with Samuel, one of Carlos’ brothers, and another Venezuelan refugee. The family thought it was best that Norma, who openly despises the Maduro government, go into exile in Buenos Aires while Felipe tried to make a go of it back home with his music teaching. Meanwhile, Carlos’ other brother, Manuel, lives in Argentina’s big neighbor to the north, Brazil.

“This is a forced separation,” Carlos said. “This is the biggest tragedy for me, aside from people who … have died, is those who have been forced to be apart because of these criminals. They’re in touch, but they’re not together. That’s been altered. That’s been tampered with.”

How long that forced separation lasts is anyone’s guess, but Carlos says his father’s commitment to stay in Venezuela may be waning, given the privations that Felipe is enduring. Picking up and going somewhere, even to Argentina, where a job in his field may not be readily available, would not be easy, especially at his age. But, Felipe said, “it’s not easy to live here, and it’s getting to a point where it’s getting to be unbearable.”

For years, particularly after she became a wife and mother, Yolanda counted on annually  returning to Venezuela and enjoying time with Caracas cousins and friends. That is something she and her family did during her early childhood years in England, and she wanted her own children to have the same experience.

That tradition basically ended about eight years ago, when she and Carlos took Sofia to Venezuela to be baptized. Her mother’s car had broken down, her own car which she had left there no longer ran and to go anywhere to do anything, she had to rely on friends, none of whom had an extra car for her to use. And fear of crime, even in her mother’s upscale neighborhood, was palpable.

Still for a few years afterward, Yolanda’s yearning for an annual return remained strong. But “my mom would say, ‘Ohh don’t come, there’s no this, there’s no that,’” she said, and those missing or often hard-to-get things often included diapers and wipes for small children. And crime in the neighborhood had gotten a little too close to home.

“I suffer for her safety because it is really dangerous,” Yolanda said.

One night, Yolanda said, her mother saw a group of armed men kidnap another man on her street. On another occasion, while she was walking with a cane while recovering from a knee injury, some men in an SUV tried to kidnap her as she was leaving a bakery. When another bakery customer came out and hollered at the assailants, they took him off instead.

Meanwhile, Yolanda’s Bulgarian-born father, Todor Serafimov, who formerly ran a contracting and consulting business in Venezuela, is back in his native land. Serafimov left the Balkan nation when it was an impoverished communist backwater, but now it has better economic opportunities than Venezuela and he wants to stay.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that all this stuff can be stressful.

“Absolutely,” said Yolanda, who is under her doctor’s urging to avoid binging on Venezuelan news because he says it will reduce the rest she needs to continue her cancer recuperation.

Her husband is not resting. In late April and early May, he was conducting in California, where he is music director of the Los Angeles-based American Youth Symphony. Later, here at home, he and the ASO were slated to finish the “Cycle” of Beethoven’s nine symphonies. When time allows, he has continued to speak out about conditions in Venezuela. But his interest in combating oppression extends well beyond the boundaries of his homeland. Last year, in cooperation with Human Rights Watch, he and the AYS performed “Freedom: A Celebration of Human Rights,” a program which included the premiere of his Strike Fugaz, a composition based in part on what happened to him in 2004.

Stepping back and looking at the course of his life, Izcaray says he has found a thematic thread of human struggle and perseverance in wherever he has gone to work and spend meaningful time. He felt it as a young student at the Colegio Emil Friedman, a Caracas school founded by a refugee from Nazi-ravaged Europe who believed there can be no culture without music. He felt it in Berlin, where he and his young family lived two blocks from where part of the wall once stood. He felt it during in his time as a guest conductor in post-apartheid South Africa and in Colombia, a country formerly torn by a long-running civil war and now home to an ever-growing portion of the Venezuelan diaspora.

And he has felt it in Birmingham.

“I remember my first visit here and I went to the Civil Rights Institute,” Izcaray said. “It was impossible for me not to see the connections … It all came together and I said there is no way that this job does not make sense for me, musically and spiritually. But I also felt there was a social vibrancy here and a history, (there’s) kind of like a ground zero history to this place that I felt and I wanted to be part of it.” •

One Response to “Close to Home”

  1. Mark Gottschalk says:

    While I have never had the opportunity to meet Maestro Carlos, I was a student colleague of Felipe in the early 1970s. We have remained friends ever since. My one trip to Venezuela was through his efforts. I long to go back. Hardly a day goes by when I do not weep for him and his country. This article should make everyone weep and call out against the internal political death traps. I wish the maestro, his family, and their parents the hope of better years soon. The US needs to start by allowing more Venezuelans to receive emergency status to flee their hardship.

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