Nearby protesters protected the 23-year-old violinist, Wuilly Moisés Arteaga, as he played the country’s national anthem, a song that translates as “Glory to the Brave People.” He struggled to breathe and keep his eyes open amid the tear gas, but he could see police officers pointing their bayonets in his direction, he later told The Washington Post.
The haunting scene quickly circulated around the world, giving a face and timbre to the clash between anti-government protesters and security forces that is growing deadlier each week.
The protest movement erupted in late March after the pro-government supreme court tried to strip power from the opposition-controlled legislature. The protesters have shown no signs of stopping, fueled by ire over the country’s economic collapse and the authoritarian rule of President Nicolás Maduro.
In all, at least 37 people have died in the unrest, and more than 700 have been injured.
One journalist, Iván Ernesto Reyes, who captured video of the musician, described the moment as a “true example of magical realism.”
Others compared it to the “dramatic scene in the Titanic,” in which a string orchestra on board the ship plays music as passengers descend to their deaths. A Colombian radio host said it reminded her of a scene in the movie “The Pianist,” in which the main character plays the piano amid the fighting of World War II.
Until he spoke to media outlets the following day, the violinist in the video went mostly unidentified, remaining an anonymous musician in a far away city.
Speaking to The Post, Arteaga said he frequently takes to the streets to play music during the protests.
“People sing the anthem, listen to my music, and are reminded that Venezuela is a country that is worth loving,” he said.
He told Colombian radio station BLU that he was motivated by injustices he said are being committed in the country.
“I went out to protest with my only weapon,” Arteaga said.
The performance was also a way to pay homage to his friend and fellow violinist, Armando Canizales, who was killed during a demonstration last week after being struck in the neck at a protest in a city east of Caracas. The 17-year-old musician had been a member El Sistema, a publicly funded youth music education program that has gained international recognition for raising Venezuelan youth out of poverty.
Arteaga used to play in the same orchestra as Canizales, and still takes classes from instructors in the program.
“Armando lost his life for his country, giving it on the streets,” Arteaga told the radio station. “He paid a very high price. We as artists have to see this as an example and act.”
Arteaga said he went an entire year without playing the violin, because it had gotten stolen, he said. The violin he played Monday was a gift from a group of friends, who gathered money to purchase it for him.
He said he had not prepared for Monday’s demonstration — he simply felt “moved in the moment.”
“I went out, I started playing, and I saw that people there at the march started becoming more motivated as they heard the music,” he told the Colombian radio station. “That was the objective, to motivate the people who were demonstrating.”
As he played, protesters cheered him on, yelling, “This is the Venezuela we need!” and “Que viva Venezuela!” he told The Post.
At one point he was struck with tear gas to the point where he could hardly breathe, forcing him to stop playing the violin. Fellow demonstrators helped him recover, offering him water and vinegar.
Soon after, he returned to the violin to play once again.
“I was not afraid in that moment,” he told The Post. “My goal was to create an atmosphere of hope.”
Although his primary incentive was not to generate attention in the news, he said to the radio station, “a part of me wanted the world to know that Venezuelans are here, fighting.”
“I know that it’s reached a lot of people,” he told the station. “I want the world to know that there are other many artists, musicians who are fighting as well.”
“We are giving it all to fight for our country,” he added.
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