Video shows Wuilly Arteaga braving tear gas and national guard troops in early May to provide anti-government protests with violin music in Caracas, Venezuela. (Gabriela Gonzalez/Twitter)

On the streets of this tense capital, protesters challenging government troops often throw rocks, bottles, even molotov cocktails. But Wuilly Arteaga battled riot police with the defiant strains of his violin.

A fixture on the front lines in recent months, playing on despite stinging volleys of tear gas, the 23-year-old became a symbol of the opposition to President Nicolás Maduro’s authoritarian government. Videos of Arteaga concentrating on his music amid scenes of chaos quickly went viral and were shared in Venezuela to boost morale among the protesters.

They also made him a target. 

During a demonstration last month in eastern Caracas, as Arteaga played a song called “Soul of the Plains,” Maduro’s national guard swooped down on him. His story provides a window on the tactics of a government that has allegedly used intimidation, torture and propaganda to cement its power. 

“Imprisoning him was the government’s way of trampling the opposition and punching its dignity, of showing that they’re willing to detain and torture one of its most emblematic symbols of peaceful resistance,” said Alfredo Romero, executive director of the legal activist group Foro Penal, or Penal Forum, and Arteaga’s attorney.

Opposition activist and violinist Wuilly Arteaga plays during a protest against President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas on May 24. (Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images)

The slight, copper-skinned violinist is among the ranks of perhaps the least likely of Venezuela’s protesters — a band of classically trained musicians who have provided the soundtrack for the country’s opposition movement. 

At least one has paid with his life. 

The latest uprising against Maduro — the anointed successor of Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013 — dates to April, but the movement has wilted in recent weeks following the government’s creation of a new super congress. The all-
powerful body, stocked with Maduro loyalists, including his wife and son, was mandated by a July 30 referendum that was internationally condemned as fraudulent. Since then, it has moved swiftly against government opponents, launching what it calls a truth commission that critics fear will be used to silence dissent. 

In the weeks before the vote, dozens of young musicians took to the streets, some with their instruments. Gian Cientorame, a 25-year-old percussionist, was detained with Arteaga and freed the next day. Francisco Gamboa, who plays viola, spent 27 days detained before being freed this month.

In early May, another viola player, Armando Cañizales, 17, was killed during a protest.

“He was a rebel, like every young person, and just wanted a better country,” Cañizales’s high school professor Pedro Sevillano told the Venezuelan website “He was nice, and studious . . . He was going to study medicine at the Central University of Venezuela.” 

Venezuelan violinist Wuilly Arteaga, right, plays the national anthem during a rally against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, on July 9. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

Like Arteaga, most of the rebel musicians were trained through the Simón Bolívar Musical Foundation, better known locally as El Sistema — a state-sponsored music education program that dates to the 1970s and has earned international recognition for creating opportunities for poor youths. The program predates Chávez, but he latched onto it, promoting it abroad as evidence that his socialist-tinged “Bolivarian revolution” could feed minds as well as mouths. 

The musical director of El Sistema’s main orchestra, renowned conductor Gustavo Dudamel, had long avoided the subject of politics. But a day after Cañizales was killed, Dudamel tweeted a video of himself denouncing government tactics.

“I raise my voice against violence and repression,” he said. “No one can justify the spilling of blood. It’s time to stop ignoring the just call of the people who are being suffocated by an intolerable crisis.”

Dudamel published a July 19 opinion piece in the New York Times in which he railed against the new Constituent Assembly. The government appeared to respond by canceling an El Sistema orchestra tour of the United States. Maduro also lashed out at Dudamel, who heads the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

“Welcome to politics, Gustavo Dudamel,” Maduro said on national television. He added: “I hope God forgives you.”

Arteaga grew up in a poor family, living in an aluminum-roofed house in Valencia, about 81 miles from Caracas. He bought his first violin with money he earned working at a cybercafe, initially learning how to play by watching YouTube videos. When he was 19, he ran away from his strictly religious home, where he wasn’t permitted to play.

He arrived in Caracas in 2015 and lived off street performances. For two years, he also studied at El Sistema and played with a government orchestra.

“I was obliged to play in ceremonies with Maduro and to sign things supporting the president,” he said in an interview this month. “I rebelled against that. Eventually I left.”

After Cañizales’s death, Arteaga played at the teenager’s funeral. Within days, he was back on the streets with his violin. 

Among Arteaga’s most-viewed videos is one of him in late May crying after government troops broke his violin during a protest. It captivated the Spanish-speaking world, leading several people, including celebrity salsa singer Marc Anthony, to send him new violins. 

His girlfriend, 21-year-old ­Hazel Pinto, has played her clarinet alongside Arteaga at demonstrations since May. 

“With music, he encourages people, even me, to keep pushing back,” she said. “I can’t explain how, but despite the effects of tear gas, I can keep blowing air into my clarinet.”

In mid-August, after spending 19 days in a military detention facility in western Caracas, Arteaga was released. 

During his captivity, he said, he slept on the floor in an unventilated room with about 15 other prisoners. Guards hit him on the head with his violin, destroying it. That and other beatings, he said, damaged his hearing in one ear. Guards, he added, taunted him and burned his hair with a lighter. 

The night after his release, Diosdado Cabello, a senior member of Maduro’s inner circle, released a video on national television. In it, Arteaga denies he was mistreated in jail, attacks the media and insists guards never broke his violin.

“You remember that violinist, what’s his name?” Cabello said on national TV, pretending to play the violin. Before unveiling the video, he adds: “Let’s see what Wuilly says. It’s good to listen to the other side.”

The next day, Arteaga responded in the local media, calling the video a doctored montage of unrelated and coerced answers.

“It mixes answers,” he said. “I was tortured, prisoners are tortured, and they did destroy my violin.”  

Tarek William Saab, Maduro’s newly named chief prosecutor, did not respond to requests for comment.

Arteaga said he fears for the future of the opposition, which has largely failed to mobilize major demonstrations in recent weeks. Protesters have also shown signs of losing faith in opposition leaders, who are at odds over strategy.

“I feel lost and out of place,” Arteaga said. “How is it possible that so many prisoners are in jail and being tortured, and here in the streets, it feels like nothing is happening?”

His release from jail is conditional on his reporting to a tribunal every eight days and staying away from protests. But Arteaga remains defiant.

“I will keep bringing my music to wherever is necessary for Venezuela’s freedom, be it in the streets or the squares, because my music has united many Venezuelans,” he said. “And I hope it will keep doing it.”

Faiola reported from Miami.