Can art be a tool for peace? We shall see this Friday at an open-air concert planned by British billionaire Richard Branson in Cucuta, Colombia, on the border with Venezuela. The soft power of music will be up against the hard power of Venezuela’s dictator, Nicolás Maduro, and his generals.
The concert will showcase top-name Latin stars before a local crowd expected to reach 300,000. It will also be livestreamed worldwide. While the main goal is to solicit donations from online viewers and provide relief for millions inside Venezuela, the concert has another, less tangible goal.
“We want to make it a joyous occasion,” Mr. Branson, founder of Virgin Group, told The Associated Press. “And we’re hoping that sense prevails and that the military allows the bridge [from Cucuta] to be open so that much-needed supplies can be sent across.”
The concert is one more tactic being used by Venezuela’s pro-democracy forces to oust Mr. Maduro and end a tense crisis over who is the legitimate ruler. Years of street protests against Maduro have only led to violent crackdowns. Last month, the duly elected but sidelined National Assembly decided to elevate one of its own, Juan Guaidó, as interim president. He is now recognized as the ruler by most countries in Europe and the Western Hemisphere. He was the one who asked Branson to organize the concert.
Without weapons, Mr. Guaidó must rely on persuasion to erode support for Maduro within the military. One of his tactics is to offer amnesty to officers who switch sides. Another is to call on Venezuelans to go to the border on Feb. 23 and collect millions of dollars’ worth of foreign aid arriving in Colombia and Brazil, mainly on United States aircraft. The move is seen as a Gandhi-like way to showcase the loyalty of the people.
Then there is the concert, which is being billed as similar to the Live Aid concert for Ethiopia in 1985. Maduro is so worried about its impact that he plans a counterconcert on the other side of the border this weekend. In effect, he recognizes that he must compete – peacefully, rather than by force – in a duel over the best music. Art, in other words, may help decide the real power in Venezuela.
In many world trouble spots, peace has often come quietly through the back door. Diplomats have used the shared experience of the arts, sports, or other “soft” arenas of life to sway opinion or break a logjam. Ping-pong diplomacy renewed US-China ties. The two Koreas have shared teams in international sports. Serbia and Albania put on a joint production of “Romeo and Juliet.” The annual Pan-European singing contest called Eurovision helps unite the continent. In recent months, a museum in New Delhi has showcased art from both India and Pakistan as a way to ease tensions between the neighbors.
In a website about the concert, Branson wrote, “Let the music inspire and mobilize you.” And may joy instead of violence help restore Venezuela’s democracy.