Wuilly Arteaga is a young Venezuelan violinist who attracted worldwide attention for playing his music in the midst of Venezuela’s massive 2017 anti-government protests. In retaliation, government forces destroyed his violin and arrested and tortured him. Wuilly is now one of the approximately three million Venezuelans who have left their country to escape its authoritarian regime. During a recent trip to Washington, Wuilly sat down with Dissident to discuss his activism and the experience of the Venezuelan diaspora.
DISSIDENT: Do you remember the first time that you played in a protest?
WUILLY ARTEAGA: I had been protesting for days without a violin—I hadn’t had a violin for months. But one day a friend gave me a violin, and I was practicing with some friends to play at a wedding. When I left the rehearsal, I went to a protest. I really didn’t plan to play. But when I saw how the police were beginning to shoot, I felt like I couldn’t do anything else. I took out my violin and started to play. I didn’t plan it—it was something that happened in the moment. I thought I might die because I didn’t have anything to cover my face and I couldn’t breathe with the tear gas. But I started playing and I was able forget everything that was happening.
It wasn’t exactly a decision. It was more like a consequence of actions that I took. I wasn’t thinking that I would one day be speaking out in the US. Still, after I began playing violin in the protests, I felt in my heart that I had made a greater commitment to represent people in Venezuela, who are still at this very moment suffering under the situation in the country. That’s why even though my tortures are over, I can’t be at peace until Venezuela itself is at peace. And that’s why I still feel the same commitment that I felt when I was playing my violin in the protests.
DISSIDENT: Do you think there was a moment when you turned into a dissident or activist?
WUILLY ARTEAGA: Yes—exactly that moment. I discovered, or realized, that I was a musician for an important reason. I had always asked life why I was a musician, why I had to play. At that moment, I realized that the purpose of music wasn’t just making a recording or playing in a concert but giving voice to the people. I realized that that would be my life’s activism: to give voice to the people through whatever song I play.
DISSIDENT: Do you think that most young people protesting in Venezuela feel voiceless today?
WUILLY ARTEAGA: Yes. Venezuela is basically alone. It seems like all the hopes that we had back when I was playing in the protests no longer exist. Venezuelans are leaving Venezuela and being scattered all over the world.
Nevertheless, I know that nothing lasts forever. God knows that at some point everything is going to get better and all those Venezuelans abroad are going to be able to return.
DISSIDENT: You have been here in the US for five months. What are you hearing from your friends, your girlfriend, and your family back in Venezuela?
WUILLY ARTEAGA: I can’t help but hear the daily complaints, and not just from them. Every day I get messages on my phone and on social media from people asking me for help because they don’t have medicine, food, work, or money. Many people have been left in the streets without a job. Many people have died from lack of medicine. It’s not easy to deal with all these messages—a lot of people seem to think I’m here in New York with lots of money and that I can help them, which is not really the case.
But the messages I get make me understand that Venezuela is destroyed and that if everything continues like this, Venezuelans themselves will actually get used to the situation. Today, if someone dies from lack of medicine, it’s something normal. What is really sad is that now Venezuelans don’t even feel like asking for help because they know no one will give it.
DISSIDENT: Do you think that Americans here know what is happening in Venezuela?
WUILLY ARTEAGA: Actually, in New York there are a lot of Latinos, and every day someone recognizes me on the street and asks me about Venezuela. So a lot of people do know what is happening in Venezuela.
What they don’t know is what to do to help. Like I said to the previous question, many of them have already gotten used to this situation. When you talk to them about Venezuela, the reaction is, “Oh, right, Venezuela. It’s a bad country. It’s destroyed.” And the conversation stops there. It’s become conventional wisdom that Venezuela is bad.
DISSIDENT: What can you tell us about your fellow young Venezuelan exiles around the world? What are their thoughts and their plans for the future?
WUILLY ARTEAGA: The people I’ve met who have left Venezuela are not doing well. They’re sad, but they are, let’s say, slowly getting used to this sadness. They’ve left their families, their significant others, and their friends, and they’re here working all day and night to send money to their friends and families back in Venezuela. This is something new for Venezuelans. It’s the first time there have been so many fleeing the country. I include myself in this group.
It’s a real shame that we have to leave our country to have a better life. It’s not a happy thing, like many people think, that a person can leave Venezuela and reach the US. People congratulate me for being here. My response is, “Why are you congratulating me? This isn’t a good thing for me. I miss my country. I’d rather be doing what I’m doing here in my country.” This for me is a punishment, a torture. But for my own safety I can’t be in Venezuela. I can do more alive than dead, and in Venezuela I could be dead.
DISSIDENT: When you talk with exiles, is there a story that they all have in common? Is there a common experience that made them leave Venezuela?
WUILLY ARTEAGA: Yes, many of them have been thrown in jail or have been persecuted by the government for having money from working, or for disagreeing with the government.
DISSIDENT: What is the thing you see now that gives you most hope about the future of Venezuela?
WUILLY ARTEAGA: Music. I am a musician and I believe that my work is to keep making music to bring people hope.
Despite all the complaints one can make, I always say what I said when I was in jail: I’m well, I’m alive, and I’m alive for a reason. I don’t know what will happen tomorrow or in two years; the only thing I know is that if I can do some amount of good in that amount of time, I am going to do it. Whether I’m in the US, in Venezuela, in Africa, or wherever, I’m going to keep on doing good. That is the only way we can put up real resistance and stop those people who are destroying an entire country out of pure ambition.