For a month and a half now, Venezuela has been consumed by huge protests and clashes between police and protesters. An image of a lone violinist playing in the middle of clouds of tear gas has become a symbol of protesters' resilience.

On April 20, the musician Tomás Vivas caught people's attention for his way of strolling calmly through a protest with a white t-shirt wrapped around his face, while playing the cuatro (a type of small guitar). He told The Observers FRANCE 24 team that music was a way of "speaking out against injustices in a peaceful way" and that his country "needs culture more than we need bullets".

But it was another musician who went viral when images of him playing the violin amidst clouds of tear gas were shared on social media. Wuilly Moises Arteaga is 23 years old and has been playing the violin for five years. Photos of him staring down police in protests in Caracas, Venezuela's capital, have been picked up across the world.

"Protesters sang along to what I was playing"

I played the violin during a protest for the first time about three weeks ago, in Barquisimeto [the capital of Lara state, to the east of Caracas]. It was quite calm at that point, although there was some tear gas later on. 

Then I did it again in Caracas on May 6, during the women's march [organised by the political opposition]. I decided to go in order to support them. At some point, the police blocked the motorway and the tension suddenly kicked up a notch. So I started playing, and people started applauding. Luckily, the situation didn't deteriorate. 


In this video, which was filmed on May 6 in Caracas, Wuilly Moises Arteaga plays violin in the street, without a helmet or a gas mask to protect him from tear gas. Video: Gabriela Gonzalez.

Women launch into the national anthem during a march on May 6 in Caracas.

However, it was different on May 8 in Caracas. On that day, I happened to come across a protest and I decided on the spot to join it and to play the violin.


In Caracas, a protest on May 8 was calm, at least initially. Video: Francisco Urreiztieta.


At the beginning, it was calm, but when we got to Chacaíto, the forces of order started to hurl tear gas at us. I began to play the national anthem.

"There was so much tear gas that I couldn't even see what kind of weapons the police were pointing at us..."
 
Some of the protesters starting singing along with my playing. Others tried to cover me with their shields and gave me water and other products to alleviate the effects of the tear gas. I wasn't wearing a gas mask because I don't know anyone who has one I could borrow. There was so much tear gas that I couldn't even see what kind of weapons the police were pointing in our direction... But I wasn't scared. For years we've been scared of being mugged or killed in the streets, so I think we're used to the feeling.


In this video filmed on May 8 in Caracas, Wuilly Moises Arteaga plays the national anthem in the middle of tear gas, directly opposite the forces of order. Another protester protects him. Arteaga is wearing a helmet this day, which another protester gave to him. Credit: Gabriela Gonzalez.

Another video filmed the same day in Caracas shows protesters protecting and looking after Arteaga.


By playing the national anthem, I wanted to spur on the protesters, and to remind them as well that the reason we're protesting is to get peace and rebuild our country, and not to resort to violence. But I was also playing for the police: I wanted to show them that I wasn't armed and that I was offering instead a message of peace, aimed to unite us. But the tear gas still didn't stop...

I received threats afterwards, mostly by phone. I also lost my job as a pianist in a hotel which is managed by the government. On May 8, they simply refused to let me in, telling me that they'd seen me in the protest.

I don't know yet if I'm going to carry on playing the violin at protests, I'll have to see. But I want to keep working towards peace: it's important to use art as a means of protest.

On May 7, there was an "artist's march for life" in Caracas, and musicians and artists spilled out into the streets to pay tribute to Armando Cañizales, a young man killed in a protest a few days earlier. 

The "artists' march for life" on May 7 in Caracas.


Protests are now happening almost every day in the country, and 38 people have died and hundreds of others have been injured since the beginning of April.

Those protesting are calling for President Nicolás Maduro to step down (his mandate is due to end in December 2018), and for a general election to be called. They are against Maduro's plan to create a constitutional assembly, which would enable him to push back the elections.

Tensions boiled over at the beginning of April after a decision by the Supreme Court to assume the powers of Parliament (controlled by the opposition). They soon backpedalled on this decision, after public outrage.


Article written with
Chloé Lauvergnier

Chloé Lauvergnier , Journaliste francophone