Music stars return to Venezuela after leaving it for years

CARACAS, Venezuela ( Associated Press) — Mexican music star Alejandro Fernández’s voice immediately struck the deafening cheers of fans gathered for his first concert in Venezuela in more than a decade.

After an initial jolt as the artist finally took the stage, the crowd, cellphone in hand, joined him in the song “Sin Tantita Pea” – “Without Too Much Mercy”.

“It’s great to be in Venezuela,” he said to the cries and whistles of sold-out audiences, some of whom had taken loans to see him perform at the 5,000-capacity theater in the capital Caracas last month. “Beautiful, dear, Venezuelan that I always carry in my heart.”

The lead cast is returning to the stage this year after touring the South American country for years. Multilingual vocal group Il Divo and Latin Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Kenny García are among the concerts scheduled.

But with ticket prices ranging from $55 to $600, the events symbolize great inequality in a poor nation.

Superstars like the Backstreet Boys once lured fans to sleep outside the grounds of Caracas for days as they lined up for tickets. Guns N’ Roses and Shakira come to town. So did Juans, whose 2008 tour included several cities in Venezuela.

However, major concerts became more sporadic around 2010. They almost completely disappeared a few years later when the country plunged into a political, social and economic crisis that wiped out jobs, even as inflation decimated the purchasing power of millions.

Today, nearly three-quarters of Venezuela’s population still lives on less than $1.90 a day, which is considered the international standard for extreme poverty. But for those who have found decent private sector jobs, entered the gig economy or have a business, especially in Caracas, things are looking better.

The change is partly due to the government’s decision to abandon its long and complicated efforts to restrict trading in US dollars in favor of the local bolivar, whose value has been depleted by inflation.

This means promoters once again think people have money to spend on music – and the changed rules make it possible to re-finance events.

“They’re going to book cities and venues based on the number of places they could sell,” said Jeffrey Dorenfeld, a music industry professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston. “The actors don’t want to play half house. They don’t like to see empty chairs. The aim is to fill the room with paid attendance.”

Business administrator Edgar Villanueva attended Fernandez’s concert with his wife, two daughters and a son-in-law. One of his daughters found out about the concert on Instagram and immediately bought tickets.

While waiting to enter the theatre, Villanueva accepts the challenges of her country, but states that she is not a politician and simply wants to have a good time with her family. They were expecting Fernandez to sing “A que sub el olvido” – “What is the Taste of Being Forgotten”.

“Well, we decided to sort out our issues, and from time to time, we get together as a family and say let’s enjoy this concert,” Villanueva said. “We have always been fans of Alejandro. We are in love with his songs.”

An equally ardent fan, Mileidi Villamizar, came along with friends who were smiling as they lined up. She loves live music, and before the crisis, attended concerts almost every other month.

It was not that easy to make.

“Yeah, it’s expensive. There’s a part of the population that can still afford it, and there’s another who, like us, has had to scrape together and even take out loans, Said Willmizar, who paid about $75 for his ticket. “For many years, they haven’t taken us into account for concerts or anything like that, so whoever can attend He will.”

She hopes to one day return the Backstreet Boys to Venezuela. Mexican rock band Mana is also on their list.

These days, more than 60% of transactions in Venezuela take place in US dollars. So public sector workers, who are paid in the local bolivar, are struggling. His monthly minimum wage was raised last month from about $2 to about $30, but it’s still not enough to buy groceries and inflation – while slow – still lowers it steadily.

The changed currency policy has helped make concerts a reality by making it possible for promoters to obtain the dollars needed to pay re-performers.

The government used to subsidize official exchange rates with oil revenue, but it became difficult for concert promoters to obtain dollars at the preferential rate as state revenues began to fall with the economic crisis around 2012–2013, said Asdrubal Oliveros, managing partner. Said Caracas-based firm Econalytica.

“So, this is a process that started even before hyperinflation and it has more to do with the gradual disappearance of foreign exchange subsidies,” he said.

Now, clearly some Venezuelans, at least, still have money to spend.

At Fernandez’s concert, a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label whiskey cost $500, while frugal types could spend $180 for Buchanan’s Special Reserve. A burger costs $10 and water is $2.

Fernandez performed for over two hours as the crowd sang one song after another. Those in front sat at tables while behind them – in the parking lot of a mall – it was just the standing room. People also watched from the windows of nearby office buildings.

During the concert, a fan reached out to give Fernandez a garland – perhaps a symbol of the joy many felt at the musicians’ return.

“They had left us,” said Villamizar.

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