Ever since George Harrison’s two concerts for Bangladesh in 1971, charity concerts have been a pop-music staple. Most have been straightforward in their goals of relieving suffering at a particular spot on the globe, but rarely have pop benefits been as complicated as the two dueling concerts for Venezuela scheduled for this weekend — which pit country against country, and even Roger Waters against one of the organizers.
Venezuela is unquestionably in the midst of a crisis. Hyperinflation, food shortages and a government crackdown have resulted in a mass and ongoing exodus, and last month, Juan Guaidó, head of the National Assembly, declared himself the interim head of state two weeks after the current president, Nicolás Maduro, had been sworn in. In light of alleged election tampering, Maduro’s legitimacy has been questioned, especially by dozens of other nations, including the U.S. So far, Maduro has remained in power and retained control over the military, and his government has insisted that the country is not melting down, and does not need foreign aid. He has even used the military to block ports and bridges that would be pipelines for any supplies.
This troubling scenario is the backdrop of Venezuela Aid Live, a benefit show that will take place today near a bridge in the Colombian town of Cúcuta, which borders on Venezuela. Organized by Virgin Group founder, entrepreneur and philanthropist Richard Branson, the event, with a title that intentionally recalls the 1985 Live Aid shows, will feature nearly three dozen Latin music acts, including veteran and Grammy winner Alejandro Sanz, Puerto Rican balladeer Luis Fonsi, Colombian superstar Juanes and many others. Lele Pons, the Vine and YouTube personality who lived in Venezuela until she was five, will host.
Making matters a little more confusing, Maduro’s government announced a “Hands Off Venezuela” concert to take place on the other side of that same bridge. Although it is also set for today, with a second show Saturday, no acts have yet been announced. (Maduro’s skills as a percussionist have led to speculation that he himself could perform.) “I’m not sure they’re going to find many artists,” Branson says about the rival show. “All the big South Americans are playing on our side of the bridge.”
Branson, who says he has known “quite a few Venezuelans,” says he was inspired to organize Venezuela Aid Live by those connections. “They are in pain seeing their country go from being the most successful in South American to one that’s in abject poverty,” Branson says. “I’m fortunate in that I can pick up the telephone and get through to anyone in the world and get resources.” Branson says the goal of the multiple-hour show will be to raise $100 million for food and medicine for Venezuelans who need them — and pressure the military into letting them be distributed. “If you’ve got cancer or diabetes, there are no medicines left in Venezuela,” he says. “The whole idea of the concert is to persuade the soldiers to do what’s right.”
Earlier this week, Waters openly criticized Branson, asserting the benefit “has nothing to do with humanitarian aid at all. … It has to do with Richard Branson … having bought the U.S. saying, ‘We have decided to take over Venezuela, for whatever our reasons may be.’ Do we really want Venezuela to turn in to another Iraq or Syria or Libya? I don’t and neither do the Venezuelan people.”
In response, Branson says, “He’s a good musician, but he honestly doesn’t know what’s going on in the world. He’s said Venezuelans were not suffering, and yet every single international organization has condemned the election and people are suffering. I’m afraid he’s blind to what’s going on in Venezuela.” As to what he would like to see happen in the country, Branson says, “I would like to see free and fair elections monitored by the international community that can put a government in charge that can make Venezuela great again and make it the number one country in South America again. With the right leadership, that can happen.”
“I’m not normally a political person, but this is a humanitarian problem.” —Lele Pons
Asked about Waters’ comments, Alejandro Sanz at first laughs. “I think they spent a lot of time in the Seventies,” he says. But Sanz soon turns more somber: “It would be great if these people who criticize what we have been doing would at least for a year not live in a big mansion but with the people. Then they can form an opinion.”
Sanz, a romantic-balladeer superstar whose MTV Unplugged was considered a Latin music breakthrough, was instrumental in helping Branson. Venezuela Aid Live came together in about three weeks, with organizers turning to Sanz to reach out to fellow performers to participate. “It wasn’t that hard, actually — many artists are keeping an eye on the situation,” Sanz days. “The government has stolen money from the country while the people are struggling for survival. They’ve had their democracy stolen from them.”
Sanz isn’t alone in openly condemning Maduro. “I’m not normally a political person, but this is a humanitarian problem,” Lele Pons says. “Hopefully it will eventually get better. What would help would be for the president to leave. He’s a dictator.” Adds Juanes, “As a Colombian, I experienced the Venezuelan drama up close. I think it’s time for [the people] to regain their freedom and stability.”
Sanz, who was born in Spain, has his own tangled history with Venezuela. In 2004, Sanz commented on the way then-president Hugo Chavez was interfering with a recall referendum on his election, and Sanz later accused the government of sabotaging two of his concerts in that country by making it impossible for his crew to book hotels. (After the first cancellation, a petition in Sanz’s defense was signed by Jennifer Lopez, Shakira, Ricky Martin and others.)
Of Branson’s efforts, Sanz says, “First and foremost, their goal is humanitarian aid to enter the country,” then becomes unapologetically political as well. “The second thing is that the Venezuelan army finally comes to the aid and takes the side of Guaidó and takes the oppressor out of the country. I feel completely that the military will finally take the side of the people. I know the generals will never take the side of the people because they have a lot to hide. But I want the soldiers, who also have families who have been struggling and having a hard time, to take the side of the people and democracy.”
Branson says he is in the early stages of another Venezuela Aid Live, this time in Miami with “bigger international artists.” (Peter Gabriel, Branson’s longtime friend and philanthropic partner, was rumored to be involved with today’s concert, but Branson says Gabriel will not be in the lineup.) “We’re not going to stop here,” he says. “We’re keeping the pressure on.”
But at least for this weekend, Branson is focused on Venezuela Aid Live. “It should be a joyous occasion,” he says. “It’s going to be raw, since things will be raw if you only have a few weeks to plan. But we hope that with music and little bit of love we can help get supplies over. Whether we will succeed or not, we’ll see.”
Additional reporting by Diego Ortiz