CARACAS, Venezuela — Playing amid clouds of tear gas and flurries of rubber bullets, a young violinist bedecked in the bright colors of Venezuela’s flag serenades anti-government protesters and police alike with a somber rendition of the national anthem, a song that translates as “Glory to the Brave People.”
It’s been a familiar scene during more than two months of almost daily demonstrations in Venezuela’s capital, where Wuilly Arteaga has become a symbol of peaceful protest largely overshadowed by frequent clashes between rock-throwing youths and heavily armed security forces. Protests across the country demanding socialist President Nicolas Maduro’s removal have resulted in at least 65 deaths and more than 1,100 injured.
Appearances by the 23-year-old almost ended two weeks ago when he and his instrument were dragged to the ground by a national guardsman on a motorcycle. Videos of Areaga crying over his broken violin spread on social media, garnering an outpouring of sympathy. People donated cash to have the instrument repaired, others gave him old violins and Colombian pop star Shakira signed her autograph on a violin dedicated to the virtuoso.
On Sunday, Arteaga and a group of musician friends gave a free concert in a Caracas plaza. To shouts of “Yes, we can” and “We are brothers,” they thrilled the crowd of a few hundred with Venezuelan classics like the foot-stomping “Alma Llanera” and “Moliendo Cafe.”
“When I play for the national guard, some of them listen to me, some of them cry. And when I play for the protesters, it gives them motivation to keep going,” Arteaga told The Associated Press, showing off his repaired violin, which still bears scuff marks and scratches from its brush with destruction. “I know my music creates a climate of peace, which is why I’ll continue playing on the streets of Venezuela.”
Arteaga’s newfound celebrity status contrast with his humble upbringing.
He first picked up the violin growing up in the city of Valencia and was a member of Venezuela’s world-famous El Sistema network of youth orchestras and music schools. He dropped out after two years but continued studying on his own. About four years ago he moved to Caracas, busking for his meals by playing on the streets and outside stores.
Protesters began to take notice of him after another violinist, a teenage member of El Sistema, was killed when struck by a tear gas canister about a month into the outbreak of protests. Arteaga played at the musician’s funeral and has been a fixture at protests ever since, frequently hunkering down in the dangerous middle ground between protester barricades and a line of heavily armed riot police.
“He’s a hero,” said Paolo Lena, a Caracas businessman who donated to Areaga a violin he had bought five years ago for his son. “He’s putting forward his face for lots of people who are afraid to protest.”