CARACAS Famed Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel slammed President Nicolas Maduro on Thursday for using repression to quell protests after an 18-year-old musician and member of the country's youth orchestra programme was killed at an anti-government rally.
At least 36 people have been killed in the unrest that began in late March, driven by accusations that Maduro is consolidating a dictatorship and anger over chronic product shortages that have left many struggling to eat.
"I urgently call on the President of the Republic and the national government to rectify and listen to the voice of the Venezuelan people," wrote Dudamel, 36, on his Facebook page.
"Times cannot be defined by the blood of our people. We owe our youth a hopeful world, a country where we can walk freely in dissent."
Until now, Dudamel, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, had maintained a friendly relationship with the government through the youth orchestra programme known as El Sistema.
Often seen as a musical ambassador the South American nation, he was harshly criticized by opposition leaders for remaining silent during three months of protests in 2014 in which 42 people were killed.
Maduro says his government is the victim of an "economic war." He often dismisses critics as allies of Washington seeking to destabilise his government or create conditions for a foreign invasion. His opponents say he is dismantling the country's democracy and using heavy-handed security force tactics to quell dissent amid rampant food and medicine shortages.
Armando Canizales, 18, was killed in a protest on Wednesday in Caracas. He was a viola player and a member of El Sistema, which trains children of primarily poor backgrounds to play classical music.
Dudamel himself is a beneficiary of the programme.
"I raise my voice against violence and repression," he wrote on Twitter. His profile was emblazoned with a mournful tribute to Canizales, whose name appeared over a black background.
Several opposition leaders congratulated Dudamel for his statement on Thursday, although other Venezuelans on social media said his silence had lasted too long.
(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Additional reporting by Diego Ore; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer and Tom Brown)