Venezuela: Hugo Chávez and the Decline of an “Exceptional Democracy”

What’s So Special about Venezuelan Politics?

Steve Ellner and Miguel Tinker Salas, eds.

Venezuela: Hugo Chávez and the Decline of an “Exceptional Democracy” (Lanham, MD: Roman & Littlefield, 2007).

Succinctly stated, the authors of this book seek to question the notion that Venezuela constituted an “exceptional democracy” after 1958; that is, that the country’s political system and culture were uniquely conducive to stability. Scholars who pushed the exceptional democracy thesis held that institutional mechanisms and political parties served to contain conflict. During the 1980s and 90s, however, serious social and political fissures emerged in Venezuelan society casting doubt on the exceptional democracy thesis. Hugo Chávez’s election in 1998, which polarized the nation, seemed to refute the thesis even further. Collectively, the chapters in this volume are meant to challenge the notion of exceptional democracy and to “question the validity of simplistic concepts that have long been used to extol the nation’s post-1958 democratic governments.”

The editors’ framework provides an effective guide to the book’s argument. In one of the first essays, “Venezuelan Social Conflict in a Global Context,” Edgardo Lander points out that Venezuela was long considered a “showcase” democracy. Having defeated guerrilla insurgents, the government in the postwar era presided over an oil bonanza and improved living standards for many. With the onset of economic crisis in the 1980s, however, Venezuela became a “divided society,” characterized by poverty, crime, and high levels of homicide. The 1989 Caracazo, a massive urban rebellion against IMF-inspired economic measures, overturned the notion of Venezuela as a politically stable ally of the U.S. Capitalizing on such discontent, Chávez has opposed U.S. economic initiatives such as the Free Trade Area of The Americas (FTAA).

A chapter by Dick Parker, “Chávez and the Search for an Alternative to Neo-Liberalism,” dovetails well with Lander’s analysis. Though Venezuela nationalized its petroleum industry in 1976, the country’s leaders pursued a rather hands-off policy toward the state oil company, PdVSA. Chávez, however, has moved away from neoliberal policies and pursued a more nationalist oil policy, with the idea of using PdVSA as a social instrument to alleviate poverty. In other respects, too, Chávez has deviated from the normal neoliberal proscriptions: witness, for example, the President’s various “mission” programs in health and education. By this time, if the reader had any notion that Venezuelan politics was boring and predictable, or that the country merely parroted Washington’s desires and policies, such views have been thoroughly overturned.

I liked Maria Pilar García-Guadilla’s essay, “Social Movements in a Polarized Setting: Myths of Venezuelan Civil Society.” Ingeniously, she takes up the issue of public space as a means of debunking the exceptionalism thesis. “In Caracas and other cities,” she writes, “struggles have manifested themselves in spatial form, transforming the ambience of streets, plazas, and highways. The end result is a spatially and socially segregated society, loss of freedom to move about given the high risk of being identified with the ‘other,’ deterioration of services and quality of life, and emergence of areas generating fear and violence.” Indeed, she notes, as far back as the early 1960s Caracas was characterized by residential segregation. The polarization of public space has accelerated under Chávez, with pro- and anti-Chávez forces dominating rival sections of the city. Throughout Venezuelan history, notes García-Guadilla, public space has been used for political ends. But now, certain areas of Caracas have been permanently taken over by the Chavistas, for example the area around PdVSA headquarters.

When Chávez captured the media spotlight, many Americans were probably left scratching their heads, wondering how such a supposedly reliable ally had become so rambunctious. As a result of the dramatic downturn in U.S.-Venezuelan relations, the general reader would surely like to know what is so special about Venezuela, a country which up until recently was simply off the map of the mainstream media and whose politics was subject to over-simplification by many scholars. The above essays go a long way toward reversing this syndrome, and highlight the social and political tensions that were latent in society and which have now burst forth under Chávez. While the other essays also refute conventional views about Venezuela (for example, the idea that the country constituted a kind of “racial democracy”), collectively they might have benefited from a closer weaving into the main argument of the book; at times, the reader may lose the sense of the overall thread.

Reviewed by Nikolas Kozloff
Brooklyn, N.Y.

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