Book review: Venezuela: What everyone needs to know (Latin American Policy)

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Book review: Venezuela: What everyone needs to know. By Miguel Tinker Salas. Oxford University Press, 2015. 264 pages. U$14.28 (paperback, amazon.com)

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Published in: Latin American Policy, Volume 7, Issue 2, December 2016 (Pages 431–433)
DOI: 10.1111/lamp.12102
First published: 29 November 2016

Prior to the late 1990s, one would be hard-pressed to find a profound portrait of Venezuelan society in Western (or non-Western) mainstream media beyond the occasional National Geographic's piece on the country's flora and fauna. That changed radically when Hugo Chávez, a former military officer and coup plotter, was democratically elected and transformed Venezuela from a geopolitical backwater into one of the most commented on actors in the hemisphere. While his predecessors, when traveling internationally, rarely ventured off the beaten track of Miami, Washington and New York, Chávez and his successors habitually visit Brasília, Beijing, Tehran and Moscow.

While this transformation has increased the number of analyses, it has hardly improved the quality of the many articles produced about one of the world's largest oil exporters, as Miguel Tinker Salas points out in his accessible account of Venezuela. "Seldom", Salas says, "is there any serious attempt to move beyond the dueling forces of Chávez and the leadership of the opposition bloc that challenged his presidency and now his legacy." His book, at least in the first half, successfully redirects that conversation and points to the underlying forces that shape Venezuelan society -- its extreme oil wealth, its profound inequality, and the complex racial relations that need to be considered when making sense of the ongoing turmoil. That makes Salas' introduction, which can be read in a day or two, a useful reading to many pundits or policy makers who too often view Venezuela merely through the lens of chavismo vs. the opposition.

Following this logic, Salas does not divide his book into pre- and post-Chávez sections, but rather along economic (after 1920 oil-related) events, which, as he shows, are essential to understand Venezuela's politics, culture, and people's relation to the state. His analysis of 19th century Venezuela's economy makes painfully clear how commodity cycles determined the country's fate. For example, after an increase of both the production and price of coffee during the early 1890s concealed the vulnerability of the Venezuelan economy, a following bust lead to a default and a British and German naval blockade, stationing ships at the country’s principal ports, including Maracaibo, Puerto Cabello, and La Guaira, where they seized several Venezuelan naval vessels.

Beyond the naval blockade, European interests had previously lent financial support to Manuel Matos, a former banker who led a “Liberating Revolution” against the government. With financing from British, French, and German interests, Matos obtained a ship and weapons and provided them to local caudillos seeking to get rid of Castro, Venezuela's president at the time. They clashed with government forces but their quest ended with Matos’ defeat after a month. For the first time, the government used systematic nationalist rhetoric to shore up rejection of foreign actors.

By 1926, oil displaced coffee as the leading export and by 1928 Venezuela became the world’s second-leading exporter of petroleum. One of the most transformative bonanzas ensued in the 1970s after the Yom Kippur War, when oil prices increased, allowing what Pérez would subsequently call his Gran Venezuela project – including industrialization, the construction of the Caracas metro, and scholarship projects allowing Venezuelan students to study abroad. Similar to Hugo Chavez four decades later (though less ideology-laden), Pérez also established a “Program of Financial Cooperation” to help cash strapped Central American nations obtain oil under less onerous terms. In 1976, the supersonic Concorde began service, if only briefly, between Paris and Caracas, affirming Venezuela’s newfound status as a major oil producer – and Venezuelans were as loved in U.S. American shopping malls as Brazilians at the end of the Lula government.

Salas

As much as the economic boom shaped Venezuelan society in the 1970s, the steep decline in the 1980s, under President Lusinchi, left scars still visible today. The unrest during the Caracazo, following President Perez's announcement of the so-called "paquetazo", a series of austerity measures (including public transport fare increases), paralyzed Caracas for days and probably led to thousands of deaths. It weakened Perez further and ultimately opened the door for the rise of Hugo Chavez, who would shape Venezuela's more recent history like few others.

In his evaluation of Chávez’s legacy, Salas comes down as pro-Chávez, even though he is right to underline that many common criticisms reproduced in the US-American media are often crude simplifications. The author is also right to point out that the opposition systematically underestimated the popular support for Chávez over the years, and that one should not overlook that several individuals who supported the 2002 coup remain firmly established opposition figures today. Yet Salas remains too quiet on the many economic problems Venezuela faces today and its extreme vulnerability to oil price fluctuations. Shortages of food and medicine receive scant mention, even though they have a severe impact on people's lives nowadays. The structure of the book is also somewhat strange in the end when he jumps from the debate about chavismo to a section on public holidays and popular sports, which have a Lonely-Planet feel to them, only to return to recent political developments.

It is particularly in this part that Salas will lose some readers looking for a more balanced account promised earlier, as the author systematically defends government policy. Yes, some protesters died due to policy violence in 2014, he admits, but "the number of injured and dead would have been much higher had the military been instructed to senselessly attack the protesters" -- hardly a useful counterfactual. He does not mention that the government temporarily blocked social media at the time, and neither does he discuss the merits of jailing Antonio Ledezma, the mayor of Caracas, on allegations that he was plotting a coup. The major problem, the author concludes, is that "Venezuela (...) lacks a traditional political opposition willing to challenge the government and offer concrete alternatives or a distinct vision of the nation, while at the same time respecting the outcome of democratic elections." That may be true, to some extent. Yet it would be equally important to point to providing sufficient space for opposition voices -- and perhaps include some proposals about how Venezuela could overcome the extreme levels of polarization that shape its politics today. Salas thus ultimately fails to produce an analysis deemed balanced by both sides.

Read also:

Brazil begins to prepare for a post-Maduro Venezuela

Some historical context: What if Venezuela declared default?

What’s next for Venezuela? Sinophobia

Photo Credit: Reuters