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Volume 63 / Social Sciences


DANIEL HELLINGER, Professor of Political Science, Webster University

RECENT SCHOLARSHIP ON VENEZUELA has largely reflected the polarized politics of that country since Hugo Chávez assumed the presidency in 1998. Several of the works reviewed below bear the warning that the analysis has been "superseded by events." This is especially true of books focused on the regime's policies during its first three years. One set of critics argued that the president failed to break decisively with neoliberalism, thus bringing the country to ruin, while others said the cause of ruin was precisely his abandonment of his predecessors' neoliberal reforms.

Given the extremely polarized political situation and resulting instability of 2002–2004, one can understand why pessimism was prevalent. However, both sets of critics were proven wrong. Sustained high oil prices have sustained economic growth much longer than anyone expected, and Chávez's victory in a recall election of 2004 marked a period of consolidation of Chavista hegemony.

A number of the studies reviewed here help us to understand how the political success of Chávez through 2007 is rooted in the unpopular structural adjustment policies of the 1990s and the general popular disgust with parties and politicians of the Punto Fijo era. However, that ground was already well trodden in works reviewed for HLAS 61.

Scholarship on Venezuela has not escaped the polarization. Few books and articles are not identifiably aligned, even where the author attempts to maintain neutrality and distance. Nonetheless, most of the works reviewed here maintain a high level of professional quality. Observers on all sides of the raging political debates about Venezuela can benefit from each other's work. For example, as a public intellectual in Venezuela, Margarita López-Maya in general has been sympathetic to (but not uncritical of) Chávez, but in the works reviewed here, she emphasizes not the controversial president, but the Venezuela people, especially the emergence of organizations and effective political action in the popular sector (items #bi2007004017#, #bi2007004018#, and #bi2007004014#). Javier Corrales, who has been harshly critical of Chávez, offers a well-conceived comparative case study of how relations between leaders and parties affected the prospects for far reaching reforms (item #bi2007000565#).

Some work assessing the post-2002 period, when the regime accelerated its programs of social welfare and alternative economics, is finally beginning to emerge. Several works focus on the "social economy," that sector of the economy comprised of cooperatives and microenterprises. The success or failure of this sector is crucial to Chávez's efforts to sow oil earnings into a more sustainable economy. Two years from now, let us hope the next social science edition of HLAS reveals that we possess good empirical work on Venezuela's current experiments with participatory democracy and grassroots development projects.

Venezuela has emerged at the forefront of countries swimming against the tides of neoliberal economics and politics. Those of us who have followed the country's course for several decades are excited that a new generation of graduates and young scholars are now undertaking fieldwork to study an experiment that alternately is generating hope, anxiety, and despair. Their work should begin appearing in the next few years, and their fresh look, less tainted by the hoary ideological battles of my generation, will be welcome.

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