- The Transformation of Venezuela
For all the talk of revolution in Venezuela today, it is the twentieth century that witnessed the most profound transformation in the country's state and society. Prior to the advent to power of Juan Vicente Gómez in 1908, Venezuela mirrored many of its neighbors in the Latin Caribbean: it had an agricultural economy with few substantial exports, a profoundly divided society in which regional and local attachments (la patria chica) had pride of place, and a political arena in which violence frequently settled disputes. By the time Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999, Venezuela had transformed into a modern country with all its strengths and weaknesses: a rentier state, a democratic polity, and a modern and cosmopolitan society.
Particularly during the past decade, scholarship on Venezuelan politics has flourished. The phenomena of Chavismo and President Chávez in power have spawned numerous academic studies and a veritable industry of books aimed at a general audience.1 The polarization evident in Venezuelan politics today has, on occasion, spilled over into scholarship. The rentier economy, the hypercentralized but highly inefficient state, the [End Page 239] primacy of populist politics, and the success or decline of democracy have all been examined at length, generating acrimonious and contentious debate as to whether things are getting better or worse. However, not all that many scholars have reached back to connect Venezuela's evolution during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to present-day politics under Chávez. In other words, where does the Venezuela we see today come from? What does this tell us about where it might go?
The three well-researched books by Brian McBeth, Miguel Tinker Salas, and Steve Ellner allow for an understanding of the deep roots of the transformations that produced the state and society today in Venezuela. McBeth helps us understand how Gómez retained power long enough to create a modern state between 1908 and 1935, a state able to pacify politics, maintain sovereignty, and set in motion oil-led development that eventually produced a rentier state. Tinker Salas looks closely at how oil production transformed society, thus influencing the creation of a modern middle class in Venezuela. Ellner connects the dots between the emergence of modern politics following the death of Gómez in 1935, a politics based on class interests (which multiclass parties later tamed between 1958 and 1998), the crisis of the party system that brought Chávez to power in 1999, and today's debates about the future direction of Chavismo.
State Formation in Venezuela
The period during which Juan Vicente Gómez governed (1908–1935) is frequently treated as an undifferentiated black box of barbarity in most popular accounts of Venezuelan history. Yet, as McBeth documents, it was actually crucial to the formation of the Venezuelan state. Gómez, a coffee farmer from the Andes, came to Caracas as part of the Revolución Liberal Restauradora, led by Cipriano Castro in 1899. After Castro's tumultuous period of rule, Gómez quietly arranged to depose him and assumed power for the next twenty-seven years. He governed with the help of a secret police of unparalleled brutality, and in many ways, he ran Venezuela as a personal plantation, accumulating one of the largest fortunes in South America at the time of his death. His motto was "Unión, Paz, y Trabajo," which was apocryphally interpreted as "unión en las cárceles, trabajo en las carreteras, y paz en el cementerio," given the number of political prisoners incarcerated and forced to work on the national highway system, frequently under conditions leading to their early death.
The black legend of...