- Understanding the Bolivarian revolution
This outstanding volume is a critical contribution to the ongoing struggle about how to make sense of the transformations that have taken place over the last two decades in Latin America and the Caribbean. Within academia this broadly takes the form of a struggle between the mainstream interpretations of comparative politics and (neo) realist international relations and a dissenting approach based on reflexive critical globalisation theory. The latter is not satisfied with description, bland criticism and prediction of the ‘what’: instead it seeks to explain the complexities of the why and how of social transformation.
These questions are addressed in this book by developing several pertinent arguments: that the Bolivarian Revolution is an inter- and transnational project of global scope and relevance; that ALBA, UNASUR and CELAC evolved through interrelated processes through Hugo Chávez’s leadership;1 and that a profound democratisation - social, political, economic and cultural - of the Venezuelan state-society nexus has been underway for some time.
The book’s main themes are developed in Angosto-Ferrández’s thoughtful introductory and concluding chapters, which complement each other and may best be read together and prior to the rest of the book. One of the declared aims is to analyse the relation between the Bolivarian Revolution, Venezuela’s foreign policy and current [End Page 111] geopolitics, and thereby to reveal ‘the particular transnational quality that Venezuelan politics has acquired’ (p177). Angosto-Ferrández draws on Ernesto Laclau’s and Chantal Mouffe’s work to emphasise the cultural and discursive dimensions of (counter-)hegemony. While the existence of international system structures must of course be acknowledged, it is important to note that these are ‘constituted by identities and interests’, and are dependent on process: ‘structures do not pre-exist processes’ (p181). He also emphasises the role of inter-subjectivity in the construction of social reality. Equally importantly, Angosto-Ferrández recognises that discourse cannot be separated from material reality. The book thus transcends the bulk of ‘neorealist economy-based’ studies (p183), and avoids the popular voodoo-like attributions of Venezuela’s resource dependency (and that of other nations) to a ‘disease’ (‘Dutch disease’) or a ‘curse’ (‘resource curse’) (p184); instead it recognises that such dependency is the product of historical processes of colonisation and imperialism.
The following chapters analyse the Bolivarian project from different disciplinary angles. Some of these are of a more introductory nature, while others offer new research and ideas. The chapters by Tim Anderson, Anthea McCarthy-Jones and Rodrigo Acuña, respectively, provide comprehensive introductions to the ideological origins, contemporary discursive articulations and institutionalised expressions of the Bolivarian project in and beyond Venezuela, and are informative key readings for novices to the field. However they would have benefitted from a more empirically specific, and analytically and theoretically grounded discussion of the themes embraced by the book. These chapters are perhaps somewhat over-detailed in their narratives, and are overwhelmingly culled from secondary sources, with the occasional imprecision. This can sometimes lead to an uncritical reproduction of dubious journalistic claims, such as former Guardian correspondent Rory Carroll’s writings regarding alleged ‘broad corruption’, non-transparency and non-accountability in Petrocaribe (pp77-8).
Other contributions are exceptional, however, and enter hitherto under-researched terrain. Kathryn Lehman’s profoundly well-researched and theoretically grounded chapter looks at the Bolivarian Revolution’s counter-hegemonic promotion of the collective right to information, in order ‘to decolonize knowledge hierarchies’ (p87), and she presents insightful case studies that link claims-making to issues within health, land, film and justice. Angosto-Ferrández also contributes his own chapter, which counterposes the idea of ‘indigenous organisations’ to that of ‘indigenous [End Page 112] movement’, in order to highlight shortcomings in the use of the latter term in mainstream literature. Placing state-society relations at the centre of his analysis, he contests simplistic assumptions of state-society antagonism (and simplistic anti-statism), and criticises the mainstream idealisation of civil society and movements.
In their chapter, Michael Humphrey and Estela Valverde appear to contradict this important ontological and methodological insight: by associating the processes...