- Barrio Rising: Urban Popular Politics and the Making of Modern Venezuela by Alejandro Velasco
Alejandro Velasco's book is a political and social history of the poor and working class Caracas neighborhood known as "El 23 de enero" (January 23), a reference to the date when, in 1958, Venezuelans overthrew the dictator Marco Pérez Jiménez. Focusing primarily on the period between 1958 and the anti-austerity riots that erupted on February 27, 1989, Velasco examines the different ways that the residents engaged with the state, including electoral politics, peaceful popular protest, and during the 1960s, urban guerrilla warfare. The result is a nuanced, multifaceted analysis of the relationship between the urban poor and Venezuela's democratic state—the state that would be transformed after the 1998 election of Hugo Chávez, who found strong support in the 23 de enero and similar areas of the capital.
The neighborhood's evolution is firmly linked to the nation's modern history. Construction of the large superblocks that housed most residents of the neighborhood began under Pérez Jímenez, who named the project "El 2 de diciembre" to mark the day when, in 1952, he claimed a popular mandate to govern. The dictatorship sought to project the image of a modern public housing complex that would do away with the make-shift houses built by squatters who had migrated to Caracas. The first residents of the superblocks, however, joined the uprising against the dictatorship and promptly renamed their neighborhood in celebration of its fall. Quickly alienated from the major political parties, residents embraced outsider candidates in national elections; some even sympathized with the leftist guerrillas who operated in the neighborhood. The people of "el 23" eventually voted in favor of the major parties, but they continually engaged in various modes of protest, especially in response to poor urban services, as they sought to hold the state accountable for its performance.
One of the book's strengths is Velasco's ability to show the variation and diversity within both the state and neighborhood. The oral history interviews conducted by the author often provide the foundation for this perspective. He shows that the first waves of occupants perceived their new homes differently, [End Page 589] depending on their previous circumstances. For some, the apartments represented a dramatic improvement in living conditions; others mourned the loss of their previous neighborhoods, bulldozed to make room for the apartments. Those arriving too late to claim an apartment in the superblocks built improvised housing on the areas left as green space and often felt shunned by their neighbors in the apartments. Even within the superblocks, a range of economic levels prevailed, as some occupants proved unable to pay rent while others took advantage of the state's offer to allow them to buy their apartments. These social and economic differences were cross-cut by political divisions during the 1960s, as many people in the neighborhood resented the presence of leftist guerrillas and the armed response from the state they provoked, while others supported or joined the guerrillas, giving the neighborhood an enduring (and, in Velasco's view, overly simplistic) reputation as a hotbed of left-wing radicalism.
Velasco demonstrates that as residents sought to establish acceptable living conditions, they constantly engaged with the state, often on their own terms. In the first three national elections of the democratic era—1958, 1963, and 1968—the two major parties, Acción Democrática (AD) and the Christian-democratic COPEI, dedicated insufficient attention and resources to the urban poor, so residents of the 23 de enero voted for independent candidates. Residents later voted for AD and COPEI in the 1970s and 1980s but never became reliable clients of any party. As the physical condition of the superblocks declined and public services deteriorated, residents organized protests to claim their rights as citizens and hold government responsible. Most dramatically, protests against interruptions in the water supply turned violent in the mid-1970s, and in 1981-82 neighborhood activists hijacked trash...