- Grassroots Politics and Oil Culture in Venezuela: The Revolutionary Petro-State by Iselin Åsedotter Strønen
Grassroots Politics and Oil Culture in Venezuela: The Revolutionary Petro-State
Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. xxi + 357 pp. Tables, ills., references, and index. $60.00 cloth (ISBN 978–3–319–59506–1); $0.00 open access electronic (ISBN 978–3–319–59507–8).
The 1998 presidential election victory of Hugo Chávez marked a crossroads in Venezuelan politics, as many citizens aspired to have a government that was more attentive to lifting the working class and poor. However, the 2013 death of Chávez, the subsequent instability in Nicolás Maduro’s regime, petroleum market volatility, and discord among key actors in important social programs has cast the legacy [End Page 288] of Chávez and the 1999 Bolivarian Revolution into question. The recent turmoil has encouraged many Venezuelans to emigrate, while those who remain in Venezuela experience hyperinflation in a manner unseen in the Western Hemisphere in recent memory. While the country is awash in natural resources, underwhelming production coupled with broader macro-economic forces has led to a swelling national debt and dwindling quality of life.
This importance of this contradiction between petro-potentiality and economic turmoil is not lost on Iselin Åsedotter Strønen, as she guides the reader on a journey to those places where oil, money, poverty, and societal programs intersect in Grassroots Politics and Oil Culture in Venezuela. Through a grounded ethnography of the relationships among oil, the Venezuelan state, and subalternity, Strønen reveals how the Bolivarian Revolution was actualized in Caracas’s working and lower-class barrios. The result is a sophisticated work crafted during twelve years of investigation, revealing how working-class communities “moved from a state of historical marginalization to feeling part of a project of social development and nation-building” only to crumble against the challenges of “radical social transformation that the Chávez government, and many of its supporters, articulated” (p. 3). Her analysis of this situation is strengthened by the relationships she developed with locals of diverse backgrounds and the care with which she approaches the delicate connection between oil and state-supported social empowerment programs, called misiones.
Strønen is not the first scholar to tread in the realm of Venezuelan politics and petroleum, yet her book offers a fresh interpretation on the topic. For example, while Miguel Tinker Salas’s critically acclaimed The Enduring Legacy (Duke University Press, 2009) studied the ways the US oil industry directly influenced the formation of Venezuelan social and political values, Strønen explores how the petro-state materializes and is encountered by those who do not directly participate in the production of petroleum. The redistribution of oil wealth emerges as a central characteristic of the petro-state in the poor barrios of Caracas. While the conspicuous consumption habits of the Venezuelan elite and middle class examined in The Enduring Legacy reverberate into subaltern spaces, Strønen focuses more on the “collective consumption” (p. 253) of oil wealth through incremental improvements to the urban poor’s lives, such as new roofs or council housing projects financed by revenues from oil production.
Many of the chapters in Grassroots Politics explain how the misiones, such as the community-level hospitals and home improvement grants, are deliberated and actualized at the local level. From her experiences, a rich account emerges of the raw and quotidian experiences of the Bolivarian Revolution. While national government policymakers espouse lofty goals, the local realities that Strønen explores show something else entirely. Community meetings—sometimes hardly attended, other times packed and contentious—energize local programs that feed into the misiones. Occasionally, meeting begets meeting in a fruitless feedback loop as the project proposal is ensnared in [End Page 289] the politics of community social relations. Other times, community leaders and state representatives find consensus by writing a project proposal, only for the plan to evaporate into the bureaucracy of the large central state. Even when resources for misiones are approved and allocated, pervasive corruption siphons money away from the project as it trickles back down into the barrios, leaving many...