- Populism and Performance in the Bolivarian Revolution of Venezuela by Angela Marino
Angela Marino's clearly written Populism and Performance in the Bolivarian Revolution of Venezuela straddles political theory and performance studies to examine the complex relationship between populism and embodied actions in Venezuela. This intriguing study, which begins with the arrival of President Chávez to office in 1998, takes an interdisciplinary approach to "the political formations ... exercised by participants within and surrounding [End Page 149] these performances [...] as an organizational method of building popular power" (8). Highly relevant and ambitious, her original approach to the relationships between performance and politics serves as a correction to both the general misuse of the notion of populism to result from the recent rise in neoconservative nationalisms and the critical revision of populism in the face of Venezuela's unprecedented migration and humanitarian crisis.
Marino proposes that populism can catalyze and reorganize power, giving rise to alternative political approaches like the oxymoronic "critical populism" (9). If populism is a dimension of the political, she argues, "then we need to account for how people know and reproduce populism through performance" (10). However, if "performance was a constitutive, mediating factor in the emergence of populism in Venezuela" (169), Marino fails to trace the profound relationship between participatory democracy, performance, and the body that has been central to the reconfiguration of contemporary local politics. Although the book seeks to reject the Manichean opposition "good versus evil" characteristic of theories of populism, the author replaces it with multiple binary oppositions that oversimplify the case and leave her thesis resting on a caricaturized struggle between candid politics—that draws on uneven ethnographic research—and an imperialist and racist thirst. According to Marino, the Bolivarian Revolution is an unprecedented radical shift, but her analysis is based on a movement of individuals only vaguely connected to a collective (166). While she understands the resulting fiesta politics (174) as "a moving target that is constantly negotiated and rearticulated through the performance and its production" (31), the complex interplay between Venezuelan populism and performance requires a more careful study.
In five chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion, the book explores film, theater, and performance, as well as other intersectional bodily acts, and considers performance beyond its standard theorization as a cultural domain located outside of the law (168). Despite some misunderstandings and inaccuracies—for example, that Carlos Andrés Pérez's neoliberal reforms were announced "in a lavish banquet from the Teatro Teresa Carreño" (91)—Marino points out interesting connections. She fails, however, to explore the highly relevant Chávez-era transformation of the political regime from representative to participatory democracy. As Margarita López Maya has demonstrated, this regime's ideas were neither Marxist nor Chávez's own; rather, they were introduced in Venezuela through Catholic doctrine and reformulated by the political party Copei in the 1960's and 70's (López Maya 45). This understanding would change Marino's reading of Corpus [End Page 150] Christi devils, as well as her central argument. Also baffling is the failure to reference Rafael Sánchez's groundbreaking 2016 book, Dancing Jacobins: A Venezuelan Genealogy of Latin American Populism, which questions the relationship between populism and embodied manifestations throughout the nation's history. Sánchez even depicts Venezuela as a theater in which audience members leave their seats to join the crowds outside while the nation's representatives try desperately to regain their attention through increasingly manic dancing onstage.
This welcome book considers a rarely analyzed topic in an understudied nation. Unfortunately, however, it fails to contribute in a rigorous way to an understanding of the extraordinary interplay between populism and performance in Venezuela.