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Book Review: Who Can Stop The Drums? Urban Social Movements in Chávez’s Venezuela

The Venezuelan people and their cultures and struggles deserve more attention and should be the subject of more scholarly work in their own right. Who Can Stop The Drums? by Sujatha Fernandes is an excellent point of departure that should stimulate more explorations of this kind.

It is a sad fact that most Chávez-era commentators on Venezuela have forgotten Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation that in order to understand a nation’s politics, we must first understand its people. Despite a steady stream of journalists, academics, filmmakers and solidarity activists to the country since the election of Hugo Chávez in 1998, the everyday experiences, attitudes and struggles of the Venezuelan people have remained more or less unexamined in most accounts of the Bolivarian Revolution. Faced with a concerted anti-Chávez campaign waged through the Venezuelan and international corporate media, most commentators on the left have largely concerned themselves with histories of the Venezuelan state and its politics since 1958, profiles of Chavez the man and descriptions of his administration’s policies over the last decade.

Sujatha Fernandes’s Who Can Stop The Drums? Urban Social Movements in Chávez’s Venezuela is a timely break with this trend. Drawing on ethnographic research carried out in several of Caracas’s most well-known and politically active barrio communities – La Vega, 23 de Enero and San Augustin – Fernandes places the social histories, personal narratives and everyday experiences of barrio inhabitants at the centre of her analysis. Arguing that the agency of ordinary people has been neglected in both top-down political science accounts and pro-Chávez accounts that celebrate projects such as the social missions and communal councils, Fernandes instead emphasises the importance of the grassroots social movements that pre-dated Chávez, the role of the Chávez era in allowing these movements to flourish, and the complexities and contradictions that activists face as they interact with state institutions and functionaries. As she writes, “To see Chávez as an independent figure pontificating from above, or popular movements as originating in autonomous spaces from below, would be to deny the interdependencies between them that both constrain and make possible each other’s field of action.”

Paying close attention to the relationship between the formation of the barrios and the evolution of popular politics, Fernandes traces the history of political organising in the barrios, describing how resistance to the Perez-Jiménez dictatorship in the 1950s helped establish political organisation in the barrios, principally through juntas linked to Accion Democratica (AD) and the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV). After the fall of Perez-Jiménez and the establishment of Venezuela’s “pacted democracy” in 1958, barrios such as 23 de Enero saw the emergence of a guerrilla movement, which took inspiration from the Cuban Revolution and sought to challenge the diffusion of reformist, clientelist politics. Though the guerrilla movement had largely dwindled by the 1970s, Fernandes shows how its history contributed to the presence of a political consciousness that became integral to barrio social life through the coming decades.

Drawing on the oral histories of activists, Fernandes describes how this political consciousness has passed through a series of different phases as it has responded to historical shifts in Venezuelan society. During the 1970s and 80s the influence of Liberation Theology saw a greater focus on local issues and the emergence of grassroots sporting, cultural and community-based organisations that helped to develop a consciousness grounded in the identities of local communities. Activists began to investigate their origins in African slavery and Venezuela’s indigenous peoples, thereby locating their everyday struggles in a broader historical process that challenged the veiled racism buried in official discourses of colour-blind mestizaje (racial mixing). Fernandes argues that the development of this popular consciousness helped build social networks that would prove vital during the neoliberal era of the 1990s, when the withdrawal of welfare programmes and the decline of public services would lead to a sharp rise in poverty and a growth in the ubiquity of drug economies and gang violence. Drawing on this older legacy of anti-imperial struggle, in the contemporary era street fiestas, murals and popular media help to “reinvigorate a popular democratic public sphere, and create alternative strategies and visions for change.”

One of Fernandes’s most interesting contributions is her characterisation of the Venezuelan state as what she terms a “post-neoliberal hybrid state”. Though the Chávez era has often been seen as a break with the neoliberal governments of the 1990s, Fernandes argues that, though the current administration has attempted to move away from neoliberalism, the Venezuelan state retains certain logics and structural pressures that mean it continues to carry out neoliberal policies, even as Chávez declares that it is on a path towards “21st Century Socialism”. Fernandes defines this hybrid state formation as one which has “mounted certain challenges to the neoliberal paradigm but which remains subject to the internal and external constraints of global capital.” As she notes, the most obvious contradiction the Venezuelan state faces is its continued reliance on oil rents as the predominant source of national income, and the dependent position that this places the country in relation to global capitalism. Fernandes shows the problem this presents the state in her description of the government’s efforts to expand coalmining in Zulia State. The need to ‘diversify’ the economy drives this expansion, but as it is situated in the territories of the indigenous Añú, Barí, Wayuu, Yupka and Japreira peoples, it means that the Chávez government is violating it’s own constitution that protects the rights of indigenous peoples to self-determination free from outside incursion.

In her discussion of the relationship between grassroots community radio stations and the state, Fernandes draws out the contradictions of the hybrid state particularly well, and this is where her ethnographic data really comes to the fore. Community radio stations, and popular media in general, have expanded rapidly in the Chávez era thanks to changes in the law and increased access to funding. Fernandes documents the successes of several community stations, and describes how their focus on the music and culture of their localities helps to provide a positive alternative to the homogenised reality presented in the private media, where the barrios are usually only mentioned in relation to crime and violence. As she points out, however, the government’s promotion of community media is contradicted by its continual need to attract foreign finance and investment. Whilst the state regulatory body CONATEL is tasked with democratising the media, it is simultaneously required to protect corporate interests as a condition of growth and investment. When applying for licences or seeking inclusion in the drafting of new media legislation, community media collectives are asked to structure themselves like corporations, with a board of directors and general direction, and justify the “benefits and returns” of investment in their projects.

In one example, Fernandes recounts a debate between CONATEL functionaries and various radio collectives from across Caracas, who had occupied the CONATEL offices in response to the seizure of the transmitter and arrest of a community station’s technical coordinator. CONATEL argue that it is carrying out “procedures” and that the station was transmitting illegally. In the debate that follows, Fernandes describes the impasse between state functionaries, who fall back on technocratic language and statist notions of law, impartiality and procedure, and activists, who refuse to accept this statist logic and instead frame their arguments in terms of the particularities of their community-based struggle. The scene is, she argues, indicative of the way in which barrio-based activists can find themselves blocked or co-opted by different arms of the same purportedly inclusionary state. In contrast, the experiences their projects embody represent an alternative reading of what social change might look like. The fundamental question facing Venezuela’s grassroots activists is summed up by Fernandes’s respondent, Marcelo: “How can we maintain autonomy before the state, but make use of the resources available?”

As the month ahead will see the Venezuelan media war go up on a notch in the run-up to September 26th’s National Assembly elections, Fernandes’s book is a timely contribution that foregrounds the struggles of barrio activists and illustrates the complexity of the Chávez era seen from below. Venezuelans have benefitted from improved access to healthcare, education and welfare in the last 11 years, and the poor can feel they are citizens of their own country for perhaps the first time. Yet the contradictions that stem from seeking radical social change through the state remain, as Fernandes shows, multiple. One of the dangers of the intense political polarisation in contemporary Venezuela is that the voices of progressive dissents are lost amidst the need to fight the opposition, endangering the capacity of grassroots activists to develop autonomous, self-sustaining institutions and narrowing the imaginative space required for alternative visions. In turn, the danger for commentators is that they spend too much time viewing the Venezuelan people through the figure of Chávez, when it is perhaps far more pertinent to do the reverse. The Venezuelan people and their cultures and struggles deserve more attention and should be the subject of more scholarly work in their own right. Who Can Stop The Drums? is an excellent point of departure that should stimulate more explorations of this kind.

Matt Wilde is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the London School of Economics. He is currently carrying out research on popular politics, socialism and citizenship and urban anthropology in Venezuela. Email: m.w.wilde[at]lse.ac.uk