Books Reviews2017-09-08T23:46:38+01:00

Book Review: ‘Nothing by Accident’ by Damian Platt

By |16/November/2020|

Damian Platt’s Nothing by Accident: Brazil on the Edge is not just an excellent introduction to Brazilian politics generally, but an insightful exploration of the country as a whole.

‘I hope readers will understand that Rio de Janeiro is not always the tragedy described in these pages. It is also a fantastic, exhilarating, culturally exuberant city that is home to an inspiring, imaginative and welcoming population.’

So concludes the preface to Damian Platt’s Nothing by Accident: Brazil on the Edge, a compassionate, informative and hard-hitting account of life in 21st-century Brazil. The introductory chapter is titled ‘Homicidal Times’ and, whether or not this is sardonic word play, it at once reads like both a fictional thriller and grisly reportage, recounting a web of death, drugs and corruption. In fact, as Platt has presented us with a real-time account, by the end of this first page there is an update: the victim, Gabriel – ‘the son of our beloved housekeeper’ – has disappeared. Whilst the personal connection to the disappeared brings home the pervasiveness of violence, the mention of disappearances is a chilling reminder that the country is not free from terrors that characterised its Cold War.

With 15 years of living and working in Brazil under his belt, it is no surprise that Platt writes as he does. Much like Óscar Martínez covers Central America, he covers Brazil with clarity and colour; painting, narrating and informing all in single sentences. Phrases such as ‘screaming social violence and disparity’ are followed by descriptions of his abode being ‘tucked into a hillside, virgin tropical rainforest cover[ing] the slopes above the property, which looked towards a mesmerising vista of city and sea.’ Platt writes with warmth and it is his honest, experienced tone that makes the book all the more readable, in spite of the horrors it presents.

Such is the tragic reality of a country ‘on the edge’ that residents appear to exist on a seesaw of tension. For example, Platt recollects a hot Sunday afternoon in Alemão favela, surrounded by laughter, music, paddling pools and barbecue scents, not wanting to be anywhere else – yet when gunshots sound he ‘dropped [his] beer on the tiles and lay face down in it’. On other occasions, attending baile funk parties, he might become lost in the atmosphere of ‘hypnotic music, [a] light show and [an] enthusiastic throng of dancers’, from which he is awaked by the ‘sight of a thin, ill-looking child a few steps away, eyes rolling back into his head’. Indeed, so vividly is Brazil brought to life, with adjectives assigned to music and decades of history conveyed with concision, that the brutalities of daily life are all the more affecting.

Turning to these brutalities, the second chapter’s title posits ‘waging war’ as ‘a way of life in Rio de Janeiro’. This war has many fronts: corrupt police forces who – in a disturbing echo of the Colombian ‘false positives’ scandal – register those they kill as ‘deaths in confrontation’ whilst ‘extrajudicial executions’

Book Review: We are Cuba

By |27/May/2020|

This new book documents many of Cuba’s impressive achievements, such as in the fields of biotechnology and food production, despite the brutal blockade it has been forced to endure.

Narrative histories and opinion pieces about post-revolutionary Cuba are plentiful and readily available. What could another book on the subject possibly add to what we already know? One of the author’s Cuban interviewees provides the answer: ‘Little is written and even less published about the real country’. The real Cuba, with its trials, tribulations, successes and occasional failures is the subject of Helen Yaffe’s We are Cuba.

For thirty years following the revolution in 1959, the USSR was Cuba’s most important ally and trading partner. An unequal partnership, it left the island’s economy dependent on the Soviet Bloc for imports of fuel, food and capital goods, paid for by exports of sugar, nickel and citrus.

While crucial to the survival of the revolution, Cuba’s economic relationship with the USSR hampered its ability to build a creative, modern economy. That weakness was brutally exposed at the beginning of the 1990s when the USSR folded, leaving Cuba without its major trading partner. The following decade – known locally as the ‘Special Period’ – was one of acute shortages, social deprivation and a degree of public disaffection, manifested most notably in the many well-publicised attempts by hundreds if not thousands of citizens to escape by boat to the United States.

Yaffe’s book gives a fascinating account of how the revolutionary government and the Cuban people reacted to the crisis. The challenge facing them was formidable because the entire economy, as well as Cuba’s international trading and political relationships, had to be reshaped. How this was achieved – with all the concomitant stresses, complexities, mistakes and reappraisals – lies at the heart of this book. For those in need of facts and figures, Yaffe provides them in abundance, but also offers plenty of human and local colour, personal anecdotes and quotations from interviewees; insights into how Cuba’s socialist version of democratic accountability works in practice.

Some of Cuba’s achievements during and since the Special Period are astounding. For example, between 1994 and 2005, domestic production of vegetables increased from four thousand tonnes to over four million tonnes. By 2006, the World Wildlife Fund recognised Cuba as the only nation in the world achieving sustainable development – with most of its agricultural crops grown organically and in harmony with the environment.

Perhaps the country’s most remarkable achievements have been in the fields of biotechnology and international emergency relief. Cuban advances in medical science have not only been a technological success, but have become a major export earner as well as an important arm of the country’s international diplomacy. Cuban assistance to countries suffering natural disasters, epidemics and shortages of health workers and clinics has been no less impressive. That assistance has included the training, free of charge, of tens of thousands of doctors from the developing world.

If there is a dispiriting element in Cuba’s post-revolutionary story, it lies in the vindictiveness of

Book Review – Hugo Blanco: A Revolutionary Life

By |1/March/2019|

Derek Wall offers a political biography of Peruvian revolutionary Hugo Blanco.

Hugo Blanco is an extraordinary figure with a lifetime of revolutionary struggle in his native Peru and across Latin America. For well over 60 years (he is now 84) he has led by example whilst also contributing to the field of ideas with creative and (for the most part) non-dogmatic interventions in the ongoing ideological debate among activists and revolutionaries.

Derek Wall has produced a passionate, well-documented and very readable biography of a man whom he clearly admires and who in recent years has become a personal friend. He admires Hugo’s dedication and self-sacrifice, but also his ability to adapt to a fast-changing world and, without abandoning his revolutionary commitment, to recognise how the ecological struggle has become crucial and has fused with the social, political and economic issues which dominated the mid-20th century. It is Hugo’s conversion to ecosocialism, beginning some three decades ago, which is clearly what makes him so important to the author.

Born in 1934 near Cusco, the historic centre of Inca Peru, Hugo Blanco came from a family which could be described as middle class but lived in very modest – truthfully, poor –  circumstances. From an early age he revolted against the brutal injustice of what was still a system of feudal and racist oppression of the indigenous peasant majority.

Moving to Argentina to study agronomy, the young Hugo soon joined a Trotskyist party, abandoned his studies and went to work in a meat-packing factory. From this time onwards he became more or less a professional revolutionary, continuing to work in factories after returning to Peru three years later. Before long he left the urban environment of Lima and returned to his rural roots; by 1958 he had re-invented himself as a peasant (specifically, a sub-tenant farmer) in the area known as La Convención. It was here that he became involved in rural labour organisation and became, in effect, a leader of peasant revolt.

In 1962-63 Hugo Blanco gained national fame as leader of an armed insurgency which successfully occupied land in La Convención and inspired similar movements elsewhere in the country. Captured and imprisoned for seven years, his reputation spread far beyond Peru.

While his international fame owed much to the activities of global Trotskyist networks, it was his personal valour in resisting brutal treatment and subsequent exile in 1970 which really gained him recognition. Over the next two decades he led a peripatetic existence between Peru, Chile, Sweden, Argentina, Nicaragua and elsewhere, always involved in political struggles and frequently in great personal danger.

Heroic as all this undoubtedly was, it was far from unique among Latin American revolutionaries. What would make Hugo Blanco truly original and significant for the present era was his move to Mexico and encounter with the Zapatistas in the early 1990s.

Identification with indigenous and ecological principles, and with the radical grassroots democracy of the Zapatistas, transformed Hugo Blanco’s revolutionary career. While traces of this outlook can be found in his earlier views, before the

Eric Hobsbawm and Latin America

By |7/November/2017|

Outside of Europe, the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm only truly felt at home in Latin America, as his posthumously-published collection of essays shows.

Shortly before his death in 2012, at the age of 95, Eric Hobsbawm expressed the desire to publish a volume with his articles and essays on Latin America. He did not have time to do it, but the British historian Leslie Bethell collected the task and organised a volume, which was given the title of Viva the Revolution, published last year in London.

In his autobiography Interesting Times, published in 2002, Hobsbawm claimed that the only region outside Europe that he thought he had known well and felt fully at home was Latin America.

However, Latin America’s presence in his classical works is marginal. In The Age of Revolution there are only references of passage to our continent. In The Age of Capital, there are only half a dozen pages on Latin America, in the chapter entitled ‘Losers’. In The Age of Empire, there are few references and four pages dedicated to the Mexican Revolution. In The Age of Extremes, Latin America became a prominent place in the emergence of the Third World, with references to several important historical events, from the Mexican Revolution to Allende’s Chile.

This book begins with his first impressions of the continent, which significantly, arise from his first trip to Cuba in October 1960, opening with the statement: ‘Unless there is an armed intervention of the United States, Cuba will very soon be the first socialist country of the western hemisphere’.

Hobsbawm will return several times to Cuba, which will be a permanent reference for the continent. But he will be a systematic critic of Cuban life, expressed in guerrilla movements.

His interest in Latin America will be more focused on the peasant movement, which is why he focuses his travels and analysis on Colombia, introduced to him by the great Colombian intellectual Orlando Fals Borda, and Peru. The issue of social banditry leads him to turn even on Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path). Hobsbawm focused his analysis much more on the peasant movements than on Latin American urban workers movements.

In any case, Hobsbawm did not consider himself to be a Latin American historian. In fact, he never managed to free himself from the European imprint, which strongly marks his work, to understand the Latin American particularities. On social relations in the countryside, he always has feudalism as a reference, failing to incorporate the broad debate during the 1960s, represented first of all by Rodolfo Stavenhagen, and later incorporated by much of the social thought of the continent.

Hobsbawm always understood nationalism on the continent in terms of the phenomenon in Europe, referring to Perón and Vargas, as well as other populist leaders of the continent as fascists. His book on nationalisms does not incorporate an analysis of the peculiarities of the phenomenon, with the anti-imperialist slant that is characteristic in our continent. The anti-neoliberal features of Latin American nationalism appear to him always analogous to fascism and Nazism.

However, Latin America

Book Review: Building the Commune

By |29/November/2016|

George Cicciarello-Maher’s latest book examines the rise of community self-governance in Chavéz’s Venezuela.

Few political imaginaries hold such romantic traction as the ‘commune’. Looming large in social memory is the Paris Commune, formed in 1871 when workers and revolutionaries seized the city of Paris and organised on radical socialist principles. Though short-lived, the Paris Commune emerged as a benchmark for later revolutionary movements which sought to emulate direct democracy.

Premised on the belief that people should have direct control over their own lives and that the collective spirit trumps the individual, the communal ethos has also inspired what might be the boldest ambition of Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution; to re-build Venezuela as a ‘communal’ state. In his famous El Golpe de Timón (Strike at the Helm) speech delivered in 2012, Chávez implored a speedier implementation of communes as part of Venezuela’s transition to socialism from below. With Venezuela crippled by triple-digit inflation and chronic shortages of food and medicine, George Cicciarello-Maher’s latest book stands as an optimistic and timely defence of some core facets in the Venezuelan political model.

Elegant and highly accessible, Building the Commune documents the thorny process of establishing communes in Venezuela, as well as the political challenges facing the Bolivarian Revolution more generally. He draws on interviews with policy high-ups and grassroots comuneros to convey a complex picture of a political experiment in motion. Cicciarello-Maher centres these Venezuelan communal developments in the recent context of worldwide protest, from Occupy to the Indignados, all part of what he enthusiastically labels ‘the age of riots and rebellions’.

Venezuela’s communal councils, established in a 2006 law, allow small communities to group together and self-govern on local issues and collective needs. Communes are officially recognised institutions for directly democratic self-government at local level: ‘No two communes look exactly alike,’ Cicciariello-Maher observes.

Cicciariello-Maher explains that to form a commune, participants from communal councils come together and vote in a referendum. If the commune is approved, each council then sends an elected delegate to this communal parliament. All those elected are subject to citizen oversight and can be recalled from power. For Chávez, communes were the building blocks of socialism; currently there are 45,000 communal councils, incorporated into 1,500 communes.

But as Cicciarello-Maher emphasises, although Chávez created the constitutional apparatus for communes, their beginnings emerge in the 1980s when barrio residents in urban areas began forming networks of barrio assemblies. Ever anxious to stress the movement’s bottom-up impulses, Cicciariello-Maher identifies the presence of traditional indigenous modes of organising, as well as the legacy of maroon communities (fugitive slaves) in the Venezuelan communal tendency.

Over 90 per cent of Venezuelans live in the cities, drawn there in recent decades by the lure of the oil economy. Cicciarello-Maher nods to the interesting dynamics this produces, as elements of rural modes of behaviour carry through in the urban setting. Closer analysis of rural and urban differences in communal organising would be an interesting off-shoot of this observation.

Cicciarello-Maher broadly sketches the spatial politics of Venezuela’s cities, noting how urban space and land redistribution

Book Review: A Short History of U.S. Interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean

By |28/November/2016|

A concise history of United States interventions by Alan McPherson.

In A Short History of U.S. Interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean, Alan McPherson provides a potted account of US involvement and interference in Latin America through a number of cases from 1811 (continental expansion) to 2016 (drug wars). In each case he examines the ‘Five Cs’: causes, consequences, contestation, collaboration and context and provides troop and casualty figures as well as revealing quotes from those involved.

McPherson’s primary focus is on the ‘Banana Wars’ during the first third of the 20th century, with only three of the nine chapters covering the Cold War and later. The book further focuses on military interventions; while, for McPherson, military training and ‘diplomatic arm-twisting’ qualify as US pressure, they ‘nevertheless do not rise to the definition of an intervention.’

This is the principal reason why McPherson’s history, while balanced, falls short. For instance, while noting that during the Cold War, the majority of Latin American governments, with US arms and training ‘became the worst abusers of human rights’, he fails to mention that the ‘fiercely anti-Communist’, ‘often fascist’ ideology of the highly-repressive national security doctrine which characterised the regimes was imparted via, and a crucial component of, the counterinsurgency doctrine which ran through US military training.

Similarly, turning to the 21st century, whilst US intervention in Haiti in 2004 is recounted, US funding of opposition groups and diplomatic support for coups in Venezuela (2002), Honduras (2009) and Paraguay (2012) falls outside the scope of the study and receives no mention. This is perhaps understandable considering the remit, but remains disappointing. Returning briefly to the Cold War, it is remarkable that extensive US involvement in El Salvador’s civil war is reduced to simply ‘a U.S.-supported right-wing regime.’

Whilst this short history leaves more to be desired, particularly with regards to contemporary relations, its focus on the Banana Wars is welcome. McPherson’s book is a useful and informative introduction to US-Latin America relations.

A Short History of U.S. Interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean

Alan McPherson (Wiley Blackwell, 2016)

This article was originally published in Alborada magazine issue three (Winter 2016/17) 

Book Review: Turning the Tide

By |18/January/2016|

Noam Chomsky’s fierce critique of United States policy in Central America,

In 1985, as Central America was being torn apart by increased militarisation and civil wars rife with US-armed death squads, Noam Chomsky published Turning the Tide, which offered a searing indictment of US policies towards the region. The book showcased Chomsky’s ability to pull together a variety of sources to present ‘a world that is much uglier’ than ‘the one presented to us by a remarkably effective ideological system’ – indeed, one that is ‘often horrifying’.

In the second chapter Chomsky recalls the ‘Four Freedoms’ pronounced by Franklin D. Roosevelt in January 1941, but adds a fifth: ‘the freedom to rob and to exploit’. This is the ‘most important’ Freedom and ‘the one that really counts’. ‘A careful look at history and the internal record of planning’, he contends, ‘reveals a guiding geopolitical conception: reservation of the Fifth Freedom, by whatever means are feasible’, and for Chomsky ‘Much of what US governments do in the world can readily be understood in terms of this principle’. With this in mind he explores the exercising of this ‘Freedom’ by the United States, with particular focus on ‘the gruesome record of Reaganite state terrorism in Central America’, as he describes in the preface  accompanying a new edition of the book published this year.

Indeed, such is the record in what Chomsky describes as ‘one of the world’s most awful horror chambers’, that even for those familiar with the style and content of his work, the text makes for deeply unsettling reading. The book includes countless accounts and testimonies of barbarity including torture and massacre, mass rapes, mutilation and dismemberment – to name but some methods employed by US-trained terrorists. In fact, possibly more shocking is not the nature of the violence, but that with every subsequent account – and there are many – they increase in brutality, and never fail to shock and appal.

Chomsky considers possible answers to the question of what lay behind this violence, framing his enquiry around a 1948 document by George Kennan, head of the State Department policy planning staff, which advised ‘ceas[ing] to talk about vague and … unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratisation’. Multiple studies Chomsky reviews show an overwhelming proportion of US aid going to the most repressive regimes and he argues that the primary concern of US policy is to develop desirable conditions for investment. ‘[I]n the Third World’, he writes, an ‘improvement in the investment climate is regularly achieved by destruction of popular organisations, torture of labor and peasant organizers, killing of priests engaged in social reforms, and general mass murder and repression’. It is such aims which lead the CIA to recruit former-Nazis in subversive and repressive activities, as detailed in the book.

Turning the Tide was published three years before Chomsky and Edward Herman’s influential critique of the mainstream media, Manufacturing Consent. Here, he foreshadows that work by similarly excoriating the press, accusing it of ‘a sordid display of moral cowardice’

Book Review: Sounds and Colours Peru

By |13/January/2016|

Sounds and Colours publish their third Latin America country guidebook.

The people behind the online magazine Sounds & Colours have published their third impressive guidebook on Latin American culture. Their first two releases were detailed forays into the threads of contemporary art and music in Brazil and Colombia. This third book focuses on Peru, and the editors have sourced a series of independent essays from an eclectic array of individuals whose knowledge about their particular topic is conveyed in a well-designed and accessible book.

An inescapable difficulty with writing about music is how words alone fail to capture the sensory reaction and stimulation of simply listening to the music itself. Fortunately the editors have circumnavigated this potential shortcoming by compiling a CD of Peruvian sounds. As if to make a vivid point, the CD opens with two punchy rock tunes, and goes on to highlight the diversity of modern Peruvian music, from tropical bass to psychedelic folk.

The eye-catching cover artwork by Mara Mantari Ramos that adorns this 200-page tome pulls the reader in from the outset. Inside, the information-rich and at times dense chapters cover diverse areas from Afro-Peruvian culture to the life and dreams of the poet Enrique Verástegui. The text is interspersed with illustrations and photography that eschew the clichés of a Lonely Planet style touristic outlook. The photos of Carlo Rodrigo Rojas bring to life rural celebrations in the small town of Huaylas while the humanistic photography of Paccarik Orue tells the urban story of the Andean city of Cerro de Pasco, where folkloric and cultural traditions are threatened by the expansion of the mining operations which sustain the city.

A surrealist highlight is the chapter on music and ayahuasca by the French filmmaker Vincent Moon, an avid documenter of traditional and present day musical styles. His time spent in the Amazon has been captured in the short film Sonidos del Perú: Justina, which is included as a DVD.

For anyone that thinks that Peru is mainly about Machu Picchu, llamas and poncho adorned, Sounds and Colours Perú shows another side to the country. Home to a vibrant scene of electro, beat poetry and political documentary, this is an indispensable guide to the modern nation.

Sounds and Colours Perú

Various authors (Sounds and Colours, 2015)

This article was originally published in Alborada magazine issue two (Winter 2015) 


Book Review: The Beast

By |19/May/2015|

Óscar Martínez reports on the vortex of violence between Central America and the United States.

In 1938 Graham Greene wrote a cantankerous account of his travels in southern Mexico and its revolutionary anti-clericalism entitled The Lawless Roads. Nearly 80 years later, the roads across Mexico are still lawless and steeped in blood, but now the blood belongs to migrants not priests.

The bodies of 70,000 lie buried along the ‘death corridor’ of the migrants’ trail which links Central America with the US border. Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez’s The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail (originally Los Migrantes que no Importan – ‘The Migrants who Don’t Matter’) is an astonishingly powerful and courageous depiction of the inexplicable savagery and grotesque violence that accompanies migrants on this journey north. In gripping and colourful prose, each chapter documents the migrants as they edge ever closer to El Norte and the possibility ofuna vida mejor(a better life).

The Beast (La Bestia) is the name of the freight trains that snake through Mexico to the US border. Every day around 1,500 Central American migrants climb on to it, risking death through falling (‘Just today I learned that a boy named José lost his head under that train’), amputation, and extortion and kidnapping from gangs. More than a quarter of a million Central Americans make this perilous journey each year.

It is the desolate rural territory, and especially La Arrocera ― ‘stained red by the blood of migrants, some say’ ― which is most dangerous. Women migrants face the additional threat of sexual assault, rape and mutilation. Martínez reveals that an estimated eight out of ten migrant women who attempt to cross Mexico suffer sexual abuse along the way. ‘En route to El Norte I saw, and began to understand, that the bodies left here are innumerable, and that rape is only one of the countless threats a migrant confronts.’ There are ‘bra trees’ whose only fruit is the underwear of assaulted women, inexplicably discarded as trophies.

In the fourth chapter Martínez narrates the plight of Central American women migrants who are trapped in southern Mexican prostitution rings.  Many, like ‘Erika’, came to Mexico – on their way to the US – as children fleeing slavery, physical and sexual abuse, and systemic gang violence. According to The National Institute of Statistics and Geography, there are an estimated 20,000 boys and girls enslaved or being exploited by sex traffickers throughout Mexico.

Martínez, a consummate reporter, ensures that the voices of the customarily voiceless permeate as he tugs his invisible protagonists out of the shadows. Although much of the slang is lost in translation, the speech he relays is gritty and lively, and his descriptions are lyrically evocative ― ‘I don’t have a clue which sons-of-bitches are threatening us.’ He recounts how Jaime, a migrant who falls from La Bestia, ends up with a mutilated leg constituting ‘bone and ground skin and a barely attached, macerated, bluish hunk of foot,’ while in the Rio Grande dead bodies

Book Review: From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia

By |19/August/2011|

Combining academic research and extensive fieldwork, Jeffrey Webber sets out to explain the underlying dynamics of a decade long political process in Bolivia.

The election of Bolivia’s first indigenous president, on the back of a mass rebellion that overthrew successive governments has stirred great interest in this small Andean nation. Given that the Evo Morales government recently celebrated its 2000th day in power – a feat in its own right for a country that has had around 180 coups since 1825 – any serious attempt to explain the underlying dynamics of this decade long political process should be welcomed.

Combining his academic research and extensive fieldwork in Bolivia, Jeffrey Webber sets out to do exactly that in From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia. Unfortunately, the end result leaves a lot to be desired.

The purpose of Webber’s book is to convince readers that the election of the Morales government actually represented a leap backwards that ‘steered the political conjuncture away from the radicalism of the streets towards the tamer terrain of electoral politics.’ Furthermore, Webber attempts to argue that in place of moderate change, the Morales government has presided over a period of ‘reconstituted neoliberalism’ that has brought about ‘almost no change’ in the conditions of ordinary Bolivians.

Such an argument definitely goes against the grain of the overwhelming bulk of literature dedicated to the Morales government. But Webber defends his view as superior to those that ‘replace careful examination of empirical reality with the casual celebration of press releases issued from the presidential palace.’ Only those that oppose the MAS government, says Webber, hold ‘a responsible perspective, authentically in solidarity with the popular struggles for socialism and indigenous liberation.’

Given the hostile tone of his sweeping attacks on the government and its supporters, one would expect a thorough and detailed analysis that patiently explains where it all went wrong. Instead we get a litany of errors and misleading statements. A classic example is Webber’s attempt to prove ‘the regional successes enjoyed by the [right-wing] autonomist movement in the early years under Morales’ by pointing to two rallies ‘of great importance’ that occurred in June 2004 and January 2005. … a year before Morales was even in power! But the biggest problem is not his inability to use facts that back up, rather than contradict his arguments. Rather, it is his failure to deal concretely with opposing viewpoints, the relationship between the government and social movements, and the achievements of the Morales government.

Straw Man Arguments

A constant attempt to confuse, rather than clarify, the key issues in debate runs right through Webber’s book. Anyone who expresses any sympathy with the Morales government is brandished as a ‘loyalist’ and an advocate of reformist change through parliament rather than independent mobilisation from below. Yet everyone agrees that Morales’ election was only possible due to the preceding five years of social struggle. Similarly, a consensus exists regarding the importance of the constant mobilisation of social movements in defense of their government or defeating successive attempts to overthrow Morales. Given the

Book Review: Who Can Stop The Drums?

By |9/September/2010|

A scholarly work on the Venezuelan people, their cultures and struggles.

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

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