From its transition to democracy in 1958 to the deepening political crisis in the mid-1990s, Venezuela attracted meager attention from scholars. Thanks in large measure to the development of the petroleum sector in the early part of the twentieth century, the country became more prosperous and developed than its more economically distressed neighbors in Latin America. With a resilient two-party political system, Venezuela was seen as a model of democratic stability. In a sense, this made much of Venezuela's internal dynamics of little interest to policy analysts and academics; throughout the 1960s and 1970s, for example, there were virtually no serious studies of Venezuela's armed forces, which reflected the presumption that the military would remain uninvolved in political affairs.

Then, in 1998, the nature of the Venezuelan state and society changed dramatically with the election of Hugo Chávez as president. Since then, Chávez has overseen a number of important changes both within Venezuela itself and in its foreign policy, particularly toward the United States. During Chávez's more than 12 years in office, Venezuela has overhauled its constitution and political system, and in so doing, has concentrated power in the president, mobilized a poor constituency, and pursued alliances in Latin America and the world to stand up to Washington. Chávez is an evolving phenomenon and has aroused considerable curiosity and strong passions across the political spectrum. Beside Cuba's Fidel Castro, no other Latin American leader has elicited as many journalistic accounts or serious analytic and conceptual contributions. 

Dragon in the Tropics: Hugo Chávez and the Political Economy of Revolution in Venezuela. By Javier Corrales and Michael Penfold. Brookings Institution Press, 2010.
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Any inclusive and credible interpretation of contemporary Venezuela has to take into account three factors: the role of oil in the economy, the progressive erosion of democratic safeguards, and the grandiose and defiant foreign policy championed by Chávez. Javier Corrales and Michael Penfold's recent volume nicely fits the bill. The authors focus on the intersection of the country's "resource curse" -- namely, oil -- and its constitutional and political framework, which disregards checks and balances and fosters economic distortions. They argue that over the past decade, the decay of Venezuela's petroleum sector and the weakening of any semblance of democracy in the country have been mutually reinforcing. From the outset of his regime, Chávez has sought at every opportunity to curtail the influence of the United States, both in the Western Hemisphere and globally. The authors apply the notion of "soft-balancing," which refers to "efforts by nations to frustrate the foreign policy objectives of other, presumably more powerful nations, but stopping short of military action."

To illustrate their argument about Chávez's disruptive influence, they cite the "Bolivarian alternative" to the Free Trade Area of the Americas: Known as ALBA and launched in 2006, it opposes the policies of trade liberalization and privatization that many in the region identify with Washington's agenda. ALBA, a small group of Chávez-led governments committed to social welfare and mutual economic policies, is named after South America's liberator Simón Bolívar, who promoted regional integration and has long been Chávez's chief source of inspiration.

"Two Faces of Hugo Chavez." By Gabriel Garcia Marquez. NACLA Report on the Americas, May/June 2000. 

El Chavismo Como Problema. By Teodoro Petkoff. Editorial Libros Marcado, 2010.
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Hugo Chávez: The Definitive Biography of Venezuela's Controversial President. By Cristina Marcano and Alberto Barrera Tyszka. Random House, 2007.
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In 1999, Gabriel García Márquez, the Colombian writer and a recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature, accompanied Chávez on a flight from Havana to Caracas just days before he assumed the presidency. García Márquez wrote an essay based on the trip, "Two Faces of Hugo Chávez," which has proved to be remarkably prescient. In it, he concludes, "I was struck by the impression that I had traveled and talked delightfully with two opposite men -- one who good luck had given the opportunity to save his nation -- and the other, an illusionist, who could go down in history as just another despot."

A decade later, Teodoro Petkoff, a former leftist guerrilla fighter, leading intellectual, and now director of the Venezuelan newspaper Tal Cual, picks up on García Márquez's earlier portrait and amplifies the various dimensions of the "lost opportunity" of Chávez's rule. Petkoff is judicious and unvarnished in his assessment: Although he is clearly a Chávez critic, he is equally unsparing in highlighting the occasional ineptitude of the Venezuelan opposition and the myopia of U.S. policy toward Venezuela. Petkoff is particularly trenchant in interpreting the roots of Chávez's appeal among those Venezuelans who feel marginalized and excluded, highlighting Chávez's seductive rhetoric and the sense of hope he can inspire among the country's lower classes. But Petkoff, who invokes Max Weber's concept of "charismatic authority" as the source of Chávez's legitimacy, argues that the Venezuelan president's incorrigibly militaristic and confrontational style makes any effort at effective governance highly problematic.

Ultimately, the fundamental question of what drives Chávez and why he has become such a polarizing figure is a puzzle for many journalists and analysts. Chávez biographies have become a cottage industry, although, unfortunately, most are either hagiographies or hatchet jobs. The exception to this rule is the admirably measured treatment by the Venezuelan journalists Cristina Marcano and Alberto Tyszka. A product of careful research, the book sheds considerable light on Chávez's complex personality and delves into his childhood, personal relationships, and socialization in the military (particularly, the plotting behind his failed 1992 coup).

Venezuela's Chavismo and Populism in Comparative Perspective
. By Kirk A. Hawkin. Cambridge University Press, 2010.

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Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict, and the Chávez Phenomenon. By Steve Ellner. Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2008.
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"Venezuela: Popular Sovereignty Versus Liberal Democracy." By Michael Coppedge. In: Constructing Democratic Governance in Latin America (third edition). Edited by Jorge I. Domínguez and Michael Shifter. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

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In recent years, scholars have begun producing rigorous conceptual and empirical studies in an attempt to better understand and measure the significance of the changes taking place in Venezuela under Chávez. Kirk Hawkins' brilliant book focuses on Chávez's populist discourse and explains why, despite the country's profound economic and security problems, Chávez retains considerable popular support. For starters, Hawkins cites ample comparative data on the content of political speeches and, to explain the origins of populism, considers such variables as perceptions of corruption, television access, and secondary-education enrollment. The book puts Chávez in a wider context, including references to an array of Latin American and world leaders. Then, Hawkins proceeds to argue that Chávez is a product of the widespread corruption and economic crisis that preceded him, but that his Manichean "you're either with us or against us" formulation renders any meaningful democratic progress impossible.

Steve Ellner covers similar ground and develops a largely sympathetic analysis of Chávez's innovative social reforms such as the "missions" (or misiones, programs that provide new forms of health care, literacy, basic foodstuffs, and other public goods to the poor) as an attempt to satisfy long-standing, pent-up popular demands. Ellner's account also situates Venezuela in a broader regional setting and suggests that similar expressions of popular mobilization could well become more common in the rest of Latin America.

In recent years, strong grass-roots movements have taken shape in Evo Morales' Bolivia and Rafael Correa's Ecuador. Chávez may deserve credit for seizing on legitimate social grievances, but as Michael Coppedge argues in the most sophisticated essay on the subject, what Chávez has fashioned is fundamentally incompatible with the tenets of liberal democracy. Chávez embraces a version of the Rousseauian idea of the general will, which is based on a supposedly uniform "voice of the people" and which has led to increasingly autocratic rule in Venezuela.

"La Política Exterior de la Venezuela Bolivariana." By Carlos A. Romero. FLACSO, Caracas, Venezuela, 2010.

"Building a Global Southern Coalition: The Competing Approaches of Brazil's Lula and Venezuela's Chávez." By Sean W. Burges. Third World Quarterly, 28, no. 7 (2007).

Chávez's national political project, which he has pursued through a shrewd and cumulative power grab, is inseparable from his foreign policy and his outsized regional and global ambitions. Chávez is guided by his own interpretation of the legacy of Bolívar, the nineteenth-century independence hero, fueled by an anti-U.S. discourse and the tools of "petrodiplomacy." Venezuelan scholar Carlos Romero elaborates on how Chávez has carried out policies that blend oil power and a firm commitment to "socialism of the twenty-first century." Romero highlights Chávez's tight relationship with Cuba -- and particularly with Castro -- in which Caracas provides oil to Havana in exchange for thousands of Cuban doctors, an anti-U.S. ally, and the revolutionary carnet Chávez otherwise lacks. Bolivia, Romero insists, is also a critical test for Chávez's ability to extend his influence throughout Latin America. Beyond the region, Romero highlights the economic and investment relationship between Venezuela and China, as well as the geopolitical alliance between Iran and Venezuela, which gained strength when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005. Venezuela and Russia, too, have strong ties: In recent years, Chávez has purchased an estimated $5 billion in military equipment from Moscow. As Chávez's domestic problems, including severe fiscal constraints, continue to mount, his ability to exercise regional leadership and command the support he had a few years ago has diminished.

In contrast, Brazil, as Sean Burges argues, has pursued a strategy of pragmatism and moderation that has led to a far more successful and sustained leadership role in Latin America. Brazil's assertive foreign policy, aimed at building a multipolar world in which the United States is a welcome partner, contrasts with Chávez's more explicitly and defiantly anti-U.S. posture. 

The Chávez Code: Cracking U.S. Intervention in Venezuela. By Eva Golinger. Olive Branch Press, 2006.
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U.S.-Venezuelan relations reached their low point during the George W. Bush years (particularly after what turned out to be a short-lived coup in April 2002 against Chávez, when the White House statement could barely contain its delight). But the relationship was already strained under the Clinton administration -- and has not measurably improved in the first two years of the Obama administration. Today, there is no U.S. ambassador in Caracas, nor a Venezuelan one in Washington; cooperation between the two governments is minimal at best. Eva Golinger, a U.S. lawyer based in Venezuela, has contended that the United States, through the guise of its democracy promotion efforts, has sought to subvert the Chávez regime. This view, which has credence among Chávez supporters, has given rise to the suspicion that any U.S.-funded or U.S.-supported initiative in the country has nefarious and destabilizing aims. Although Golinger's account is far from measured -- she is fully committed to the Bolivarian cause -- her book contains some fresh information and new documents gained through Freedom of Information Act requests that are useful for a complete history of U.S.-Venezuelan relations under Chávez. Golinger shows, for example, how critical 9/11 was in souring the relationship: For Washington, Chávez's vocal criticism of the U.S. military response in Afghanistan following the attacks crossed an unstated line, and the nature of the "Chávez problem" was exposed. The souring of diplomatic ties has not totally undermined the commercial relationship, however. The durability of economic interests is especially apparent in the energy trade: Ironically, Chávez sells a higher proportion of the country's oil exports to the United States than did previous Venezuelan governments. The United States now gets roughly eight to nine percent of its oil imports from Venezuela. Looking forward, it will be interesting to follow how Washington deals with this fundamental foreign policy dilemma: an authoritarian government opposed to U.S. interests regionally and globally yet still a vital oil provider. Both countries, it should be noted, will have presidential elections in 2012.

  • MICHAEL SHIFTER is President of the Inter-American Dialogue and Adjunct Professor of Latin American Studies at Georgetown University.
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