Book review: Venezuela Speaks!

According to an ongoing research project at the University of the West of England analysing the BBC’s coverage of Venezuela between 1998 and 2008 the corporation has an ongoing obsession with – and bias against – Hugo Chavez, with news reports focussing almost entirely on the charismatic President.

Venezuela Speaks! attempts to counter this one-dimensional portrayal by highlighting the central role that grassroots social movements have played in pushing the Bolivarian Revolution forward. As one activist explains, “With Chavez or without Chavez, is it better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.”
Edited by three Venezuela specialists, the book is made up of in-depth interviews with 29 radicals and activists – from women’s groups, the indigenous movement, student groups, community media and trade unions. By working in communal councils and cooperatives, building education centres, taking over factories and conducting land occupations these people have forced the profound changes that have occurred on Chavez‘s watch. Their impressive gains include cutting extreme poverty in half, reducing the infant mortality rate by 40 percent, recognising the economic value of housework, a literacy drive that taught 1.5 million people to read and write and the introduction of free higher education.
The dominant thread running through all the testimonies is the critical relationship between grassroots movements and a sympathetic government. Interviewees continuously refer to the problem of what they call “the bureaucracy”, that is conservative forces still in the government who are either deliberately or inadvertently slowing down the country’s transformation from a representative democracy to something approaching a participatory democracy.
Encyclopaedic in scope, with a superb introductory history, extensive footnotes, helpful list of abbreviations, explanatory maps and photos Venezuela Speaks! caters equally to newcomers and those with a pre-existing knowledge of the subject.
Activists working for change in the developed world will no doubt be inspired by the personal accounts of struggle. There is certainly much to learn, especially the realisation that the social movements that propelled Chavez into power were decades in the making. However, the book also raises an uncomfortable question: If often poor and uneducated activists in Venezuela can make such radical changes in the face of such powerful and repressive forces, why can’t we do the same in the relative freedom of Britain?
An astonishing achievement, Venezuela Speaks! deserves to become a landmark study of contemporary Venezuela.

Venezuela Speaks! Voices from the Grassroots is published by PM Press, priced £16.99.

*Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London, UK.

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