Venezuela For Beginners

Some background on Venezuela before Hugo Chávez

Venezuela was a semi-functional democracy until the 1980s. The country was trying to develop a domestic industry thanks to the boom in the oil prices, but it failed, and its institutions began to show it.

In the 1980s, we were hit with a banking crisis, a foreign debt crisis, and the fall in oil prices. As a consequence, President Carlos Andres Perez tried to free up the economy in 1989, in direct contradiction to his left-leaning discourse. The experiment failed horribly, and we continued fumbling our way through economic policy. Inequality increased, and poverty doubled from 36 to 68 percent by the time 1998 came around. There was great disappointment with our political class – rightly so! – particularly in the lowest sectors of the population, but also in the middle classes, furious about legitimate corruption scandals.

The best reading on Venezuela’s deep slide is probably this book, edited by Ricardo Hausmann and Francisco Rodíguez. It’s fairly technical, but it’s all there.

A prolongued period of decay had led to discontent among the masses. This allowed outsider political players to take advantage of the situation and shine. One of them was a young distinguished member of the military: Hugo Chávez.

In 1992 Chavez led a coup attempt – two of them, actually. One of the best books on Chávez’s coup is El Espejo Roto by Gustavo Tarre Briceño.

Chávez was released from prison in 1993 by President Rafael Caldera. His discourse focused on the poor, using the key word pueblo (the people), and promoting an anti-corruption exit to decades of scandal. He won the elections in 1998 by the largest percent of votes in four decades. He did not sell himself as a left-wing firebrand, but rather an anti-system nationalist.

Why Do We Need a Beginner’s Guide to the Chávez Era?

First, caveat lector: it’s surprisingly tough to find insightful material on Venezuela online. Wild overstatement is rampant. Chávez provokes such strong emotions that both his supporters and his critics tend to check their common sense at the door. When you start out, it’s crucial to be aware that most of what you’ll find about the Chávez era online, for or against, is little more than propaganda.

This guide is Caracas Chronicle’s little attempt to push back against all that: a collection of smart, stylish, sophisticated pieces about Venezuela by genuine heavyweights in academia, journalism and the human rights community.

Of course, here on this blog we are all Chávez opponents, so the stuff we’ve put together here tends to be rather critical. What it’s not, though, is partisan pablum or unhinged polemic. Lord knows, there’s too much of that around as it is.


  1. Best Overall Introductions
  2. Journalistic Pieces
  3. Human Rights Reports
  4. From the Archives
  5. Critical Theory of Chavismo
  6. Skypecasts 

1. Best overall introductions

A precise and useful who’s who deconstruction of the Venezuelan political scene can be found in the following insightful, creative, and accurately organized project featured by a group of professionals affiliated with the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship program at Stanford University. This great resource keeps you up-to-date with Venezuelan insider news and analysis.

This research project by the Wilson Center is a helpful introduction to the Chavez era because it tries to explain the rise of a “new left” in Latin America, understanding it as a “populist left” as opposed to the “old social democratic left” characteristic of other South American countries.

Here you can find a series of interview with leading Venezuelan intellectual Edgardo Lander, on the Chavista Revolution- its aims, causes, positive and negative consequences- starting the 1992 coup to these days. The interviews are in English, and they are well done.

If you only have 90 minutes to spend catching up with the craziness in Venezuela, you can’t do better than this November, 2008, Frontline documentary for PBS. It’s simply brilliant:

In these two interviews, leading Venezuelan scholars discuss the country’s implosion following 1978.

Next, for the academically minded, there’s this piece where political scientists Javier Corrales and Michael Penfold bracket matters of discourse to focus on the way power operates in Venezuela in the Chávez era. Published in the April 2007 issue of the Journal of Democracy, this real gem will put everything else you read about the country into much sharper perspective.

This marvel-of-concision in Open Democracy by government-scourge Phil Gunson is a shorter introduction to the evidence on Chávez’s growing authoritarianism.

This piece by Caracas Chronicles founder Francisco Toro is about the subtle ways Chavismo has reversed the concepts of left and right, just like a mirror does.

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2. Journalistic Pieces

Jon Lee Anderson wrote an precise and interesting character profile of Chávez. It was published on the September 10, 2001 issue of The New Yorker.

To get a journalistic feel for Venezuela in the Chávez era, be sure to check out these two articles by Alma Guillermoprieto, which appeared in The New York Review of Books in late 2005. They’re stylish, carefully researched, and scrupulously fair. Unfortunately, they’re also subscription-only.

Just after the December 2005 parliamentary elections, Italian journalist Guido Rampoldi wrote this piercing piece for Rome daily La Repubblica.

In this 2006 Sunday Times opinion piece, Ian Buruma nails Chavez in one of the  (in our humble opinion) most clear-headed and digestible-to-foreigners anti-Chavez polemics seen in print.

In May 2006, this lucid feature on Chávez by The New Republic’s Editor Franklin Foer appeared in The Atlantic. The focus here is more on what Chávez means to US foreign policy, but the overall reportage is excellent as well:

A feature detailing Chávez’s takeover of the Venezuelan State and its implications appeared in the January/February 2006 issue of Foreign Policy. Written by Amherst political scientist Javier Corrales, it argues that Chavez invented a new form of authoritarianism for the democratic age. Sadly, subscription only:

In 2007, Wesleyan University’s Francisco Rodríguez, a one-time Chávez official, wrote these two pieces on the Chávez-helps-the-poor myth:

In January 2007, The New Yorker published this piece by James Surowiecki about Chávez’s contradictory relationship with global capitalism:

In March 2009, distinguished Mexican historian Enrique Krauze wrote this piercing intellectual history of chavista authoritarianism. The piece, which summarizes Krauze’s book “El Poder y El Delirio”, is a real eye-opener:

The following two are The Economist pieces on Chavez’s Venezuela after his death in March of 2013.

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3. Human Rights Reports

In this 2004 report, Human Rights Watch documents the way Venezuela’s Supreme Court was politicized and stripped of its autonomy.

The Interamerican Commission on Human Rights – an official, intergovernmental body under the Organization of American States – has carefully documented the government’s Human Rights’ record. Its 2005 and 2006 reports – though admittedly written in the worst sort of plodding, lawyerly bureaucratese – provide a systematic dissection of the a number of troubling tendencies:

In this April, 2007 report, the Committee to Protect Journalists published this report on the government’s decision to shut down opposition TV-network RCTV:

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4. From the archives

At this point, my archive contains well over a thousand posts stretching back to late 2002. Here are just a few posts I think might be useful to someone coming to the crisis without much prior knowledge.

It’s impossible to understand the Chavez era without a minimum of historical context. Most foreigners, for perfectly understandable reasons, just don’t have it. This essay is meant to fill in the more important gaps:

One of the most confusing and misunderstood chapters of the Chavez saga is the brief coup that saw him kicked out of office for 48 hours in April 2002. The vast majority of the material available on the internet about the 2002 coup/countercoup is aggressively propagandistic and often plain wrong. In this essay, which I spent months researching, I try to summarize the baffling, fascinating story without airbrushing out inconvenient facts:

In this short essay, I set out to explain why Chavez’s vision of revolution is incompatible with democracy as usually understood:

It’s not that often that I blow my top at a piece of net-bound pro-Chávez propagandizing – there’s just too much of it around for me to go after all the targets – but for some reason this piece by Johann Hari in The Independent really set me off, goading me to write a detailed response. I’m kind of proud of it.

No archive selection could ignore the biggest of the many scandals chavismo has caused over the years. In this case, I’m picking a kind of voyeuristic reportage from just one tiny little piece of the sprawling Maletagate scandal that rocked Venezuela from August 2007 on.

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5. Critical Theory of Chavismo

In trying to understand some of the stranger aspects of what’s happened in Venezuela over the last seven years, I ran accross the writings of Jose Manuel Briceño Guerrero, a Venezuelan philosopher/critical theorist/poet who wrote this fascinating essay, way back in 1980, about some aspects of Venezuelan culture. Briceño Guerrero is, erm, not exactly light reading, but I still think this essay in particular is one of the most useful texts out there for understanding the Chavez phenomenon:

Later, I tried to write an essay specifying how Briceño Guerrero’s writing can inform an understanding of the Chavez era. It’s part effort to bring Briceño Guerrero up to date, part effort to place chavismo in cultural and historical context…I’m not really so happy with the finished product, but other people have found it helpful:

That’s a lot of reading, I realize, but work through this list and you’re pretty much a Chávez expert.
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6. Skypecasts

Sometimes you don’t want to read about Venezuela, you want somebody to tell you. In these two interviews, two of the leading Venezuela scholars discuss the country’s economic growth implosion after 1978:

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Added bonus: WTO Stuff

When I’m not rambling about Chavez, I’m preparing a doctoral dissertation about the World Trade Organization. Here are a few posts on that entirely unrelated topic.
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