Barrio Rising: Urban Popular Politics and the Making of Modern Venezuela: Review

Velasco, Alejandro. Barrio Rising: Urban Popular Politics and the Making of Modern Venezuela. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2015.

N. H. Gill
April 2017

Alejandro Velasco’s Barrio Rising: Urban Popular Politics and the Making of Modern Venezuela (2015) uses the Caracas superblock housing complex, known today as 23 de Enero, to analyze Venezuela’s transition from the dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez in the 1950s to the more-participatory democratic political system of the late-twentieth century, while also shedding light on the nation’s shift from a rural coffee-producing nation to the urban oil-giant it is today. Going beyond the well-studied 1989 Caracazo and government repression that followed, Velasco uses oral histories, periodicals, and archival research to show how popular working-class movements learned to combine street protests with democratic electoral politics over a forty-year-period, helping pave the way for the rise of former President Hugo Chavez’s “Bolivarian revolution.”

Velasco begins Part One of his monograph, “Landscapes of Opportunity,” surveying Pérez Jiménez’s failed New National Ideal (NIN) project to modernize the country. Framed by the emblematic construction of the superblock housing, the evolution of the buildings from construction to their subsequent decline sets the scene for the social struggle that rose out of the state’s efforts to change Venezuelan society. Following Pérez Jiménez’s ouster in 1958, the author takes us through the hectic occupation of the superblocks, the rise of shanty-towns, or ranchos, in the shadow of the superblocks, and the spatial and social segregation between working-class populations in the 23 de Enero neighborhood. Government attempts to crack down on the ranchos following the embarrassing visit of Vice President Richard Nixon in 1958 presented one of the first serious challenges to government power in the post-coup period, with the neighborhood repeatedly taking the streets to defend the rule of law, inaugurating a period of popular mobilization that still marks the country.

Part Two, “Paths to Democracy,” begins with a survey of the symbolic visit of Cuban leader Fidel Castro in early 1958, the rise of urban insurgent groups waging war on the government from the complex, and the subsequent purge of communist and popular parties from government positions during the administration of President Rómulo Betancourt. Focusing on individual testimonies of how local populations were radicalized, Velasco shows the complicated and intertwining relationship between insurgent groups struggling against political repression and 23 de Enero residents fighting bureaucratic incompetence. Both groups learned that “…if you don’t start shit, you get nothing” (118).

Velasco’s Part Three, “Streets of Protest,” focuses on local activism, urbanization, participatory politics, and the 1989 Caracazo massacres. Through his focus on the neighborhood, the reader sees how the expanding oil economy attracted ever-larger numbers of rural migrants to the cities, further straining basic services and pushing community organizers to take more political roles on the national stage. The author illustrates how lessons learned during the insurgent campaigns of the 1960s influenced residents’ later decisions to radicalize their protests for better public infrastructure, even as a collapse in global oil prices pushed the government of Luis Herrera Campíns to begin privatizing state assets. Protests against economic reforms and austerity measures, recommended by the International Monetary Fund, eventually sparked city-wide protests in February 1989. The ensuing police and military repression left hundreds dead. Velasco demonstrates how the government’s out-of-date, 1960s-era counterinsurgency plans, which identified the 23 de Enero area an insurgent hot-spot, were deployed to put down the protests, leading to a disproportionate repression of protests at the superblocks, which scarred residents and further alienated working-class voters from mainstream political parties. As Velasco notes in his acknowledgements, the violence of the Caracazo also contributed to his own parents’ decision to move his family to the United States.

In his conclusion, Velasco brings the reader into the twenty-first century, through the death of former President Chavez in 2013. While initially popular in the 23 de Enero neighborhood, the residents’ history of struggling against the government flavored their relationship with Chavismo and eventually led to friction as their struggle for improved living conditions diverged at times from Chavez’s national project.

Theoretically, Velasco engages with historical literature that analyzes the relationship between peripheral areas and conflict in modern Latin American democracies, including Brodwyn Fischer’s A Poverty of Rights (2008) about favelas in Rio de Janeiro, James Holston’s Insurgent Citizenship (2007) about democratic disjunctions in Brazil, and Enrique Peruzzoti and Catalina Smulovitz’s edited collection on Latin American democracies, Enforcing the Rule of Law (2006). However, in contrast to these works, Velasco’s focus on the 23 de Enero area as the literal and figurative heart of Caracas convincingly shows how disjunctions between popular communities and politicians do not just occur in the peripheries of urban Latin America, but also in the center.

The monograph was well-received by reviewers J. M. Rosenthal for the American Psychological Association’s journal, Choice; Ronaldo Munck for the American Historical Review; Donald Yee for the Latin Americanist; and Doug Yarrington in the Journal of Social History. All highlighted Velasco’s contribution to a period of Venezuelan social and political history in the mid- to late-twentieth century that has received relatively less attention than the 1989 Caracazo and subsequent rise of Chavismo. Yee, the only reviewer to offer criticism of the book, questioned how representative the 23 de Enero neighborhood was of the rest of the working-class neighborhoods in Caracas, an element that Barrio Rising did not focus on.

Given the book’s recent publication, as well Venezuela’s ongoing political and humanitarian crises, it remains to be seen if, as sociologist David Smilde says on the book’s back cover, Velasco is able to “crack the code” on Venezuela.

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