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W&L's Eastwood Co-Edits Book on Chávez Government in Venezuela

One review of The Revolution in Venezuela: Social and Political Change under Chávez (David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, Harvard University, July 2011) calls it “a comprehensive analysis of the consequences of the Venezuelan experiment for both individuals and institutions.” Another concludes the book provides “much needed nuance to the often abstract, ill-informed international debate on Venezuela.”

Jon Eastwood, associate professor of sociology at Washington and Lee University, is co-editor of the new volume with Thomas Ponniah, a lecturer and assistant director of the social studies program at Harvard University and Eastwood’s former colleague.

Eastwood said that the rationale behind the book lay in the extreme polarization in Venezuelan politics. “We think politics is polarized in the United States,” he observed, “but that’s nothing compared to what you see in contemporary Venezuela. And this polarization has seeped into academic and media discussions of the Chávez government, so a lot of what you read has a really strong angle.”

He explained that by bringing together essays by strong critics of the Chávez government as well as strong supporters and people in the center, the book represents a variety of possible positions people could take on the Chávez government. “Whatever your position is on what’s been happening in Venezuela in the last decade plus, one of the things scholarship can do is puncture simplistic narratives on the right, the left and the center,” said Eastwood.

He described his role as co-editor as a facilitator of dialogue. “We thought that rather than try and impose our own visions, we would present essays by people across the spectrums so that readers can find them all in one place and form their own judgments,” he said. “It will be useful for scholars but also for a lay audience interested in getting a sense of how complicated things are on the ground in Venezuela.”

The Revolution in Venezuela is divided into two sections, with the first looking at the relationship between the state under Chávez and various aspects of society. For example, an essay by a Venezuelan anthropologist examines the coup against the Chávez government in April 2002, and how the underlying patterns of the relationship between the nation, the state and the country’s oil wealth is behind the strategic efforts of the various actors involved in the coup.

Another noted scholar looks at the polarization in Venezuelan society more broadly, contending that the Chávez government has deliberately created the polarization in order to produce electoral payoffs. “He argues that it actually helps the Chávez government to eviscerate the political center and move both sides to the left and to the right,” said Eastwood.

The next essay looks at a very different perspective—the participatory democratic initiatives of the Chávez government. “When you look at the Chávez government, on the one hand you see weakening representative democratic institutions,” explained Eastwood, “but on the other hand you see at the local level a dramatic increase in local community councils and related forms of democratic participatory practice.”

Eastwood described the second section of the book as more evaluative. “It focuses on specific areas of policy and what has happened under the Chávez government in those areas,” he said. Essays include one on the women’s movement and women’s rights under Chávez, Venezuela’s macroeconomic performance and the health care program “Barrio Adentro,” which translates as “Inside the neighborhood.”

The final essay examines Venezuela’s foreign policy. “A typical United States media consumer could get the idea that Chávez’s foreign policy is just erratic and has no underlying rationale,” noted Eastwood. “Regardless of one’s position on it, this essay shows the underlying rationale and what the Chávez government is trying to do in terms of foreign policy.”

Eastwood is also the author of The Rise of Nationalism in Venezuela (2006).

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