This week it was my privilege to be invited to chair a book launch at the University of Sydney for the publication of Democracy, Revolution and Geopolitics in Latin America, edited by Luis Fernando Angosto-Ferrández. The book is a major statement on geopolitics, aiming to overcome disciplinary confines in order to offer fresh insights into both state and geopolitical struggles in Venezuela. Stemming from a workshop hosted at the University of Sydney in 2012, prior to the death of Hugo Chávez, the book delivers compelling analysis of contemporary Venezuela, addressing issues such as regional integration, development policy, community media, indigenous rights, and contradictions over struggles linked to the right to the city. In the week that Ernesto Laclau passed away, it is significant that the editor of the project, Luis Fernando Angosto-Ferrández, frames the book’s perspective within a focus on collective political identity construction in a manner that transcends the boundaries of “domestic” and “international” in the on-going process of institutionalising the Bolivarian project. In more detail, what else does the book offer to interested readers?

The book is part of the Routledge Studies in Latin American Politics Series, which is notable for also including Ryan Brading’s discourse analytical approach to Populism in Venezuela. In Democracy, Revolution and Geopolitics in Latin America, Angosto-Ferrández develops a discourse analysis to study the logics of Venezuelan foreign policy that, it is argued, is best analysed through the lens of radical populist movements and the political logics they activate within the country. Including the editor’s introduction and conclusion, there are eight chapters, starting with Tim Anderson’s excellent focus on regional integration, counterposing the history of Pan-Americanism as an imperial project led by Washington to the Latin Americanism of the Bolivarian project that has a long lineage and history within the region. Detailed chapters then cover contemporary aspects of Venezuela’s role in reviving Latin American regionalism (Anthea McCarthy-Jones); the developmental project of Petrocaribe (Rodrigo Acuña); indigenous media and the Bolivarian Revolution (Kathryn Lehman); indigeneity and the Venezuela Elections (Luis Fernando Angosto-Ferrández); and the multiscalar political projects revolving around the struggles linked to the right to the city within Venezuela (Michael Humphrey and Estela Valverde).

DemocracyRecent events in the last few months in Venezuela compel me to draw attention to the latter chapter in particular and its fascinating critique of neoliberal urbanisation, including urban security policy in managing violence in Latin American cities. On this basis, the authors Michael Humphrey and Estela Valverde, assess the Bolivarian project of expanding rights to the city aimed at reversing the spatial segregation and exclusion of the urban poor and engendering new cultural values in urban space in Caracas. Through slogans such as “la nueva fábrica es el barrio” (the new factory is the neighbourhood) the site for struggles over the right to the city has become the neighbourhood. As Jennifer Martínez has revealed elsewhere in her research on the Comités de Tierras Urbanas (CTUs: Urban Land Committees) in Caracas, Chavismo is a complex ‘space-holder’ for competing visions of the Left in Venezuela.

These contradictions are pursued by Humphrey and Valverde in order to reveal the Bolivarian project of the right to the city as a mobilising but not necessarily a unifying strategy. This means that the expansion of the right to the city through citizen participation has been divided between Chavistas and anti-Chavistas with the political rhetoric reinforcing class identity and spatial segregation. Most recently, Seumas Milne has commented on how the recent protests in Venezuela can therefore also show that protest can be a defence of privilege. Yet, in more detail, Humphrey and Valverde delicately assess how, on one hand, contesting the right to the city includes symbolic spatial politics around memorialisation, the use of public space, and the use of the city as a spectacle. However, on the other hand, there prevails a set of contradictions between the rights to the city that are extended to the urban poor and the state’s use of urban space as a spectacle for the fulfilment of the Bolivarian project (through liberated spaces) that leads to the increased exclusion of street vendors in order to enhance public enjoyment. These are just some of the contradictions of the Bolivarian Revolution, which is now also racked by anti-government protests aimed at overthrowing the socialist government of Nicolás Maduro.

The contradictions of social mobilisation and state recentralisation are therefore ever present in the attempt of the Bolivarian Revolution to install a new geometry of power in the region of Latin America, to coin a key phrase from Doreen Massey. The events of recent months should therefore be placed within a historical and geopolitical context of US-backed destabilisation in the region of Latin America, more broadly, and Venezuela, more specifically, that includes the 2002 coup attempt as well as United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and National Endowment for Democracy (NED) large-scale funding of opposition groups, as documented, among others, by Eva Golinger in The Chávez Code.

Reading Democracy, Revolution and Geopolitics in Latin America will assist in putting Pan-Americanism in its place and understanding better the relations of force shaping the Latin Americanism of today.

Note: the use of the set image for this post was given courtesy of Gillian Blease.

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