Before a succession of violent events that took place between 1989 and 1992, most observers regarded Venezuela as an exceptionally democratic and politically stable country. It had escaped the bloody legacy of military dictatorship in Latin America and taken an active role in promoting liberal democracy in the region. An oil exporter, its political leadership envisioned completing a fifty-year process of transformation from neocolonial backwater to prosperous industrialized economy. However, Venezuelans already knew by 1983 that the country was in trouble. The oil boom of the 1970s had come to a crashing halt, and throughout the 1980s, plunging prices and a plunging bolívar (the national currency) were propelling an astounding increase in poverty. Meanwhile, daily headlines featured corruption and the bankruptcy of the ruling elites. The year 1989 saw urban rioting in reaction to a neoliberal structural-adjustment program. The year 1992 saw two serious coup attempts against an elected president who had attempted to implement fiscal austerity and was forced to resign early in 1993. In 1998 Lt. Col. Hugo Chávez Frías, the cashiered leader of the first of the two coups of 1992, defeated the candidates of the discredited political parties. Chávez launched his Bolivarian Revolution—fourteen years of social revolution, political polarization, experiments in “socialism for the twenty-first century,” petro-diplomacy, and conflict with the United States. Chávez was elected four times, including in December 2012, just before he died of cancer on 5 March 2013. The country then entered a new period of uncertainty. Nicolás Maduro, chosen by the dying leader to pick up the mantel of leadership, barely defeated an opposition coalition in the election to replace Chávez in April. Even before oil prices began to crater again in mid-2014, the Venezuelans were once again questioning the quality of their elected leaders and their management of the economy. On December 14 they delivered a devastating blow to the ruling party with a landslide rout in National Assembly elections. In 2018 Maduro called a constituent assembly to write a new constitution; it afterward claimed for itself legislative authority, thereby emasculating the National Assembly. Little academic research yet exists on the post-Chávez period, so the bulk of citations in this article focus on the post-1989 rediscovery of Venezuela as a country of interest in hemispheric and global politics. Readers should be aware that this bibliography overlaps somewhat with the Oxford Bibliography article “Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela.” Where sources from that article appear here, they have been chosen because they most reflect the interests of the international relations specialist, and commentary usually has been rewritten to serve that interest.
For a short, comprehensive overview of Venezuela, chapter 8 of Skidmore, et al. 2013 is a good choice; Tinker Salas 2015, part of a popular series of introductions to countries and regions of the world, serves a similar purpose and covers broader ground. Broader still is Nichols and Morse 2010. Although proceeding the Chávez years, Coronil 1997 is widely regarded as a highly readable, modern masterpiece on Venezuela’s political culture and illusory quest for development beyond oil. Hellinger 1991 is an early attempt to warn of a deterioration in the condition of democracy in Venezuela and of a looming gap between the governing class and the people. One cannot move very deeply into understanding Venezuelan politics and diplomacy without encountering Bolívar, both in myth and reality. Lynch 2006 provides a good synthesis of the scholarship on the Liberator and how he has shaped modern Venezuela. Lombardi 1982 picks up the story of Venezuela’s search for development in the tumultuous 19th century, and into the 20th.
Coronil, Fernando. The Magical State: Nature, Money, and Modernity in Venezuela. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.
Written in the twilight years of Punto Fijo era, this text is widely regarded as a masterful interpretation of how the oil export economy generated the illusion of prosperity in Venezuela, especially during the OPEC boom. Without commensurate labor, technology, and capital, an industrial economy seemed to appear magically, conjured up by the state. Many analysts see a similar pattern in the way Chávez used oil to fashion the Bolivarian Revolution.
Hellinger, Daniel. Venezuela: Tarnished Democracy. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1991.
At the time of writing, Venezuela was regarded by Washington as a model democracy for Latin America, because it was not adhering to the Cuban model of revolution, and for the same reason it was similarly seen as a democratic failure by the left. Both interpretations are facile. The Punto Fijo system, the two-party dominant system whose foundation was a pact that gave Venezuela its first extended experience with electoral democracy after 1958, was entering into crisis due to the failure of elites to respond to the economic and political crises of the 1980s.
Lombardi, John. The Search for Order, the Dream of Progress. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.
The best English-language general history of Venezuela. Acknowledging the deep imprint left by the country’s violent 19th-century civil wars and recurrent caudilloism (strong man rule). Lombardi argues that the 20th century up to that point was marked by the elites’ search for order and progress, a quest deeply influenced by positivism.
Lynch, John. Simón Bolívar: A Life. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.
Omnipresent public monuments and humble talleres (wooden carvings) in the poorest homes are testimony to the devotion of Venezuelans to their national hero. Hugo Chávez was hardly the first to cloak his nationalist, revolutionary project as an extension of Bolívar’s own project. Lynch offers a mildly revisionist interpretation of Bolívar’s life, one that unearths few new facts but effectively sorts out the vast trove of historical works on the Liberator and his era.
Nichols, Elizabeth Gackstetter, and Kimberly J. Morse. Venezuela. Latin America in Focus. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2010.
A broad introduction to the history and complex culture of Venezuela, and more interdisciplinary than any other available introduction. Much more than a tourist manual, but a good choice for those traveling to the country with little advance knowledge.
Skidmore, Thomas E., Peter H. Smith, and James N. Green. Modern Latin America. 7th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Chapter 8 of this widely used text on Latin America, intended for the university classroom, is devoted to Venezuela and provides the best brief historical overview.
Tinker Salas, Miguel. Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to Know. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.
As the title implies, a comprehensive introduction intended for the general public, but a good starting place for those with little background on Latin America or Venezuela.
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