Venezuela today is a country mired in turmoil. But thirty years ago the story was different. Back then Venezuela stood for many as an inclusive democracy in a region where dictatorship and civil war reigned. Enlightened leaders, strong parties, powerful unions – all spoke of a stable political system that for decades managed to ensure social peace. Or so it seemed. As historian Alejandro Velasco argues in his new book – Barrio Rising – the conflicts that grip Venezuela today aren’t a departure from but a continuation of decades-long struggles over what kind of democracy would emerge after the country’s last military dictatorship fell in 1958.
These struggles played out dramatically in the 23 de enero (January 23rd) neighborhood, a massive complex of squatter settlements and public housing high-rises in the heart of Venezuela’s capital Caracas. Named in honor of democracy’s founding date, the neighborhood’s history mirrors the nation’s democratic history – unruly, contentious, and rife with battles to secure a political system more responsive to the needs of the nation’s growing ranks of urban popular sectors. These battles took place in the streets and in the polls, as residents made use of both institutional and extra-institutional democratic tools – protest and the vote – to demand accountability from political leaders. More than a story about Caracas or Venezuela, Barrio Rising engages larger questions about the relationship between formal and informal politics in Latin America, questions that strike at the heart of debates over what democracy is – and what it should be – in highly unequal societies.
Alejandro Velasco is Associate Professor of Latin American Studies at New York University. An historian and former Social Science Research Council Fellow, his work has appeared in NACLA, the Hispanic American Historical Review, the Latin American Research Review, and the New York Times, among others, and he offers frequent commentary to NPR, Al Jazeera, Bloomberg, Reuters, the Associated Press, and other media. Barrio Rising, from the University of California Press, is his first book.
Moderated by Kirsten Weld, Harvard University
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