A Blessing and a Curse
Oil, Politics, and Morality in Bolivarian Venezuela
Matt Wilde



Sowing the Oil

FIGURE 1.1 Portrait of Hugo Chávez, former president of Venezuela (Matt Wilde)

Toward the end of my first stay with Rafael and Yulmi, the couple mounted the portrait of their president, Hugo Chávez, on the wall of their front room.1 They had asked a friend who specialized in family portraits to frame the image for the newly furnished space they had been gradually improving since my arrival as a doctoral researcher in early 2009. As they explained at the time, the portrait was an expression of loyalty and pride from a working-class family who had come to see their own fortunes as intimately tied to the figure whose protective gaze now looked down from the wall. “Before Chávez, most people thought that politics wasn’t important, or that it was dirty,” Rafael told me as we stood back to admire the picture one evening. “Our identity was really weak. We didn’t know about our own history, and politics wasn’t about social action. What Chávez gave us was a national identity that didn’t exist before.”

In the decade that followed Chávez taking office in 1999, the lives of Rafael, Yulmi, and their family had changed significantly thanks to a series of government initiatives aimed at improving the lives of Venezuela’s poor majority. As state revenues accrued from oil exports were redistributed under Chávez’s leadership, new opportunities emerged in education, employment, and political participation for previously excluded sectors of the population. Rafael and Yulmi were in many ways typical of the local-level pro-government activists—chavistas, as they called themselves—who benefited from these reforms and became critical to Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution as it advanced through the first decade of the twenty-first century. Rafael and Yulmi were both born and raised in El Camoruco, a low-income urban community that is classified as a barrio—a term that literally means “neighborhood” in Spanish, but which in Venezuela acts as a byword for the self-built peripheries that characterize sizeable parts of the country’s urban landscape. Having cut their teeth as neighborhood organizers in their home city of Valencia, they were drawn into political activism shortly after Chávez’s election. Together with others in Rafael’s large extended family, they became key local activists during the launch of the government’s flagship pro-poor projects such as the misiones sociales (social missions) and consejos comunales (communal councils). They also campaigned in support of Chávez during his numerous election victories throughout the early 2000s and by the time I arrived in El Camoruco had become prominent local members of the Partido Socialista de Venezuela (United Socialist Party of Venezuela, PSUV), the party the late president founded in 2007. By late 2010, as I finished the first stint of my doctoral fieldwork, Rafael and Yulmi had each taken on formal employment in the expanding Bolivarian state and were considered important figures in the local chavista milieu. The portrait that hung in their front room marked the significance of the material and symbolic changes the family had undergone over the course of a decade, its presence attesting to the totemic value that Chávez had come to play in their lives.

In 2017, nearly a decade after I had begun research in Venezuela and five years since my last visit, I returned to Rafael and Yulmi’s home amid very different circumstances. Chávez had died from an aggressive form of cancer in 2013, and the country’s fortunes had deteriorated under the leadership of his chosen successor, Nicolás Maduro. The high global oil prices that had powered Chávez’s dream dropped dramatically in 2014, precipitating a wider economic and social crisis that has now gripped the country for almost a decade. An antigovernment protest movement that began in 2014 was reignited in 2017 amid spiraling hyperinflation, widespread shortages in food and medicine, and a growing discontent with the increasingly authoritarian direction of Maduro’s government. As I returned to carry out further research in the midst of this crisis, my fieldwork was shaped by the new realities of everyday life in Venezuela: day-long queues at cash machines, regular hikes in the prices of basic commodities, burning roadblocks erected by the antigovernment protestors, and increasing numbers of friends making plans to leave the country in search of employment and stability. The portrait of Chávez still hung in Rafael and Yulmi’s front room, but the inhabitants of this proud chavista household now found themselves struggling to make sense of the alarming downturn in the prospects of their country and their revolution. As they did so, our conversations frequently turned to the subject of oil and the ambivalent relationship that Venezuelans have with the substance that powers their economy and shapes their politics. “If we want to solve this crisis,” remarked Rafael one morning as we prepared arepas from a bag of state-subsidized cornmeal, “we have to become self-sufficient. We have to grow our own food, produce our own things. For too long we’ve been dependent on petroleum rents and that’s why we have this problem. You see, that’s the thing with our oil: it could be a blessing or it could be a curse.”

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This book is an ethnographic study of the relationship between oil, politics, and morality as seen through the eyes of working-class barrio residents in El Camoruco, a low-income urban periphery located in the industrial city of Valencia. It draws on research conducted in three phases over the last decade—2008–10, 2012, and 2017—and documents the everyday lives of El Camoruco’s residents during a period of rapid and conflictual social change. In what follows, I explore how Venezuela’s contradictory relationship with oil shaped both the conditions in which barrio residents made their lives and the terms in which they understood them over the last decade. I argue that everyday barrio life in this period was intimately shaped by the defining contradiction of the Bolivarian Revolution: that in its efforts to capture a larger portion of oil money and distribute it more widely among the population, this disjunctive political project pursued policies that ultimately entrenched Venezuela in the very position of dependency that Chávez sought to overcome. In the process, the revolution created a peculiar imaginative void between the future it envisioned through narratives and symbols and the reality it was able to deliver as a material experience. For barrio residents, this heightened long-standing cultural anxieties about oil wealth that shaped everyday moral questions about how to be a good person and how to live a good life in turbulent and uncertain times.

Under the late president’s leadership, state control over Venezuela’s oil sector enabled a left-nationalist government to channel petroleum revenues into communities like El Camoruco through its social programs, and these endeavors had a real and visible impact on the quality of people’s lives while oil prices were high. For many barrio residents, Chávez’s reforms meant that they were able to access primary health care in their own communities for the first time. There were also new opportunities to study, find work, participate politically, and fashion new forms of personhood. In this sense, the first decade of Bolivarian rule was a period in which the ability to imagine and pursue better and more fulfilling lives, both individually and collectively, was significantly enhanced among the most marginalized sectors of the population.

But at the same time, the reliance on oil money to deliver seismic social transformations reproduced the very development model that had left Venezuela so vulnerable to global economic downturns in the past. Economic policies designed to maximize the state’s spending power—chiefly dollar controls and an overvalued currency—increased Venezuela’s reliance on global commodity markets and ultimately undermined the drive to transition to a less volatile national economy. As a result, the Bolivarian era was characterized by deeply entrenched economic fragilities and political intransigencies that predated Chávez’s emergence and continued despite the revolution’s powerful narratives of rupture and renewal. Even before the present crisis began in 2014, new opportunities for barrio residents were often only momentarily realized or partially formed. They were distributed unevenly, experienced haphazardly, and inhibited by deep-seated structural shortcomings that the revolution reproduced in spite of itself. In El Camoruco under Chávez’s rule, many of my interlocutors still struggled to find reliable and secure work, youth violence and street crime seemed to worsen by the year, and promised infrastructural improvements failed to materialize. And when the present crisis unfolded under Maduro’s leadership, chronic shortages in food and medicine, a climate of worsening political violence, and grotesque levels of private and state corruption undid many of the revolution’s achievements. As old problems returned in new guises, the Bolivarian Revolution inhibited, weakened, and finally unmade the very progressive reforms and radical possibilities that it had opened up.

In this book I argue that the promises and failures of the revolution brought to the fore long-standing cultural anxieties about the influence of oil money on the moral constitution of the Venezuelan nation and its people. My reading of Venezuela’s relationship with oil is that it not only constitutes a structural backdrop to the everyday in political and economic terms but also operates as what Raymond Williams termed a “structure of feeling” (2001) that shapes ideas about morality in profound ways. In some instances, such as Rafael’s rumination about blessings and curses, these anxieties took the form of discussions about the political and economic imbalances associated with petro-states at the national level. But in others, such concerns would emerge through doubts and suspicions about the circulation of petroleum revenues in local settings, and about the perceived connection between oil money and quotidian issues such as corruption, family values, individualism, and violence. As they appeared alongside the very visible public spending of the chavista state, these anxieties seemed to encapsulate a wider set of material and symbolic disjunctures that characterized the revolution as a whole. For barrio residents, new opportunities for self-advancement were accompanied by new social tensions, producing a disorientating fusion of aspiration, hope, disillusionment, and fear in everyday life. This book explores the myriad political, moral, and practical challenges that working-class Venezuelans encountered as they made their lives amid the openings and dead-ends that appeared in this tumultuous period.

Oil, Politics, and Morality

When Hugo Chávez was elected in 1998, Venezuela was suddenly thrust into the global political spotlight. A radical army colonel who had been jailed for an attempted coup in 1992, Chávez gained notoriety for his colorful and fiery oratory performances and soon established himself as the de facto leader of an unprecedented regional political shift—the so-called Pink Tide—that saw a string of left-leaning governments take power in Latin America during the first decade of the twenty-first century. Naming his movement after Simón Bolívar, the Venezuelan general and statesman who liberated much of Latin America from Spanish rule in the nineteenth century, Chávez and his Bolivarian Revolution came to symbolize both the region’s rejection of the Washington Consensus and the alternatives it proposed to neoliberal models of governance and development (Barrett, Chavez, and Rodríguez Garavito 2008; Burbach, Fox, and Fuentes 2013).2 His forthright defiance of the United States garnered favor with many on the political left, while his policy of using oil money to finance new forms of social welfare, democratic participation, and regional integration was heralded as emblematic of a wider “post-neoliberal turn” across Latin America (Goodale and Postero 2013; Petras and Veltmeyer 2016). But the late president’s attacks on the vested interests of domestic and foreign elites also won him many enemies, and chavismo was hampered from the start by significant opposition at home and abroad. Chávez survived a short-lived coup in 2002, a shutdown of the country’s oil industry later that year, a recall referendum in 2004, and was opposed by a hostile private media throughout his presidency (Ellner 2008; Golinger 2005). By the time I arrived in the country in 2008, Venezuela’s political fault lines had largely polarized along lines of class (García-Guadilla and Mallen 2019; Samet 2019), with the bulk of the revolution’s activists and supporters found among the country’s rural and urban poor.

Scholarly interest in Venezuela mushroomed as the Bolivarian era unfolded. For much of Chávez’s time in power, debates centered on the roots of his popularity and the question of how to define his political movement (Castro 2007; Hawkins 2010). Some viewed chavismo as a product of the failure to adequately reform Venezuelan liberal democracy during the 1980s and 1990s and warned that Chávez’s government was eroding pluralism by concentrating power in the hands of the executive and promulgating a divisive brand of populism (Corrales and Penfold 2011; McCoy and Myers 2004). Others took a more sympathetic view, pointing to the role class conflict played in bringing Chávez to power, highlighting the widespread popular support for the Bolivarian Revolution, and defending its achievements in reducing poverty, improving public services, and enfranchising previously excluded sectors of the population (Ellner and Hellinger 2003; Ellner 2008; Roberts 2006; Spanakos 2008; Wilpert 2007). A third strand of work located the origins of the Bolivarian movement in long-standing traditions of militant organizing in Venezuela’s barrios (Ciccariello-Maher 2013a; Fernandes 2010; Velasco 2015) and explored the complex dynamics that characterized themes such as neighborhood politics, democracy and the state, national and community media, and public health initiatives as el proceso (the revolutionary process) unfolded in local settings (Boni 2017; Cooper 2019; Samet 2019; Schiller 2018; Smilde and Hellinger 2011; Strønen 2017).

My approach builds on these studies but aims to take our understanding of Bolivarian Venezuela forward by accounting for the oil dependency that both enabled and undermined the revolution’s drive for radical change. While the subject of oil is often mentioned in ethnographic accounts of the country, it is frequently presented as a contextual background to other thematic concerns rather than being a central focus in its own right. My contention is that the significance of Venezuela’s very particular relationship with oil deserves greater ethnographic attention, as well as a conceptual framework that connects the macrodynamics of oil—that is, the question of how the globalized trade in petroleum shapes the fortunes of petro-states—to the microdynamics of everyday social life. Using what Iselin Strønen (2017, 6) terms a “lens of oil” to make this connection, this book provides a longitudinal perspective that spans both the revolution’s most prosperous period under Chávez and its descent into turmoil under Maduro. In so doing, it explains how an outwardly progressive political regime ultimately ended up sabotaging many of its own social achievements.

Alongside this attention to debates about Bolivarian Venezuela, this book also makes a wider anthropological argument concerning the relationship between cultural understandings of oil and everyday political and moral life. Anthropologists have consistently highlighted oil’s often ambiguous social and cultural status, underlining its common association with greed, corruption, and crisis in a variety of settings (Behrends, Reyna, and Schlee 2011; Rogers 2015). Yet such work has tended to focus on either the extractive and commercial sites of oil complexes or on elite-level governance within petro-states, rather than on how political economies of petroleum might structure the quotidian moral frameworks of national communities. My interest is in oil—and specifically oil wealth—as a cultural phenomenon that shapes how citizens interpret their relationship with the state in moral terms and think of themselves as particular kinds of ethical actors as a result. Recent anthropological work at the intersection of morality and politics has demonstrated how political subjectivity can be central to wider forms of ethical self-cultivation (Lazar 2013, 2017; Razsa 2013, 2015). This book extends such insights by examining the ways in which barrio residents experienced and understood the contradictions of the Bolivarian Revolution through their own struggles to create more hopeful, secure, and meaningful lives.

Amid myriad conflicts and crises at the national level, barrio livelihood strategies in the Bolivarian period have been shaped by fleeting, contingent hopes and by persistent fears about the presence of nefarious social forces in everyday life. My principal lens on this phenomenon was drawn from my adoption into Rafael and Yulmi’s large extended family—Los Hernández (The Hernándezes), as they were known locally—which in many ways functioned as my ethnographic “village” over the last decade. As an adopted member of this large kinship network, I was granted a privileged view of Bolivarian Venezuela as seen by multiple generations within the same family. Through tumultuous national events, through personal triumphs and misfortunes, and through countless family gatherings marking births, deaths, graduations, and marriages, I witnessed the varied achievements, aspirations, doubts, and uncertainties that characterized barrio family life in this period. In the process, I saw how a historical moment that delivered hope and disappointment in equal measure was reflected in ruminations and misgivings about a whole swathe of issues—consumption, crime, employment, masculinity, politics, popular culture, violence—that connected the intimate domains of kinship to national and indeed global political and economic forces.

Threaded throughout this book, the focus on Los Hernández reflects my own lived experience in El Camoruco, which was very much centered on the extended family as a social unit. But it is also grounded in a desire to give greater attention to one of the most important aspects of Venezuelan social life: kinship. All too often in the Bolivarian period, foreign researchers in particular have devoted their studies to Venezuelan politics and society in broad terms without taking into account what is probably the most significant social institution for Venezuelan people. In my view, to overlook the role kinship plays in everyday life is to miss the most critical means by which most Venezuelans structure their lives and make sense of themselves as social beings and moral actors. To this end, although my chief aim in this book is to show how the political economy of oil shapes political and moral experiences, a secondary aim is to present aspects of barrio life that have been largely overlooked by other scholars. Kinship is at the center of this analysis, which also covers themes such as everyday economic life, masculinity, and violence.

Alongside its attention to kinship, this study also examines the everyday moral experiences of chavista activists in this period. In the first decade of Bolivarian governance, many of these actors were inspired by the possibilities the revolution seemed to open up, and by the opportunities it afforded them to craft new forms of political agency and moral personhood. Such individuals embraced Chávez’s call to fashion themselves as “New People” in the mold of Che Guevara’s (Guevara and Zimmermann 1969) revolutionary vanguard and threw themselves into efforts to establish new political institutions and new democratic practices. As they did so, these actors often described their political work in moral and religious terms, drawing on an array of spiritual metaphors as they sought to create “twenty-first century socialism” through sheer force of will. During our first meeting in early 2009, Rafael described this perspective as follows:

What I believe in when I think of socialism is the socialism of the barrio. Say I’m making breakfast in the barrio and I need sugar for more coffee but I don’t have it and the shop’s closed—I go to my neighbor and knock on the door and borrow a little cup of sugar. Or if someone is being robbed in the street, all the other neighbors should come out and stop it. This is socialism. It’s about the small things, because before you can change the society, you have to change the person. This is fundamental.

Such statements reflected the belief that social change in collective terms rested on personal transformation on the part of individuals. In what follows, I explore how this enthusiasm for moral work on the self was often accompanied by expressions of anxiety about the corrupting influence of oil money on nascent political institutions and neophyte revolutionaries. As they sought to create themselves as new kinds of political and moral subjects, chavistas in El Camoruco found themselves struggling to reconcile these aspirations with the messy institutional and political entanglements they encountered in practice. This book shows how dilemmas about participatory politics and revolutionary strategy were often interpreted by chavista activists through questions about the moral virtues and ethical conduct of themselves, their comrades, and their neighbors.

Sembrando el petróleo

Oil has a pervasive everyday presence in Venezuela. It is the subject of discussions on front porches and street corners, the focal point for political speeches and televised debates, and the fuel for a national obsession with cars and motorbikes. Across divides of class and race, all Venezuelans seem acutely aware that their country has the largest known reserves of oil on the planet (OPEC 2018). This is at once a source of national pride—“We have enough for more than a hundred years,” many will boastfully tell foreign visitors—and of rueful humor: “Here, it’s cheaper to fill your car than buy a bottle of water,” taxi drivers like to tell their gringo passengers. But as well as conjuring images of abundance and potency, oil is also a subject that evokes anger, disappointment, and even shame. Some Venezuelans feel that the wealth from their oil has produced a culture of greed and complacency, fostering a national character that is somehow predisposed to being indolent and unproductive. Others identify oil revenues as the source of a kind of collective moral decay, seeing it as the cause of everything from family breakdown to violent crime. Still others bemoan the waste of oil wealth by successive governments, condemning the corruption and incompetence that they regard as a by-product of the long-standing entanglement between petroleum and politics. As Santiago, my next-door neighbor in El Camoruco, once put it:

You, you’re from England, you have all those things already. But we should have big buildings, grand avenues, great shops, and beautiful cities. The people should be able to buy good clothes and drive nice cars and have a good house with plasma televisions and computers and all those things. Think of all the wealth we’ve got with our oil, but we don’t have what you have. Why? Because of the corruption here.

Santiago’s assessment was shared by many of my interlocutors, who would often draw connections between the boom and bust of Venezuela’s oil economy and what they termed antivalores (literally “negative values”) such as corruption or individualism. In this sense, when Rafael expressed doubts about whether Venezuela’s oil should be regarded as a blessing or a curse, he was encapsulating an ambivalence toward el oro negro (the black gold) that has haunted the country for the best part of a century.

In 1997, a year before Hugo Chávez was elected president, Fernando Coronil (1997) published a seminal work on the history of oil, modernity, and state formation in twentieth-century Venezuela. Fittingly titled The Magical State, his groundbreaking study documented how the modern Venezuelan nation-state had been founded on the back of the country’s oil industry as it emerged in the early part of the twentieth century. Coronil showed how the country’s transformation into a petro-state had begun under the rule of the dictator Juan Vicente Gómez (1908–1935), who began charging foreign oil companies for drilling access in the 1920s. In doing so, Gómez created a monopoly over the nation’s subsoils and began the process of Venezuela’s transition into what Bernard Mommer (1990) termed a “rent capitalist” economy, in which private enterprises pay for the right to develop a globally consumed natural resource, and the state seeks to maximize its income through regulation and taxation of these endeavors (Mommer 1990, 418).3 The influence of oil on the Venezuelan economy increased rapidly under Gómez’s rule, and by 1928 the country was the world’s second-largest exporter of petroleum (Tinker Salas 2009, 74). This shift to oil exports as the predominant source of national income endowed the state with tremendous material wealth but also had a significant impact on how Venezuela’s political institutions developed. Coronil argued that political power increasingly “came to be based on the state’s control over the exploitation of the nation’s subsoil” (1997, 8), meaning that proximity to the state rather than control over labor became the predominant means through which wealth, power, and status were attained (Kingsbury 2016, 3).

As a nascent state apparatus formed around petroleum rents, efforts to establish democracy and broaden the base of those who benefited from oil exports were contested and uneven during the first half of the twentieth century. A brief period of democratic rule emerged following Gómez’s death in 1935, but Venezuela returned to dictatorship following a coup against the elected government of Rómulo Gallegos in 1948. Marcos Pérez Jiménez, another military officer, took control in 1952 and embarked on an ambitious modernization plan. Like Gómez, Pérez Jiménez saw himself as a nation-builder. He capitalized on improved oil agreements that had been brokered by Gallegos during the 1940s (Hellinger 2017, 57), which guaranteed a 50/50 split of profits between companies such as Standard Oil and the Venezuelan state. Between 1945 and 1957, government income from oil increased eleven times, and by 1957 it provided 70.7 percent of total state income (Aranda 1977, 141, cited in Coronil 1997, 201). Pérez Jiménez used this expanded income to invest in public housing, freeways, hydroelectricity, and the steel industry, but his drive to rapidly industrialize and urbanize Venezuela was accompanied by the brutal suppression of civil liberties. In 1958, after running up debts with private contractors and losing significant support among the military (Coronil 1997, 201–2), the dictator was deposed through a combined military and civic uprising, giving birth to Venezuela’s Fourth Republic.

Alongside his excavation of modern Venezuelan democracy, a critical component of Coronil’s contribution was that he showed how Venezuela’s transformation into a petro-state tied its political economy to a particular form of “subaltern modernity” (Coronil 1997, 8) that was defined from the outset by several economic contradictions. Reliance on world commodity markets left the country acutely vulnerable to global cycles of boom and bust and undermined other domestic exports. Such weaknesses had been evident ever since Gómez’s decision to overvalue the Venezuelan currency at 64 percent of the US dollar in 1929. Venezuelan agriculture struggled to compete on the world market as a result of this policy (Hein 1980, 232), and by 1947 agriculture had slumped to just 4.2 percent of national GDP (Purcell 2013, 151). In several forensic case studies, Coronil showed how similar problems afflicted Venezuela’s efforts to develop an industrial strategy during the boom years of the 1970s, as the circulation of vast sums of petrodollars in the state machinery undermined efforts to stimulate domestic industries (Coronil 1997, 286–320). This meant that a profound paradox came to shape Venezuelan democracy and society: while oil offered the promise of collective abundance, it also undermined that promise by building distortions into the national economy and organizing politics above all around the capture and distribution of petroleum rents.

This paradox has long been a source of anxiety in Venezuela. As early as 1936, Arturo Uslar Pietri, a leading public intellectual of the time, warned that the country “would become an unproductive and idle nation, an immense petroleum parasite, swimming in a momentary and corrupting abundance and impelled toward an imminent and inevitable catastrophe” (Figueroa 1977, 163). To avoid this fate, Uslar Pietri famously urged the country’s political leaders to “sembrar el petróleo [sow the oil]” (Figueroa 1977, 165) by plowing investment into agriculture and industry and thereby using oil wealth to propel the country away from oil dependency. This principle of sowing the oil essentially became the guiding philosophy for a national development strategy that spanned several decades, as successive political leaders sought to portray themselves as “magnanimous sorcerers” (Coronil 1997, 5) who could harness petroleum for the common good. As Coronil’s analysis showed, however, this strategy was always entangled in deep-seated structural barriers that were as evident in the boom years of the 1970s as they were in the crisis years of the 1980s. In 1976, shortly after the nationalization of Venezuela’s oil industry under President Carlos Andrés Pérez, a series of high-profile corruption scandals and murder cases linked to oil money led the politician Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo to remark that “oil will bring us ruin: it is the Devil’s excrement” (Coronil 1997, 353). His words spoke to a moral disquiet around oil that has consistently characterized Venezuela’s development as a petro-state, encapsulating the sense that a nation blessed with material abundance has somehow cursed itself through a Faustian pact with a social and moral pollutant.

My argument might be thought of as a response to The Magical State, albeit one told from a different vantage point and in a different historical moment. Coronil’s key insight was to show how, as a postcolonial petro-state, Venezuela’s dependent position in the global economy came to intimately shape its economy, its democracy, and its state institutions. Ultimately, as his analysis showed, the subordination of these critical spheres of Venezuelan society to globalized circuits of oil money, financial speculation, and debt produced a “truncated modernity” (Coronil 1997, 391) that undermined the country’s drive to free itself from dependency. Yet as invaluable as this framework remains today, Coronil stopped short of applying it to the social and cultural spheres of everyday life and never had a chance to analyze the Chávez and Maduro eras in sufficient depth. This book extends his analytical approach into previously unexplored areas—primarily kinship, everyday economic life, grassroots politics, and morality—and uses this approach to understand Bolivarian Venezuela in both macro-and microterms, grounded in a longitudinal ethnographic perspective. In doing so, it traces the links between the current global political-economic order, the challenges confronting progressive governments in the Global South, and the daily lives of the world’s urban poor.

Change and Continuity in Bolivarian Venezuela

Hugo Chávez entered Venezuela’s political arena in a moment of national crisis. Though it had been celebrated as a model of Latin American democracy since the 1960s, by the 1990s Venezuela’s Fourth Republic was facing a severe crisis of political legitimacy. Designed to guard against a return to dictatorship following the overthrow of Pérez Jiménez, the Fourth Republic had constitutionally enshrined liberal democracy as Venezuela’s political system in 1961. But though the democratic pact that undergirded this move proved remarkably durable by Latin American standards, the Fourth Republic was also governed by a dense web of petro-clientelism that marginalized leftist currents and ensured the loyalty of the Roman Catholic Church, the military, the business sector, and Venezuela’s major trade unions (Ciccariello-Mayer 2013b; Coronil 1997; Buxton 1999; Ellner and Hellinger 2003; McCoy and Myers 2004). Although the two parties that dominated this system—the center-left Acción Democrática (Democratic Action, AD) and the Christian-centrist COPEI (Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente, Independent Electoral Political Organization Committee)—were able to govern largely without electoral challenge until the 1990s, they suffered a dramatic fall from grace as economic crisis and a series of corruption scandals undermined the entire political and economic establishment.

Chávez’s emergence marked a significant political shift for Venezuela, bringing leftist currents back to the electoral mainstream and advocating for widespread social and economic reform. But in many senses, he was also the latest in a long line of Venezuelan leaders to be seduced by the seemingly transformative power of oil. After a period in which the state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), had been undergoing what many regarded as privatization-by-stealth during the 1990s, Chávez ran his 1998 election campaign on a promise to reform the oil sector and restore a lost bond between petroleum and pueblo (Hellinger 2017, 64). In 2001, his government passed a new hydrocarbons law that restored central state control over PDVSA, raised the royalties and taxes for foreign companies, and decreed that the state must own 60 percent of any joint ventures with multinationals. Chávez also took a leading role in reinvigorating OPEC, a move that helped contribute to the rapid rise in global oil prices during the mid-2000s (Hellinger 2017, 68–74). In the process, the late president ended what had become known as the “concessionary era,” effectively renationalizing PDVSA in the process. The short-lived military coup against him in 2002 and subsequent oil industry paro (work stoppage) in late 2002/early 2003 were responses to these reforms from disgruntled PDVSA executives and managers, but more specifically they represented a renewed clash between capital and the Venezuelan petro-state (Hellinger 2017, 66). After several months of spiraling economic crisis, Chávez managed to restore oil production, firing 18,000 PDVSA employees who had participated in the stoppage.

After emerging victorious from the paro, Chávez fixed the bolívar’s exchange rate at 1.6 to the dollar and restricted access to dollars by making individuals and companies apply to CADIVI (Commission for the Administration of Currency Exchange) for dollars at this preferential rate.4 These monetary policies were designed in part to prevent capital flight, which had been a major problem during the crisis brought on by the paro. But in an echo of policies pursued several times during the twentieth century, they were also a means of transferring purchasing power from the export sector to the import sector.5 A strong bolívar, priced above the market value it would attain as a floating currency, meant that a higher dollar price was received for oil exports and that foreign goods and raw materials were cheaper for Venezuelan importers (Dachevsky and Kornblihtt 2017, 85). Since Venezuela is a net importer of food, medicine, and consumer goods, this policy became critical to the “petro-socialism” (Uzcátegui 2010, 76) of the Bolivarian Revolution: the subsidized food distributed through social missions was enabled by overvaluation, allowing the government to import in bulk and keep prices in state-managed grocery stores lower than private supermarkets. The same was true of the free antibiotics administered by Cuban doctors in new barrio clinics.

As world oil prices rose steadily from 2004 onward, peaking at around $140 a barrel in 2008, Chávez’s government channeled hundreds of millions of petrodollars into social programs and local health-care initiatives, expanded employment in the public sector, and stimulated consumer spending (Weisbrot and Sandoval 2007). Social expenditure is estimated to have increased fivefold per inhabitant in this period (Blank 2010; Seiffer, Kornblihtt, and De Luca 2012), with the number of Venezuelan households in poverty halving between 2003 and 2007, and extreme poverty falling from 25.1 percent to 7.6 percent in the same period (Weisbrot 2008, 1). Yet while overvaluation proved hugely successful at maintaining popular support for the revolution’s social programs, it also produced an array of long-term problems: massive incentives for corruption through illicit currency trading and bogus importing (Sutherland 2013, 2016), domestic industries being undercut by cheaper foreign imports, and no apparent “plan b” should oil prices fall. As a result, even as the government was lauded for its social programs, people also frequently expressed misgivings about where it all might lead.

Alongside this reassertion of oil nationalism in the economic domain, Chávez also sought to distance his movement from the political orthodoxy of previous eras. One of his first significant moves in office was to appoint a Constituent Assembly that was charged with drafting a new constitution. After a nationwide process of consultation, the Bolivarian Constitution was ratified by 72 percent of voters in 1999, moving Venezuela into what Chávez heralded as a new political epoch: the Fifth Republic. The Bolivarian Constitution marked an institutional and symbolic step change for Venezuelan democracy, moving from a bicameral system to a unicameral one (the single house now being called the National Assembly) and laying down the legal framework for what Chávez called a “participatory and protagonist democracy” (Alvarez 2003, 153). This signaled a move away from the top-down, centralized, and heavily party-centric model of the Fourth Republic and toward a much more decentralized system that sought to empower citizen participation at local and regional levels of the state (Buxton 2020, 6). Citizens now had the constitutional right to revoke elected officials and judges in the second half of their terms, as well as to impose their will on local, regional, and national bodies through citizen assemblies. New political rights and protections for women, Afro-Venezuelans, and indigenous peoples were also notable features of the new constitution, while land and tax reforms, nationalizations, and the promotion of a “social economy” all marked a significant move away from neoliberalism in the early years of Chávez’s presidency (Buxton 2020, 9; Ellner 2008).

At the same time, however, as the first decade of Bolivarian rule progressed, it became clear that unshackling Venezuela from the political and economic tendencies of the Fourth Republic was easier said than done. The coup and the paro highlighted Chávez’s vulnerability to political and economic sabotage from the country’s elites, forcing him to make strategic compromises with segments of the business class (Ellner 2017). In order to guarantee supply chains in the wake of these crises, key private sector producers were given preferential access to contracts and cheap dollars, as a new stratum of elites—the so-called Boliburgesía—emerged through their close connections to the chavista state (Buxton 2020, 11–12). Politically, a return to top-down party management was evident in Chávez’s decision to launch the PSUV in 2007 amid factional infighting within the multiparty coalition that brought him to power. Critics argued, meanwhile, that in spite of its promotion of radical democracy, the Bolivarian Constitution created a “hyperpresidential” (Corrales and Penfold 2011, 17) system that gave too much power to the executive. In the week that I began fieldwork in El Camoruco, Chávez successfully won a referendum that removed constitutional limits on presidential terms. Following this victory, his government was repeatedly accused of political improprieties, such as vote buying, job discrimination, manipulation of the national electoral monitor, and the abuse of state resources in election campaigns (Corrales and Penfold 2011, 17–46). Such alleged practices were by no means new to Venezuela nor unique to chavismo, but they nonetheless highlighted Chávez’s struggle to undertake radical democratic reforms and hold onto power at the same time. For Julia Buxton (2020), the revolution’s eventual slide into “rent seeking, mismanagement, corruption, duplication and waste” (Buxton 2020, 11) was a product of US-backed domestic opposition to the Bolivarian project. Though Chávez’s national opponents were unable to unseat him from power, they were able to generate sufficient difficulties that his administration eventually replicated the political clientelism and economic boom and bust of previous eras as it fought battles on multiple fronts.

The fieldwork context that I entered in the late 2000s was thus one shaped by a social and political revolution wrestling with its own contradictions. Although the drift toward centralism and petro-cronyism had already begun, it was also a moment in which many of the revolution’s most radical political reforms were taking root at the local level. This produced a particularly strange phenomenon, whereby the revolution’s grassroots bases were attempting to democratize and radically rethink the state in community settings—a phenomenon that Naomi Schiller (2013, 541) terms the “processual state”—just as institutional chavismo was attempting to consolidate and centralize its power nationally. Such tensions are at the heart of the material that forms the second part of this book.

The Moral Economy of a Hybrid Petro-State

Ambivalent feelings toward petroleum are evident across anthropological work on oil. As Douglas Rogers (2015) observes, anthropologists working in various oil contexts have shown how it “shapes senses of cyclical boom and bust, of acceleration and deceleration, and of past, present, and future” (2015: 365). Oil wealth, as Gisa Weszkalnys (2011, 2016) argues, possesses an ambiguous potentiality, at once generative and destructive. It produces myriad expectations, hopes, and fears that in turn shape both state policies and local practices (Behrends 2008; Breglia 2013; Weszkalnys 2008). Given its association with both hoped-for and unfulfilled development strategies in the majority world (Apter 2008; Davis 1987; Shever 2012), it is not surprising that oil is so often imbued with supernatural powers (Gamburd 2004; Gilberthorpe 2006). Indeed, even the so-called resource curse theory attributes oil with the seemingly otherworldly power to destroy national economies and upend social worlds (Collier and Hoeffler 2005; Ross 2004; Rosser 2006).6 While it is true that petro-states and other mono-export economies in the Global South are frequently characterized by economic imbalances, political instability, and social conflict (Behrends et al 2011, 6–8), such tendencies invariably owe as much to the wider geopolitical and historical contexts in which they are situated as to the specific policies of national governments (Watts 2004, 2011). In Latin America, the challenge of employing resource nationalism for progressive ends has periodically brought both hope and disappointment, as reformist governments have wrestled with the complex pressures produced by the global demand for fossil fuels (Gustafson 2020; Riofrancos 2020; Rosales 2020). As such studies show, political power clusters around oil and other natural resources in regionally and locally specific ways (Appel 2012; Boyer 2014; Mitchell 2011), and entrenched geopolitical asymmetries mean that petro-states in the Global South have a fundamentally different relationship with oil from their counterparts in the Global North (Strønen 2020, 6). Moreover, as Iselin Strønen (2020) notes, while perspectives that focus on the institutional capacity of nation-states to manage oil wealth illuminate a good deal about the entanglement between state formation and natural resources (Karl 1997), they often overlook how “political, social, and economic processes and dynamics are saturated with cultural and symbolic meaning” (Strønen 2020, 5).

Building on such observations, my approach brings anthropological perspectives on ethics and morality into dialogue with those that center on natural resources by exploring how a macrolevel political economy of oil interacts with microlevel political and moral subjectivities. Although the burgeoning anthropological subfield in ethics and morality has revitalized questions concerning human freedom, subjectivity, and “the good” (Faubion 2011; Heintz 2009; Laidlaw 2002; Lambek 2010; Rydstrøm 2003; Robbins 2004; Zigon 2008), it has had less to say about how these questions might relate to the underlying material forces that frame everyday moral experiences. As Hannah Appel (2019) notes, this can perhaps be explained by the fact that a central motivation of the “ethical turn” (Mattingly and Throop 2018) has been to foreground everyday moral experiences and ensure that they are “not effaced by always-already constituted explanations via structures of power” (Appel 2019, 178). According to this view, it is precisely because so much anthropological work over the past few decades has focused on the impact of “such larger-scale phenomena as historic, economic, and political conditions” (Zigon and Throop 2014, 3)—“dark anthropology,” as Sherry Ortner (2016) terms it—that efforts have been made to reclaim the immediate, the interior, and the not-necessarily political.7 This presents a problem, however, for those of us who seek to work across spatial and temporal scales and understand how quotidian moral experiences do relate to wider social forces, even if they are not entirely determined by them. As Appel puts it, rather than setting everyday moral experiences against abstract or impersonal forces, anthropologists should instead aim to situate them within “the supra-individual, supra-present contexts in which we all craft quotidian ethics” (2019, 179).

In line with Appel’s position, this book draws on the recent revival of anthropological interest in the moral economy concept (Alexander, Bruun, and Koch 2018; Carrier 2018; Gkintidis 2016; Hann 2010; Palomera and Vetta 2016; Narotzky and Besnier 2014; Sabaté 2016; Simoni 2016) to understand how barrio residents made sense of their place within the confusing and contradictory political economy that has characterized Bolivarian Venezuela. As a formulation, the moral economy is commonly traced to the work of the historian E. P. Thompson (1971), who set out to explain why the removal of price controls on grain in eighteenth-century English marketplaces resulted in a series of violent uprisings among peasants. Thompson’s key contribution was to show how these uprisings were not simply a product of hunger but also “reflected a vision of a better world” (Carrier 2018, 22).8 English marketplaces, he claimed, were not circumscribed economic spheres governed by utilitarian models of supply and demand, but rather profoundly moral spaces shaped by long-standing obligations between buyers and sellers (Edelman 2005, 2012; Thompson 1971, 98).9 Jaime Palomera and Theodora Vetta (2016) point out that subsequent anthropological use of the term has often departed from Thompson’s original emphasis on the moral character of certain kinds of economic practices and transactions. In many instances the concept has essentially been used as a metaphor for values or morality (Fassin 2012), while in others moral economies have been portrayed “as particular realms outside (or in the cracks of) the market and the state” (Palomera and Vetta 2016, 416). As Palomera and Vetta argue, the danger with detaching the moral from the economic is that it undermines the concept’s chief utility, which is to discern how class relations and modes of capital accumulation are understood and regulated through moral codes and practices, even amid exchanges in which the emic claim is that they are separate or opposed (see Simoni 2016).

Here I build on this interpretation of moral economies as a means through which social actors attempt to understand, regulate, and potentially transform economic relationships through everyday moral practices, relationships, and expressions of value. Bolivarian Venezuela provides a compelling context to extend these insights because the state was engaged in the attempt to create a new kind of national moral economy using oil money. While this began as a political project that principally emphasized a rejection of neoliberalism through resource nationalism and social democratic reform, by the mid-2000s it had become a much more explicit revolutionary and socialist endeavor, at least rhetorically. Chávez’s drive to sembrar el petróleo for Venezuela’s ennobled poor re-positioned the “magical state” as the center of this new moral economy and demanded that supporters of the revolution created themselves as new kinds of moral subject in turn (a subject I examine in more detail in chapter 5). But he did so while presiding over an economy that was, at best, a hybrid formation (Fernandes 2010) that carved out experimental spaces of would-be socialism while also being entirely reliant on its insertion within global circuits of petro-capitalism. Indeed, Venezuelan capitalism actually functioned extremely well prior to the fall in world oil prices in 2014, with the private sector increasing its share of the economy from 65 to 71 percent between 1999 and 2011 (Villalona 2013). The tense and uneasy entanglement between these structurally symbiotic but discursively hostile political and moral economies was at the heart of the ways in which barrio residents wrestled with their aspirations, their responsibilities to others, and their relationship with the state.

Over the past few years, what began as an economic crisis in Venezuela has spiraled into a political and humanitarian one that stretches across Latin America. According to the United Nations (2022), more than seven million Venezuelans have left the country since 2016, with many finding themselves in precarious situations elsewhere in the region. This has been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, creating a multidimensional crisis both within and beyond Venezuela’s borders. By looking back at the last decade from the point of view of El Camoruco’s residents, this book explores how the roots of the crisis appeared in the myriad contradictions that characterized everyday life during the first two decades of Bolivarian Venezuela. In so doing, it seeks to understand how the turbulent vicissitudes of contemporary petro-states shape the quotidian worlds of their inhabitants in deep and lasting ways.

Book Overview

This book draws largely on material gathered in three periods of fieldwork—2008–10, 2012, and 2017—with more recent research also featuring in the concluding chapter. In general, chapters 2–7 focus on the first two periods of fieldwork, with chapters 8 and 9 drawing on research conducted from 2017 onward. Chapter 2 explores the relationship between kinship, morality, and political subjectivity. It introduces the large family network that sits at the heart of the book and traces the early history of the Bolivarian Revolution through the family’s recollections of Chávez’s rise to power. In chapter 3, I explore the impact of the government’s flagship social missions on El Camoruco’s residents, highlighting the moral ambiguities that characterized one of their unintended consequences: the deepening of localized forms of inequality in the barrio. Chapter 4 examines one of the great puzzles of the revolution’s boom period for chavismo, which was the continuing proliferation of violent crime. The chapter analyzes this theme from the point of view of young barrio men and shows how their struggles with violence embodied an uneasy search for moral order that haunted Bolivarian Venezuela even in its most optimistic period. Chapter 5 switches the book’s focus to grassroots politics during a period of radical reform and political possibility. The chapter concentrates on revolutionary self-making among chavista activists in El Camoruco, who undertook an array of ethical practices as they sought to overcome doubts about the motivations of new activists, long-term comrades, and even themselves. Such dilemmas, I suggest, reflected underlying anxieties about the role played by oil wealth in the revolution as a whole. The challenge of bringing new political forms into being is continued in chapter 6, which explores the launch of the communal councils in El Camoruco and highlights one of the perverse ironies of the drive to stimulate participatory democracy under Chávez: that the decentralization of resources inadvertently led to a decentralization of suspicion about the contaminating influence of oil money on neighborhood actors. Chapter 7 is based on a case study of commune construction that took place between El Camoruco and a number of nearby barrios between 2009 and 2012. Detailing the complex meanderings of this project, it argues that the attempt to incorporate grassroots community organizations into a state-managed model of popular democracy produced a series of temporal disjunctures for the actors involved. I show how myriad everyday tensions within the project could be traced to the deeper contradictions that underlay petro-socialism, and to the strange imaginative void between future visions and present realities that haunted the revolution. In chapter 8, the book returns to El Camoruco amid very different circumstances to those in which I first arrived: a serious economic and humanitarian crisis compounded by a backdrop of political violence and a slide toward authoritarianism under President Maduro. The chapter documents the everyday experience of economic crisis in El Camoruco and shows how many of the asymmetries and inequalities that were present under Chávez had significantly worsened under Maduro. These differing fortunes produced tensions within and between households, as old friendships and loyalties fractured amid Maduro’s authoritarian turn at the national level. The book’s final chapter reflects on how my interlocutors’ lives have changed over the course of the last decade. It returns to my core argument and considers the relationship between the global political economy of oil and the present conditions of El Camoruco’s residents, whose lives now stretch across Latin America in many cases. I conclude by exploring debates about how de-carbonization might be structured to give resource-dependent states in the Global South a genuine stake in democratic, equitable, and ecologically sustainable futures.


1. With the exception of high-profile political figures, all individual names in this book are pseudonyms. The same is true for the names of local neighborhoods.

2. The Washington Consensus is generally understood to be a set of restructuring principles that undergirded a shift toward deregulation, privatization, and trade liberalization across Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s. It is strongly associated with neoliberalism, which encompasses a similar set of policy objectives (see Goodale and Postero 2013; Hickel 2018).

3. In Marx’s analysis, ground rent is the surplus value accrued from natural resources—defined as everything from rivers to mines—that have been monopolized by a landlord. It is generated by differential rents, in which value is determined by the price of the commodity produced from the resource, and by absolute rents, in which surplus value is accrued from payments to the landlord regardless of the land’s fertility or the commodity’s profitability (Coronil 1997, 46–48; Marx 1968).

4. At the time, this was actually 1,600 bolívares to the dollar, but in 2007 Chávez revalued the currency at a ratio of 1 to 1,000 to facilitate easier accounting transactions. The currency name was also changed to bolívar fuerte (strong bolívar). For the sake of clarity, I use the bolívar fuerte valuation throughout this book.

5. Overvaluation was first used in the 1930s and was adopted again during the 1970s, when a strong currency helped to finance Perez’s investment in infrastructure (Mommer 1988).

6. According to Terry Karl in The Paradox of Plenty (1997), in comparison with economically advanced petro-states such as Norway, postcolonial states such as Algeria and Venezuela have historically lacked the institutional capacity to effectively manage oil wealth. This has stifled long-term planning, concentrated wealth in the hands of the few, encouraged corruption, and resulted in a constant oscillation between periods of boom and bust.

7. As Ortner (2016: 60) notes, recent anthropological approaches to ethics/morality have tended to position themselves against the “dark anthropology” of work that focuses on power, inequality, and violence. She argues, however, that some of the discipline’s most promising contemporary scholarship attempts to bring these approaches together.

8. In his definition of moral economies, James Carrier (2018) notes that such spheres can be either whole economies “or part of one in which moral economic activity predominates” (2018: 30).

9. Though Thompson is most commonly associated with the term’s genesis, it was popularized by James Scott (1976), who showed how the moral economies of risk-averse peasants in Burma and Vietnam worked to informally regulate class relations and economic practices in order to guarantee livelihoods and maintain social harmony, if not outright equality.