Comrades in the Barrio

Reviewed:

Fernandes, Sujatha. Who Can Stop the Drums?: Urban Social Movements in Chávez’s Venezuela (Durham: Duke Univeristy Press, 2010)

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is known for his popularity among the urban poor: they’ve provided a major voting bloc in three victorious national elections and rallied behind him as he’s pushed through an ambitious domestic agenda. Activists watch his weekly talk show, “Aló Presidente,” and cheer on his performances, his songs, his heady pronouncements and colloquial humor. But such popularity is not tantamount to absolute devotion. Rather, his support is mediated through elaborate activist networks, and is more tenuous than many outside Venezuela would believe.

In her shrewd but at times vexing new book Who Can Stop the Drums?: Urban Social Movements in Chávez’s Venezuela, sociologist Sujatha Fernandes reveals a world of activism deeply influenced by the history of Left movements in Latin America, but vulnerable to the kind of technocratic, bottom-line reasoning regrettably necessary for the state’s economic success. Even those activists who benefit from state funding and share its interests are wary of its presence. They know that the edicts of global capitalism are never far from the minds and machinations of Chávez, even if his ultimate goals are the elimination of urban poverty and a greater place for the dispossessed on the world stage.

The big picture here, and an urgent dilemma for these activists, is just how Chavez’s frequent acquiescence to the demands of international capital has left his supporters to contend with many of the same old problems as in earlier political eras. Though Fernandes looks hard at some of the bureaucratic roadblocks her subjects face, she somehow skirts two issues central to revolutionary movements in many parts of the developing world:

First, the economies of resource-rich countries like Venezuela, whose revenue surplus relies heavily on oil extraction and circulation, are unstable by any reasonable measure, leading to inconsistent state services. Second, although things have gotten better for many, the capital city of Caracas remains highly stratified. The successes of the radical Left have failed to resolve longstanding social problems and to break up established political bodies. And although Chavez’s economic reforms have worked in places, they haven’t overcome the deeply entrenched interests of the middle class and private media, which aren’t about to be ignored.

As a result, more and more activists seek to assert an independent voice in Venezuelan politics, abandoning the channels advocated by the current government and looking to models of protest that both predate the Chávez era and circumvent the state’s many bureaucratic obstacles. Here, as an observer and ethnographer, Fernandes is expert.  Using historic Barrio San Agusín as a case study, she argues that the location of the everyday is what distinguishes true social movements from other, sanctioned, forms of activism such as trade unions and political parties. Her subjects employ highly-localized rhetoric and build awareness through personal relationships and organic community networks.

She considers public spaces — “the barrio, the plaza, the calle” — to be key to social movements, especially in Caracas where activists are at odds with most private interests. Streets and public squares are accessible to the disenfranchised and large enough for meetings and spontaneous demonstrations. But they’re also laden with memories of past movements and conflicts. Particularly in San Agustín, which has been a center of Left activism for decades, no intersection, no street, no storefront or facade is without its own set of resonant signifiers.

Fernandes is savvy to the politics of nostalgia and sees how shared spaces and esoteric genealogies can cultivate revolutionary agency, but again and again her examples are marred by disheartening moments of defeat. She documents the peaceful takeover of an abandoned movie theater to screen a film about Grupo Madera, an ensemble of Black musicians from the 1970s who advocated radical racial integration and economic justice. The group bears an almost mythic status for many in the barrio and proved the perfect symbol for the new theater, which remained open and became a popular space for community meetings and events. But before long, the project fell apart and the theater closed. Members of the collective that ran the space were exhausted by other obligations and had no time to mediate the usual array of internal politics that can crop up in collective work.

The theater’s closure was devastating for San Agusín and underscores, for me, an issue that looms large over Fernandes’s text but remains unresolved: the most insidious effects of inequality can be far more resonant than the activistic spirit of the commons.

One of Fernandes’s subjects remains politically involved while keeping a job and managing her home. But she’s never had time to finish her degree, and in her attempts to question official state politics she can often do no more than yell at the television or commiserate with friends. While the many festivals and community events depicted in this text have proven to cultivate political participation, they often turn into scenes of violence, ultimately exacerbating feelings of frustration and immobility among barrio residents. If a group’s greatest asset is the everyday, if its revolutionary potential lives in shared experience and collective memory, how can it go on when the everyday is marred by misery or insecurity? These activists may thrive in the quotidian, but they’re also bound by it.

Further, though Chávez and his government do fund many projects associated with social movements, their own bureaucratic mechanisms often enact the very economic prejudices that characterize life for so many in Caracas. Fernandes details the closure of a local radio station after its transmitter was removed by a state agency. The station’s offices had been occupied in protest after its frequency was usurped by a larger, commercial station owned by a vocal supporter of Chávez. Ultimately, a committee ruled in favor of the commercial station. In moments like these, the government asserts a kind of coercive authority over a substantial political voice, using regulatory steps designed, as Fernandes rightly observes, to stall and disable unsanctioned forms of resistance. Unconditional support for Chávez may not be a prerequisite for state funding, but in moments of bureaucratic gridlock, the state will surely (and expectedly) side with its advocates.

Compromises like these emerge on the international level as well.  Despite his notorious criticisms of the West, Chavez relies on its wealth and its desire for resources to fund his domestic reforms. So, too, do the beneficiaries of such reforms. Fernandes weaves this irony through her ethnographic descriptions with great insight and wit but what ceaselessly emerge are the compromises and failures of her subjects, and not their victories. Real as some successes have been, and spirited as these social movements may be, the structure of inequality — both in the small motions of the quotidian and the heavy-handed theater of the state — remains.

Nicholas Gamso is a doctoral student in English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and an instructor of writing and literature at Queens College

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Nicholas Gamso