Photo by Jorge Silva, Reuters.

Photo by Jorge Silva, Reuters.

Whether cast as authoritarian strongman or brilliant revolutionary, Hugo Chávez and the movement he led undeniably transformed the socio-political terrain of Venezuela. When he came to power in 1998, the privatization of state industry and services held sway as the preeminent model for prosperity in Venezuela and much of the continent. Under Chávez, neoliberal common sense unraveled; moreover, the late president made it impossible to talk politics in Venezuela without directing attention to poverty and the importance of widespread political participation (Coronil 2008). Yet a central paradox of his fourteen-year presidency has left the diverse Bolivarian movement that he led in a delicate position since his death in March 2013. Even while Chávez advocated widespread participation in local and national politics, he concentrated power in his own hands, serving as a linchpin holding together diverse and contentious groups that united under his leadership, such as the radical left, the military, the moderate left, organized workers, informal popular sectors, some middle class professionals, and even a few business elites. The revolutionary projects to advance meaningful democracy—some initiated “from below” based on a history of social movement activism and some designed and facilitated by Chávez’s government—were intertwined with Chávez’s centralized leadership. Since his death, the significance of the figure of Chávez has become all the more evident. Although the initial idea of embalming his corpse was not carried out, his image, name, and spirit live on. Nothing sums up the current predicament of chavismo like the commonly heard refrain “Chávez vive, la lucha sigue” (Chávez lives, the struggle continues).

The popular movements Chávez helped unleash challenged the liberal democratic orthodoxy that shaped politics for the previous fifty years. Although it was difficult to see it during his turbulent fourteen years in power, Chávez created a certain stability (Duno-Gottberg 2013). In the wake of his death, competing factions within both chavismo and the opposition have gained strength. A global economic recession coincided with the first years in power of Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, making the government’s efforts to right the ship all the more difficult. Venezuela today is racked by deep cynicism, ongoing class inequities, political and everyday violence, and the perception of ever-deepening corruption, even while social movement actors in every camp continue to fight to determine the political future.

Fernando Coronil’s thesis in The Magical State (1997) has been the most prominent anthropology framework used to understand Venezuela up to this point. He describes how during key periods in Venezuela’s modern history, governing elites used oil wealth to stage spectacular “magical” displays creating the appearance of the state as an entity beyond the reach of humans, thereby endowing it (and themselves) with god-like qualities. Through the “awe-inspiring spectacle of its rule,” the Venezuelan state “casts its spell over audience and performers alike” (1997, 4). Despite a series of experimental programs to develop national production, little has changed in terms of the nation’s dependency on oil. A combination of policy decisions and the pressures of the global fossil-fuel-based economy have reproduced a Venezuela deeply dependent on imports.

But what of the socio-political picture that Coronil offered in the late 1990s? Does the Venezuelan state persist in being “a magical state”?

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, through legal measures and new funding structures, the Chávez government opened the roles of performer and producer of state spectacle to the very barrio-based activists that state institutions had historically relegated to the position of audiences. Social and political reforms that aimed to increase participation in local politics and media production, or improve access to education, nutrition, and health care, required the daily participation of neighborhood residents, effectively bringing into being hundreds of thousands of activists who play a role in governance and hold the state accountable. For example, the Chávez government’s main health program, Barrio Adentro (Inside the Poor Neighborhood), has people from popular sectors acting as health promoters and clinic administrators, inhabiting the role of the state in new ways (Cooper 2010). With programs like these, official declarations celebrating participatory democracy, such as Ahora Gobernamos Todo (Now We All Govern) reflect people’s experiences of performing government in Chávez’s Venezuela. These experiences force us to question just who or what “the state” is, and where its magical qualities actually reside.

New programs have been characterized by a tense dialectical relationship between institutions and social movement organizations. Identifying the blurred boundaries between state institutions and popular organizations does not mean that we have resolved the problems that charisma poses for building a revolutionary democracy. Rather, it suggests that a processual state exists alongside a magical, charismatic state (Schiller 2013). Under the numerous new state projects and experiments, some newly incorporated sectors of the historically marginalized poor have experienced the state as a diffuse and unfolding ensemble of ideas, individuals, and institutions that may have the potential to improve the lives of the poor and expand their access to meaningful participation in politics. At the same time, the sense of immense political and economic potential made possible by the Bolivarian movement and the economic might of the petro-state is in tension with the growing alarm that, with Chávez dead, longstanding problems of corruption, cronyism, and political cynicism threaten meaningful social change.

Although it is too soon to predict what will happen in post-Chávez Venezuela, during his time as president he legitimated and provided opportunities for forms of political participation that expanded the population of people who saw themselves as political agents and intensified contestations over who should be in charge of politics and how to enact government and the state. Opposition protests cannot be understood without grasping the broader context of how political agency was re-conceptualized in the Chávez era, for in many ways protests speak directly to questions of who has the legitimate right to perform the state.


Cooper, Amy. 2010. “Hacerse una Persona Comunitaria: Relatos de las Motivaciones y Transformaciones en los Comités de Salud de Barrio Adentro [Becoming a community person: Stories of motivation and transformation in Barrio Adentro’s volunteer health committees].” In De la Participación en Salud a la Construcción de Poder Popular: Experiencias para el Debate, edited by Miguel Malo and Johanna Levy, 99–111. Maracay, Venezuela: Instituto de Altos Estudios Dr. Arnoldo Gabaldón.

Coronil, Fernando. 1997. The Magical State: Nature, Money, and Modernity in Venezuela. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Coronil, Fernando. 2008. “Chávez's Venezuela: A New Magical State?Revista: Harvard Review of Latin America 8, no. 1.

Duno-Gottberg, Luis. 2013. “After Chávez: Re-Shifting the Focus.” Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies: Travesia 22, no. 2: 239–41.

Schiller, Naomi. 2013. “Reckoning with Press Freedom: Community Media, Liberalism, and the Processual State in Caracas, Venezuela.” American Ethnologist 40, no. 3: 540–45.