Less than two months after the death of Hugo Chavez roiled Venezuela, three leading experts on the nation and its society converged on Northfield. Miguel Tinker Salas, a historian at Pomona College, Sujatha Fernandez, a sociologist at the City University of New York, and Javier Corrales, a political scientist at Amherst College, came to Carleton for the annual Foro Latinoamericano, the capstone forum of the Latin American Studies concentration.
According to political science and Latin American Studies professor Al Montero, who co-organized the Foro with Latin American Studies professor Sylvia Lopez, the timely theme of this year’s Foro was pure luck – almost.
When planning began in December of 2011, he explained, “It was obvious to us that Chavez’s illness, which was known at the time even though his death wasn’t imminent then, was going to change the role he played in Venezuelan politics, so we decided to do something on Venezuela.”
According to Montero, the pair sought to recruit speakers with expertise on different facets of Venezuelan society, specifically its recent history, its people, and its policymaking.
“We were very happy with the diversity,” Montero said. “If you had three political scientists or three historians, you wouldn’t have gotten that diversity.”
The historian came first. Tinker Salas addressed an almost-full Boliou theater on Friday afternoon, a familiar circumstance for the Californian. His demand as a Venezuelan expert amongst news outlets has reached such levels that Pomona recently constructed a television studio for his personal use.
Salas sought to deconstruct the commonly held conception that Chavez’s election marked an authoritarian reversal in Venezuelan history. Venezuela’s government had only been dubiously democratic before Chavez’s election, he said, and the damage done by Chavez to Venezuelan democracy was overstated in the media.
Instead, he argued that “petro-politics” – oil – presented a better lens through which to trace the arc of Venezuelan history. Venezuela, which in light of new technology, has recently surpassed Saudi Arabia as the nation with most petroleum reserves in the world, has traditionally used the proceeds from oil exports to fund government, whether “government” signifies the pockets of corrupt leaders as it did in the mid-20th century, or the bloated socialist welfare state of Chavez. Culturally, the lavish lifestyle funded by oil receipts gave rise to modern-looking cities and a consumerist culture.
He was followed on Saturday morning by Fernandez, who, unlike Salas and Corrales, focused upon the role of the “person in the street” in shaping Venezuelan history. She played several samples from shortwave community radio stations, then discussed how ordinary Venezuelans use the cheap, easy-to-establish stations to broadcast their ideas on Venezuelan politics and, more broadly, what it means to be Venezuelan. Such media, she argued, give average citizens a chance to affect the outcome of the political turmoil engulfing the nation after Chavez’s death.
Corrales, who gave the final lecture, spoke about Venezuelan foreign policy. Using a series of international relations theories, he traced Venezuela’s attempts to use oil to define its relations with other nations through alliances in South America. The failure of these attempts, he concluded, had forced it to take a final path: that of a “rogue state” in the tradition of Iran and North Korea. As a consequence, Venezuela and the US, who is Venezuela’s largest trading partner, share a relationship that Corrales memorably characterized as one between “best frenemies.”
Audience members had an opportunity to witness the sought-after differences among the speakers play out when
Tinker Salas vigorously cross-examined Corrales about his use of political science theories in the presentation. Corrales deftly parried by explaining that it was Venezuelan policymakers, not him, who had first used the theories.
Students generally reacted quite positively to the presentation.
“The three speakers shared some insights but disagreed about others,” said LTAM Concentrator Emily Lamberty ’14, “This complexity has come to define my experience as a Latin American Studies concentrator in a good way, so the Foro effectively put my study of Latin America into perspective.