Monument mania

Spectacular Modernity: Dictatorship, Space, and Visuality in Venezuela, 1948–1958
Lisa Blackmore
2017, University of Pittsburgh Press
280 pages, plates, paperback

AS VENEZUELA once again grapples with a thorny question that has bedevilled its history of what “progress” really means, it is a good time to explore the relationship between modernity and authoritarianism.

Lisa Blackmore’s examination of the military dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez does just that and, as a result, provides some fascinating insights into the ambivalent relationship between democracy and development.

There is no better country to demonstrate just how messy, divisive, and so often obstructive, democracy can be for capitalism in developing nations, and hence why popular history so often glosses over authoritarian interludes in its nostalgia for the physical progress represented by the construction of infrastructure and the creation of export economies.

The Pérez Jiménez dictatorship was born of a coup through which military frustration at their conditions, but more generally at the slow progress of economic modernisation in the country, combined with the anti-communist climate fostered by the US and the sheer fragility of democratic institutions.

Like his later successor Hugo Chávez (also a military officer, and also a president who changed the name of his country), Pérez Jiménez embarked on wholesale reform, “modernisation”, and the author paints a vivid picture of the monuments to his rule built in this period, many of which endure today.

But Pérez Jiménez is particularly interesting for drawing attention to the conscious choice made by the political elite that he represented to suppress democratic activity in order to get things done. As Blackmore writes of this experiment: “Modern buildings, growing revenues, and upbeat propaganda served as palliatives to fill the silence of open political debate.” [p 8]

Blackmore notes that, outwardly, in this period Venezuela looked like a success story of capitalist development: rising GDP and industrialization, all imbued with a modernist aesthetic. More importantly, she observes how this idea of modernity – and, one can assume, the political compromises to achieve it that elites are so ready to make – has retained affective purchase in Venezuela over large sectors of the population. This was particularly evident a decade after Pérez Jiménez had been toppled, as he sought to restore his popularity in the public mind by reaffirming his vision of modernity and was elected to the senate.

By this perspective, democracy is traded for development through firm governance – a view that, though concealed, still permeates the attitude of so many multilateral bodies as well as the main external powers sponsoring development strategies. Blackmore’s history captures these dilemmas well.

She writes: “The significance of the former dictator’s election a decade after the demise of his regime should not be underestimated. His elections disclosed ambivalences about the type of political regime that Venezuelans associated with progress, thus undermining the idea that democracy had dawned after dictatorship.” [p 9]