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Dragon in the Tropics

Hugo Chavez and the Political Economy of Revolution in Venezuela

By Javier Corrales and Michael Penfold
Dragon in the Tropics: Hugo Chavez and the Political Economy of

Since he was first elected in 1999, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez Frías has reshaped a frail but nonetheless pluralistic democracy into a semi-authoritarian regime—an outcome achieved with spectacularly high oil income and widespread electoral support. This eye-opening book illuminates one of the most sweeping and unexpected political transformations in contemporary Latin America.

Based on more than fifteen years’ experience in researching and writing about Venezuela, Javier Corrales and Michael Penfold have crafted a comprehensive account of how the Chávez regime has revamped the nation, with a particular focus on its political transformation. Throughout, they take issue with conventional explanations. First, they argue persuasively that liberal democracy as an institution was not to blame for the rise of chavismo. Second, they assert that the nation’s economic ailments were not caused by neoliberalism. Instead they blame other factors, including a dependence on oil, which caused macroeconomic volatility; political party fragmentation, which triggered infighting; government mismanagement of the banking crisis, which led to more centralization of power; and the Asian crisis of 1997, which devastated Venezuela’s economy at the same time that Chávez ran for president.

It is perhaps on the role of oil that the authors take greatest issue with prevailing opinion. They do not dispute that dependence on oil can generate political and economic distortions — the “resource curse” or “paradox of plenty” arguments — but they counter that oil alone fails to explain Chávez’s rise. Instead they single out a weak framework of checks and balances that allowed the executive branch to extract oil rents and distribute them to the populace. The real culprit behind Chávez’s success, they write, was the asymmetry of political power.

Advance Praise for the Book:

“This is the most objective, comprehensive and interesting book I have read on what has happened in Venezuela since Hugo Chávez took power in the late 1990s. It shows why most of the common explanations of the country’s social and political convulsions are superficial and often flawed. A must read.”
—Moisés Naím, Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

“Hugo Chávez and his ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ to construct ‘21st century socialism’ in Venezuela and reshape the international order have attracted a great deal of polarized comment: either sycophantic praise or unmitigated condemnation, neither backed up by sound data or profound analysis. Dragon in the Tropics escapes this pattern. It provides a thoughtful, perceptive, balanced but critical, nuanced and illuminating assessment, grounded in rich and revealing data, and deep knowledge of both Venezuela and of comparative politics and political economy. Highly recommended.”
—Abraham F. Lowenthal, Professor of International Relations, University
of Southern California

“Corrales and Penfold have written a wide-ranging and thought-provoking interpretation of how Hugo Chávez has shaped Venezuelan society, and the country’s regional and global role, over the past decade. The book is conceptually innovative, empirically rich, and cogently argued. Its keen insights into Venezuela’s evolving political economy represent an invaluable contribution.”
—Michael Shifter, president, Inter-American Dialogue

“Javier Corrales and Michael Penfold are two of the most outstanding analysts of contemporary Venezuela. This accessible and clear-eyed book provides a comprehensive overview of Venezuelan politics, economics, and foreign policy over the last decade. No one interested in understanding the rise of radical populism, the distortions inherent
in the oil economy, and the progressive deterioration of democratic institutions should fail to read this book.”
—Cynthia Arnson, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

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