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GIVEN THE CRUCIAL ROLE that oil plays in Venezuela, it should hardly surprise that the books reviewed in this section in one form or another come to grips with one of two broad areas. One area encompasses questions such as, "How are economic globalization and other changes in the international economy affecting Venezuela's status as a major oil exporter, and how should the nation respond to them?" The second area includes the question, as old as the industry itself, "How can Venezuela best use the rents realized from oil to make the transition from underdeveloped to developed status, and what political reforms and policies will most effectively achieve this transition?"
On one side are advocates of opening the oil industry to foreign capital in order to boost production. During the 1980s, there was a shift in attitudes among public intellectuals in Venezuela. The collapse of oil prices and failure of the development model implemented during the boom years (1974–81) prepared the way for the attempt by President Carlos Andrés Pérez in his second presidency (1989–93) to open Venezuela's economy to foreign capital in the oil industry and to trade competition.
Several of the books in this list examine the political consequences, most notably the increased tension between nationalism and globalization (items #bi2003006334#, #bi2003006329#, and #bi2003006332#). Mendoza Pottellá's book is most representative of the nationalist reaction (item #bi2003006338#), but the most useful and innovative study of oil and globalization is Mommer's Global Oil and the Nation State (item #bi2004002168#). Readers familiar with Terry Karl's highly influential Paradox of Plenty (1997), which questions the wisdom of concentrating control of oil in state hands, will want to consult Mommer's alternative analysis, especially since the oil policies of President Hugo Chávez (1999–present) were greatly influenced by his theoretical insights.
Several of the books reviewed here attempt to outline a development policy that would sow oil rents more effectively with strategies that encourage grassroots, bottom-up initiatives. Like the volumes that place oil at the center of analysis, these books can be seen as a response to the failure of central directed projects of mega-reform. The raw material for case studies in Venezuela has been less plentiful than in other Latin American countries where social movements have spawned greater experiments with cooperatives, microenterprises, women's alternative projects, etc. However, the studies by Orlando (item #bi2003000464#) and Riutort (items #bi2003000462# and #bi2003000463#), among others, suggest that Venezuelans might very well achieve greater advances today in human development by plowing more of their oil rents into such popular enterprises and initiatives.
The traditional wisdom about development suggests that decentralization of the state and popular-based development initiatives are not only compatible with, but necessary to, one another. Several of these books emphasize down-sizing central government and improving the performance of the bureaucracy. Ironically, however, it has been the highly populist, centralizing government of Chávez that has placed the greatest emphasis on shifting government spending from larger-scale, elite initiatives to grassroots projects. I say "ironically" because the Chávez government has been heavily criticized, even by sympathetic observers, for failing to cleanse government of corruption and for curtailing initiatives of policy decentralization undertaken during the prior decade.
Only González's study (item #bi2003006332#) was produced recently enough to begin to assess the policies of Chávez, but collectively these books help us understand the complex and difficult issues raised by these policies, which run so much against the grain of neoliberalism. What is the relationship between bottom-up initiatives oriented toward the poorest sectors and the question of centralization? Will nationalist oil policies drive away foreign investment and impede adjustment to global economic changes, or are these policies generating resources that are finally placing Venezuela's wealth at the disposal of the majority of its citizens?
By the time we revisit the scholarship on Venezuela's political economy in the next Handbook, it will surely reflect the highly polarized views dividing the country today. For those who seek understanding of the present, however, these studies prepare the turf.