Powell has looked at Venezuela through both ends of a telescope, giving a macro view of Venezuelan political history from approximately 1920 to 1968 (Part I), and a micro view, reinforced by survey research data (1961, 1964, 1965-66) of the position and role of the peasantry in that history (Part II). The book is therefore rich in historical detail, yet it does not fall into the common trap of selecting a group for study as if it existed as an isolate in national reality. Nor does the book simply describe historical events. Powell attempts to explain them. Thus the work is descriptive and analytical. While it employs little deductive theory, the inductive variety generated (especially in pp. 212 to 228) is both stimulating and potentially generalizable.
Powell’s key concern is the “passage of a peasant class from being objects of national events to being participants in their direction. . ..” (p. 1). The critical element, he argues, is the alliance of a peasantry (whose traditional patron-client bonds have in some way been broken) with an urban elite, which “almost always results from an initiative by the urban partner” (p. 2). In Venezuela that alliance was forged by Rómulo Betancourt and his associates, and was used both to service the political ambitions of Betancourt’s “challenging elite” and, once that elite assumed political power (1945-48, and 1958-68), to carry out substantial reforms in the countryside, generally to the benefit of the client peasantry.
This kind of reforming alliance, Powell argues, is possible only at critical stages in the modernization of a country, and “the outcome will vary according to the sequence in which agricultural commercialization, urbanization, and politicization [of the peasant masses] occur” (p. 216). If the sequence is commercialization—politicization—urbanization, then the possibilities of an alliance conducive to reform rather than revolution or futility are met (p. 217). Much of the book fills in the factual details that relate to this argument, showing how a “challenging elite” arose in the cities and why they could find a political resource in a generally unpoliticized (but, we must assume, not necessarily socially unmobilized) peasantry, forging, as it were, one of the most impressive national peasant movements in Latin America.
Powell also singles out for discussion one of the key dilemmas of a modernizing democratic elite. Their emphasis on “interest articulation” (meeting the demands of their key allies, in this case a politicized mass) while struggling for power, and “system legitimacy” (staying in power once there) inevitably conflict. In the 1945-48 experience the urban elite emphasized interest articulation—and fell to a military coup. In the 1958-68 period system legitimacy gained equal if not more prominence. While the shift helped to save the reformist elite from a second coup, it also caused considerable disaffection among earlier peasant supporters and contributed in no small way to the defeat of Acción Democrática in the 1968 elections.
Anyone seriously concerned with peasants or contemporary politics in Third World countries, and the social and environmental changes associated with them, will find Powell’s book to be stimulating.