Who Can Stop the Drums? Urban Social Movements in Chávez’s Venezuela

Posted on Apr 10, 2010 in Books
Who Can Stop the Drums? Urban Social Movements in Chávez’s Venezuela

Book description:

In this vivid ethnography of social movements in the barrios, or poor shantytowns, of Caracas, Sujatha Fernandes reveals a significant dimension of political life in Venezuela since President Hugo Chávez was elected. Fernandes traces the histories of the barrios, from the guerrilla insurgency, movements against displacement, and cultural resistance of the 1960s and 1970s, through the debt crisis of the early 1980s and the neoliberal reforms that followed, to the Chávez period. She weaves barrio residents’ life stories into her account of movements for social and economic justice. Who Can Stop the Drums? demonstrates that the transformations under way in Venezuela are shaped by negotiations between the Chávez government and social movements with their own forms of historical memory, local organization, and consciousness.

Fernandes portrays everyday life and politics in the shantytowns of Caracas through accounts of community-based radio, barrio assemblies, and popular fiestas, and the many interviews she conducted with activists and government officials. Most of the barrio activists she presents are Chávez supporters. They see the leftist president as someone who understands their precarious lives and has made important changes to the state system to redistribute resources. Yet they must balance receiving state resources, which are necessary to fund their community-based projects, with their desire to retain a sense of agency. Fernandes locates the struggles of the urban poor within Venezuela’s transition from neoliberalism to what she calls “post-neoliberalism.” She contends that in contemporary Venezuela we find a hybrid state; while Chávez is actively challenging neoliberalism, the state remains subject to the constraints and logics of global capital.



In the Spirit of Negro Primero is a marvelous contribution to the literature on social movements, neoliberalism, cultural politics, and Venezuela. While most analyses of the country portray Hugo Chávez as either a liberating figure fighting neoliberalism to help the poor, or an authoritarian caudillo preserving his own power while destroying liberties and human rights, Sujatha Fernandes goes far beyond such polarities. By concentrating on the experiences of poor activists in Caracas, she provides a unique and nuanced perspective on a complicated political process, and reveals the Chávez government as much more complicated and interesting than most other scholars have allowed.”—Nancy Postero, author of Now We Are Citizens: Indigenous Politics in Post-Multicultural Bolivia

“Too much of the scholarly and political writing on the Venezuelan government centers on President Hugo Chávez and his style and rhetoric. In this original, timely, and important book, Sujatha Fernandes focuses on the barrio residents who form the social base of the Chávista movement. Along the way, she demonstrates a detailed understanding of Venezuela’s culture and recent political history.”—Steve Ellner, author of Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict, and the Chávez Phenomenon

“Hands down the best resource for understanding the popular movements that constitute the shifting, rumbling base of the Chávez movement.” —David Smilde, editor (with Daniel Hellinger) of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Democracy: Participation, Politics and Culture under Chávez


“Empirically rich and theoretically sound, Who Can Stop The Drums? represents ethnography at its best.”
Emmanuel David, Journal for Peace and Justice Studies

“Fernandes forges a new and promising analytical approach to the study of social movements.. [Her] analytical focus on cultural politics allows her to push far beyond the instrumental interest in anti-neoliberalism, typically postulated as the urban poor’s rationale for supporting the region’s many antineoliberal presidents… she also discovers that the urban poor find themselves at odds with a state they otherwise endorse. These conflicts arise from what she refers to as the “hybrid post-neoliberal” Venezuela state… The best evidence that the urban poor contest these neoliberal rationalities comes from Fernandes’s pathbreaking research on community radio stations.” — Leslie C. Gates, Perspectives on Politics

“Fernandes elegantly places the struggles of the local poor in a larger political framework to allow readers to understand how residents make their own history by negotiating their post-neoliberal visions with their current social circumstances. Recommended.” —J. M. Santos-Hernindez, CHOICE

“Fernandes’s work is both original and successful in complicating images of Chavismo. Its bottom-up approach, its deft handling of plurality in the movement and tensions between autonomy, antineoliberalism, and support for President Chavez, and its framing motif of neoliberal governmentality are important contributions to scholarship on Venezuela.” —Anthony Spanakos, Latin American Politics and Society

Who Can Stop the Drums is a solid piece of work that creates new pathways through the turmoil that is Venezuelan society. Fernandes raises thorny issues with the consummate ease of a master scholar. She is a fine story teller.”—Ian Lipke, M/C Reviews

“This book is a must read for scholars interested in Venezuela, as [Fernandes] provides an historical account of the growth of Caracas and the relationship between barrio residents and the state over time. The book would also be excellent for a graduate course on social movements or social change, as well as in a methods course on ethnography as a beautiful example of how to weave together ethnographic and interview data to provide a vivid and intellectually engaging work of scholarship.” — Tiffany Linton Page, Social Forces

“Fernandes has written a very nice book. She is a natural stylist with the gift of bring abstract issues to life in the context of individual stories and personal dilemmas.” — George Philip, Bulletin of Latin American Research

“This ethnography uses testimonios, field work, histories of popular participation, and official discourse, offering a mosaic of sources and representations that not only demonstrate popular participation but is an example of work of a hybrid genre. There is no doubt that this hybrid characteristic of Fernandes’ investigation is attractive to a varied public of anthropologists, sociologists and literary scholars with an interest in popular dynamic expressions, self-representation via community media and the popular discourse that activates movements and social alliances in negotiating with the venezuelan state.” — Michelle Leigh Farrell, Revista de Critica Literaria Latinoamericana

Who Can Stop the Drums? is an excellent, well-written, and engaging work of activist scholarship. It provides not only rich empirical data, but also theoretical insights on some of the key issues confronted by contemporary Latin American social activists. This book is highly recommended for scholars and activists with an interest in social movements and Latin America.” —Lynn Horton, Contemporary Sociology

“[T]his book certainly adds a flavorful icing, one that is certainly long overdue and more than welcome, to the existing literature on Venezuela.”—J. Michael Ryan, Anthropological Quarterly

“[T]his book provides a timely examination of the political landscape of Venezuela under Chávez in a unique way. Most of the analysis of Chávez’s Venezuela has been focused on history, looking at the political processes that led to Chávez’s election with little regard to the everyday experiences of the Venezuelan people. Fernandes fills this gap for students and researchers while providing insight on cultural politics in an urban context.”—Maggie Chan, International Journal of Communication

“Sujatha Fernandes reveals a world of activism deeply influenced by the history of Left movements in Latin America, but vulnerable to the kind of technocratic, bottom-line reasoning regrettably necessary for the state’s economic success.”—Nicholas Gamso, Social Text

“The Venezuelan people and their cultures and struggles deserve more attention and should be the subject of more scholarly work in their own right. Who Can Stop The Drums? is an excellent point of departure that should stimulate more explorations of this kind.”—Matt Wilde, Alborada

“We just finished reading Who Can Stop the Drums? and I wanted to thank you for this extraordinary book. more than anything else we read this quarter (and we read quite a bit) your book brought home to the students the complexities of the relationships between the barrios and the government, the forms of agency that people who have been excluded from civil society are developing in their communities, and the importance of culture in the lives of people and social movements. It sparked intense conversations in our seminar about race, class, culture, ethnography, micro-politics and solidarity. We’ve had those conversations before, but it’s clear that reading this book deepened the students’ capacity to think through some of the complexities of what we will experience in Venezuela as well as their own roles and relationships to the proceso and to the communities where they will be living and observing.” — Anne Fischel, Evergreen State College, Olympia, Washington


Who Can stop the drums - Venezuela cover

Spanish edition published by Editorial Imago Mundi, Buenos Aires, May 2014, Translated by Hernando Calla.

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