The Ambiguous Transition: Building State Capacity and Expanding Popular Participation in Venezuela's Agrarian Reform
This dissertation focuses on how the interaction of political, economic and social factors shape the nature of the state and civil society, and, in turn, their implications for popular participation in development. I examine the 2001 agrarian reform in Venezuela, which was part of the country's larger national project of building what the government called twenty-first century socialism. The government took an active role, pursued a redistributive development path, and promoted popular participation in the process.
The literature on state-led development projects and petro-states presents a pessimistic view of the possibilities for social change. Many of the dynamics that this literature describes occurred in Venezuela. Its economic dependence on oil exports negatively affected the agricultural sector, and contributed to the highly centralized and incoherent state structure that impeded the implementation of the country's agrarian reform. Moreover, the political conditions present in transitions to socialism tend to reinforce the existing centralization of power in the state and work against efforts at building a cohesive state bureaucracy with the necessary expertise to implement the new model. Decades of oil dependence also shaped civil society in such a way that popular sectors were relatively unorganized, and accustomed to depending on the state. The centralized nature of the state inhibited efforts to expand popular participation in decision-making.
Drawing on interviews with government employees and small farmers, as well as participant observation on farms, at farmer meetings and in government offices, my research demonstrates that the picture is not as dismal as this view would suggest. I describe how local actors, when organized, were able to influence the implementation of the agrarian reform, and thereby improve its success. Degree of decision-making power on the local level varied in the two states where I did fieldwork. In Yaracuy, where local state employees and farmers organized and coordinated with each other, they were able to wield more influence in the determination of policies, and the way these policies were implemented. As a result, these farms were relatively more successful.
There are several factors that played a particularly important role in shaping the distinct outcome in the two states, including natural resource endowments, local history, and geographical factors. By identifying the conditions under which the obstacles presented by oil, the political conditions of socialist transitions, and state-led efforts at development can be overcome, my research contributes to the literatures on development, petro-states and transitions to socialism. Moreover, many of my findings are relevant for other states because there are striking similarities in the structure and nature of the economy, the state and civil society across the Global South as a result of the legacies of colonialism and the neoliberal era.