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Petro-Socialism and Agrarianism: Agrarian Reform, Food, and Oil in Chavista Venezuela


This dissertation examines the policy and socio-economic dynamics of the Venezuelan agrarian reform in the Chavista era. As a self-proclaimed socialist state, the Chavista government has framed its agrarian policies as a reordering of the food system that prioritized land redistribution, smallholder agriculture, and sustainable forms of production. The agrarian reform purported to place peasant farmers at the core of a new agricultural regime that would build national food sovereignty. Yet despite increased state support for smallholders, aggressive pro-peasant rhetoric, popular support for the Chavista party in rural areas, and oil wealth to fund agriculture development, rural dynamics have been characterized by conflict over land and a geographically and temporally uneven process of policy development in the countryside.

This dissertation argues that the land reform program in Venezuela has plateaued as a redistributive process and has to come to serve as primarily social rather than productive policy in rural areas. In this study I seek to analyze the determining factors that have impacted and restricted the agrarian reform process and produced this limited outcome.

To understand the limits of the agrarian reform I argue that it is necessary to examine policy processes within an analysis of the broader political economy of Venezuela as an oil state with a mixed economy. I also posit that analyses of agrarian dynamics that focus on peasant-state relationships without addressing the commercial agriculture sector have omitted a critical dimension of the agro-food system. I therefore take a multi-sectoral approach to agro-food policy that draws these understudied components of agrarian Venezuela—petro-state dynamics and the commercial agriculture sector—into an analysis anchored on peasant-state policy relationships.

Through this multi-sectoral approach I argue that the complex and often contradictory objectives of state policy in the agrarian realm are illustrative of macro-level, petro-state constraints on progressive reform more broadly, as well as tensions between political and economic development objectives of state policy. I show how oil dynamics create political economic challenges to structural change and feed into the construction of particular state ‘needs’ for agriculture, food production and agrarian reform. These dynamics help to explain the apparent contradiction of why much of state agricultural policy in Venezuela contributes to maintaining the viability and local economic position of large farmers even as government discourse continues to highlight the state’s promotion of agrarian reform and smallholder production.

I propose the term ‘petro-socialism’ to refer to the political economy emerging from the amalgam of oil state dynamics and the anti-neoliberal/socialist framing of the government’s policies. The concept of petro-socialism connotes that the shape of state reforms in the Chavista period were inherently constrained and often contradictory in nature.

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