Venezuela is a study in economic contrasts. The country’s coffers have long benefitted from the nation’s large oil reserves – the largest in the world in fact – and its consistent status as one of the world’s top ten crude oil producers. Unfortunately, the vast wealth of Venezuela has done little to help the large population of impoverished citizens spread throughout the country’s sprawling shanty towns. The popular conception of Venezuela over the last several years was tied to controversial president Hugo Chavez, who died in 2013. Chavez relied heavily on a populist agenda that funneled billions into social programs to benefit the impoverished while simultaneously tightening his grasp on the country’s oil production, curtailing the media, and pushing for a new constitution that further entrenched his power.
Most recently Venezuela has made news both in the U.S. and around the world as Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, announced the formation of a Constituent Assembly with the power to change the constitution and dismiss current government officials and dismantle institutions. It is largely seen as a means for the deeply unpopular Maduro to maintain control over the government and push off elections. The result has been an intensifying of the discord and protesting that have plagued the country for months. This ongoing strife, and its potential destabilizing effects, have also drawn the attention of Donald Trump.
Unfortunately, despite Venezuela’s strong and vibrant literary community, and owing in part to policies of Hugo Chavez, many of Venezuela’s best authors have never been translated to English. Still, in order to better understand Venezuela, its people, and the current political crisis, we’ve pulled together the list of books below, which represent some of the best translated works as well as an overview of the politics and history of the country.
While best known as Venezuela’s first democratically elected president, Romulo Gallegos is also one of the country’s most influential writers. His masterpiece, Dona Barbara, is a sprawling blend of fantasy, adventure, and romance set against the struggle for land between a seductive woman and an idealistic young man. Originally published in 1929, it is considered a precursor to the magical realism movement.
To truly understand the current political landscape of Venezuela, one must start with Simon Bolivar, long hailed as a liberator and one of the most revered figures in South America. Bolivar led the charge of independence against Spanish rule of much of northern South America in the nineteenth century. The political movement of Hugo Chavez came to be known as the Bolivarian Revolution; the 1999 Constitution shepherded by Chavez officially renamed Venezuela as the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
Alberto Barrera Tyszka
Alberto Barrera Tyszka is among the best of Venezuela’s contemporary writers – writers who have largely flourished in the Chavez period. He is also one of the few whose works have seen English translations. Lucky for us, his novel The Sickness is one of them. The tale centers on a Dr. Miranda, a man whose father has been diagnosed with cancer and has only weeks to live. Over the course of the novel, Miranda debates when and how to tell his father he is dying.
Cristina Marcano Alberto Barrera Tyszka
Beyond his fiction, Alberto Barrera Tyszka co-wrote what may be the seminal biography of Hugo Chavez. Working in collaboration with journalist Cristina Marcano, Tyszka examines all facets of Chavez’s life and his rise to power, from his boyhood on the Venezuelan plains to his later machinations orchestrating a military coup. It is a surprisingly even-handed account of a controversial figure.
Teresa De La Parra
Ifigenia sparked an immediate controversy when it was first published in 1924. Teresa De La Parra’s account of a fiercely independent and bohemian young woman tethered by the high society life in Caracas was feared to undermine the morals of young women across the country. The novel follows Ifigenia, a young Venezuelan girl torn between two men and set against the suffocating life she leads among Venezuela’s wealthy elite.
The oceans of crude oil just beneath the Venezuelan earth have been the predominant shaping force in the country’s recent history – and, in many ways, the driver of much of its turmoil. In this book, Raul Gallegos examines how the long mismanagement of the country’s chief resource has led to the current crises besetting Venezuela.
Ana Teresa Torres
Considered a classic of magical realism, Dona Ines vs. Oblivion is a fascinating examination of the history of Venezuela through the lens of a wealthy family’s indomitable matriarch who refuses to be held back even in death. The story centers on Dona Ines, a woman seeking to regain land that her late husband left to his illegitimate son. Following her death in the late 1700s, her spirit continues her quest across two centuries of turmoil and upheaval in Venezuelan history.
Hugo Chávez's Venezuela
Building on interviews with insiders, aides, ministers, and citizens, journalist Rory Carroll takes a deep dive into the enigmatic and often bizarre presidency of the late Hugo Chavez and the legacy he left behind. Revered by millions of Venezuelans as a savior and seen as an authoritarian dictator – often rightfully so – by his many detractors, Chavez was a divisive and iconic figure in the political landscape and history of Venezuela.