Jackson Hazen is a senior studying politics & international relations, as well as Spanish.

This post is the tenth of this season of From the Field.  If you have not yet done so, read this brief post introducing Things Are Never So Bad That They Can’t Get Worse.

The state of Venezuela has served as a harrowing example of the fragility of new democracies when they are placed under extreme distress. However, when commenting on the state of Venezuela, many political pundits and politicians miss the key factors that have led Venezuela down the wrong path. William Neuman brings his journalistic expertise and his experience working and living in the region in Things Are Never So Bad That They Can’t Get Worse to reveal those often-missed truths. His purpose is to portray the historical realities that have caused Venezuela to become so broken, while also showing readers real stories of Venezuelans to bring back some humanity and dignity to people who are often overlooked and whose interests are often subverted. In the text, Neuman demonstrates how the power of populism can lead to the deterioration of a state. Although at times leaning on his journalistic experience of impartiality, Neuman also writes into his own bias which has the effect of muddling some of the points being made in the text. But overall Neuman crafts a story that combines facts and history with the personal stories and narratives of Venezuelans to demonstrate to his predominantly U.S. audience how complex and issue the Venezuelan state really is. In doing so, Neuman allows the people of Venezuela to reclaim a national identity themselves, one that lies beyond the speeches and actions of their leaders, and one that exemplifies their resilience and humanity.

Neuman reveals the power a populist leader like Chavez can have over a nation. Often when Venezuela is spoken of in U.S. public discourse incorrect assumptions are made as to why the state has reached the point it has; the answer to the question of why Venezuela failed is far more complex than a simple answer like “communism”. The power that Chavez held, which would later be transferred to Maduro is a large part of the reason why Venezuela has reached the point they are today. Chavez (and Maduro) held centralized power and knew how to control the system and the people to maintain control. Neuman builds on the work of political scientist Jan-Werner Müller to explain that “populism incorporates a moral vision that pits the pure people against the corrupt elites” (82). Chavez knew how to play his people; he would speak to them directly using the television in his Aló Presidente broadcasts. In these broadcasts, “He would make announcements that his supporters knew would enrage his enemies, and because of that, they loved him even more” (67). The power that a populist leader can have over a nation was one key takeaway from Neuman’s book.

Neuman demonstrated excellent journalistic qualities throughout the text, however, at times he leaned more heavily into his own bias, which became evident in the latter half of the book and did at times inhibit the points being made. Though Neuman kept a fair account of history and was critical when appropriate, there were instances when it was clear that Neuman held one position over another. When Neuman spoke of the Trump administration or of Republicans he was more critical than when he spoke of the Democrats or of the Biden administration. For example, when writing about the lack of government services in Venezuela Neuman wrote, “The irony was that Republicans in the United States considered Maduro their enemy, they should have been applauding him, he was their fellow traveler” (269). His writing bias takes away from the point of the book by distracting readers with U.S. political rhetoric. Keeping a fairer tone would have served the book better.

Though Neuman’s political bias did show through in the book, his portrayal of Venezuelans not as objects or pawns, but as real people with lives and stories to tell, shone as a high point in the book. Throughout the book, he writes the stories of citizens who, despite all the hardship and suffering they face, are still living in the country they love. One example that stood out to me was Neuman’s story of his visit to Maracaibo. He spoke with a man who was scavenging in the pit in the center of the city when a woman who had lost her purse approached them. She asked them if they had seen her purse, and neither of them had, but the man told Neuman, “I would have given it to her if I’d found it” (244). This story, and many others shows how the Venezuelan people are not broken and hopeless as so many think to portray them as but are resilient and hopeful.

Things Are Never So Bad That They Can’t Get Worse is a valuable tool for anyone who is in the realm of politics. It reveals how complicated history is connected to issues and problems that we face today. It also shows how important it is for those connected to politics to be able to communicate with the public, as well as some of the dangers of leaning too heavily on our own biases and notions when writing. Neuman’s book also serves as an example of how to convey complicated information to a broader audience while not getting lost in jargon or specifics Additionally, the book also does an excellent job of covering a complicated issue while not losing the human stories that are behind it. It also serves as a reminder for us to not be arrogant in our actions because, as we saw in the book, it is this arrogance that can lead to bigger problems.


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