Natalie Hamlen is a senior, majoring in Politics & International Relations as well as Human Development and Family Science


This post is the eleventh 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.

“He called it Tierra de Gracia, the Land of Grace” (45). In Things Are Never So Bad That They Can’t Get Worse, William Neuman details the history of a country inundated with natural resources and commodities. Just as the indigenous people did not benefit from the resources exploited by explorers in 1498, neither do Venezuelans today experience the “grace” of the land. The novelty of populist leaders quickly wears off as living conditions continue to decline. Neuman skillfully chronicles the collapse of Venezuela through varied accounts of life from both inside and outside of a country engulfed by governmental corruption and economic disparity. Although Neuman’s deference to the personal life stories of Venezuelans evokes a deeper level of insight into the crisis, his biased depiction of the efforts by political parties in the United States to navigate conditions in Venezuela undermines his attempts to fully represent and explain the collapse of the Latin American country.

Neuman investigates the crisis in Venezuela by using the overarching event of the 2019 blackouts to symbolize the government both figuratively and literally leaving the citizens in the dark. He relies upon eyewitness testimonies from everyday Venezuelans to uncover the abundance of unfulfilled promises made by President Maduro on behalf of the government. Committed to addressing the healthcare crisis, the president announced the construction of new hospitals. However, Neuman’s interviews with locals in Venezuela revealed the government’s shortcomings. He recounts a woman’s story, depicting the scene following a house fire in her neighborhood. The ambulances that arrived to provide medical care did not have oxygen masks, and the hospitals lacked the necessary resources to care for the survivors (362). Survivors quickly became victims due to insufficiency, which has become the outcome for many Venezuelans as Maduro continues to issue empty promises (382). Instead of addressing the root cause of the crisis–corrupt and failing leadership–the Venezuelan government continues to deflect blame to other parties. When they do show up, it is only to put out fires–merely proximate causes of an abiding crisis that threatens to engulf the country.

Neuman’s work sheds significant light on the stories of many Venezuelans living in the dark. His book created an opportunity for the people of Venezuela to fill in the gaps left in the reports on the country. Neuman wrote about the incidence of looting, for example, but graciously used the personal stories of those partaking in the action as a vehicle to explain it. Plagued by hyperinflation, Venezuela is a starving country. Neuman does raise the question of where one might locate a sense of morality within the crime, but his account opens up a dialogue for a Venezuelan woman to speak directly on her experiences and justify why humanity loses its sense of right and wrong in times of crisis (50). Instead of giving his own answer, Neuman gave Venezuelans their dignity back. He recounts the stress experienced by the woman as she tried to balance the desperation to put food on the table with the knowledge that stealing is wrong (51). Neuman rationalizes her struggle by explaining that the crisis stripped Venezuelans of the ability to think past tomorrow, which would give a reason as to why people no longer could justify adhering to any sort of standards to promote prosperity and stability for a future that might not exist.

Although Neuman includes a portrayal of the United States’ response to the collapse of Venezuela, his bias undermines the effectiveness of his argument. In contrast to a more ardent and well-intended characterization of the Democratic Party, Neuman’s description of Republicans indicates his clear opposition, “In the United States the Republican dream was to starve the beast, to cut government financing so deeply that most of the things we expect the government to do become impossible” (Neuman, 365). He invites an unreasonable comparison between the Republican view of small government and the Maduro administration’s failure to fulfill the responsibility to provide functional services, such as public hospitals (365). Neuman’s penchant for blaming Republicans in the United States for the struggle of Venezuelan citizens (primarily referring to the use of sanctions) and disregard for more than a century’s worth of problematic interference by both parties indicates his bias and, therefore, brings the legitimacy of his argument into question. Although I do not believe Neuman intends to use Republicans as a scapegoat for Maduro’s incompetency, his characterization of Venezuela as the “Republican dream fulfilled” allows for the failure of Maduro’s government to take responsibility for its citizens.

In his illustration of the collapse of Venezuela, Neuman represents a variety of different perspectives to demonstrate the complexity of politics. Even in the presence of an obvious problem, identifying, defining, and responding to an issue remains a complex process for both internal and external actors in both domestic and comparative contexts. Despite being victims of a humanitarian crisis as a result of poor decisions made by the government, not all Venezuelans agree on the culprit of the crisis and, therefore, the party responsible for solving it. Neuman’s interviews include the perspective of a Venezuelan who came to realize how Chávez exploited the country, as well as a Venezuelan whose belief in Chávez’s sincerity and innocence never wavered (384-386). The difference in opinion caused some Venezuelans to leave the country after realizing the government would not take responsibility for the collapse and others to remain in hopes that the government would recuperate. Whichever stance the population of Venezuela finds itself inclined to adhere to, Neuman’s work rightfully validates the suffering of the people living under a government incapable of bringing them into a better future.



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