Dancing Jacobins: A Venezuelan Genealogy of Latin American Populism by Rafael Sánchez

Sánchez, Rafael. Dancing Jacobins: A Venezuelan Genealogy of Latin American Populism. New York: Fordham University Press, 2016. 393 pages; $35 paper.

Cara seria, culo rochelero. In his highly anticipated and groundbreaking book, Dancing Jacobins: A Venezuelan Genealogy of Latin American Populism, Rafael Sánchez translates this popular Venezuelan proverb as “solemn face, sassy ass.” I would not consider this literal translation successful, but I also will not try to translate the phrase myself; rochelero has had so many signs inscribed over time that I cannot think of any word in English (or Spanish) that adequately renders its meaning. Venezuelan rochela is easy to understand but hard to define. It has to do with disorganization, mobility, and dispersion, but also with Venezuela’s robust “party culture” and affinity for dancing. And while Rafael’s translation of this proverb, one of the epigraphs in a book about “dancing,” does not quite work, it does nonetheless open his very successful exploration of the proverb’s core, or what Dancing Jacobins calls the monumental governmentality of Venezuelan populism.

In this fascinating and even exuberant book published by Fordham University Press, anthropologist Rafael Sánchez uncovers the complexities and contradictions of the Venezuelan nation through an impressive interplay of historiographical sources, theoretical approaches, anthropological narratives, and literary and visual artifacts. From Venezuelan independence to the Chavez era and the return of what Rafael Sánchez calls Bolívar Superstar, the book insists on a central idea: Venezuelan political representatives must monumentalize themselves as the changeless “general will” of the nation’s highly heterogeneous, mobile, and delocalized population. Or, in Rafael Sánchez’s own words, “the representatives’ pompous, statuesque appearances must be supplemented by their agitated dancing” (5). The Venezuelan Jacobins therefore have to bridge the universal and the singular, the general and the particular, in order to govern their unstable and highly mobilized constituencies. According to the book, Venezuelan congressmen first monumentalized themselves as the visible incarnation of a “general will” during the crisis of independence, when the symbolic and material resources to incorporate subaltern populations into the republican order were lacking.

Throughout the book’s eight chapters, introduction, and epilogue, the author uses the image of the theater, “theatricalized history” (231), and the dancing politicians as a way to explain the instability of emergent Venezuelan republicanism. The author argues that in Venezuela, more than other Latin American countries, both the people and individuals have continuously morphed into less and less governable entities. Rafael Sánchez depicts Venezuela as a theater: as audience members leave their assigned seats to join the crowds outside, the nation’s representatives are onstage, trying desperately to regain and hold their attention through increasingly manic dancing. Dancing is here understood both as a supplement to the politicians’ public performances—a “series of winks, identifying moves, outrageous asides, unexpected outbursts” (7)—and as one of the Liberator’s many talents—the book begins by noting that Simón Bolívar loved to dance.

In his lifetime, numerous visual and material artifacts represented Bolívar as the personification of the Venezuelan crowds. And according to the book, he represented both the general will of the people and that of the people in arms. Rafael Sánchez’s book is therefore a revision of prior approaches that include, for example, Fernando Coronil’s highly influential reading. Whereas Coronil’s The Magical State argued that the foundational discourses developed in the twentieth century, and specifically during the presidency of Juan Vicente Gómez and the concurrent distribution of oil money, Sánchez sees these discourses as products of the nineteenth century.

Dancing Jacobins places special emphasis on the body, exploring how government turned bodies into spectacles that promoted the building of common ground. It also and of course deals with the figure of Bolívar, playing with Bolívar Superstar and the neverending return of Bolívar to Venezuelan politics. Rafael Sánchez follows Michael Taussig’s magnificent The Magic of the State and calls the Liberator the original figure, but while Taussig sees possession of Bolívar’s spiritual and material remains as the basis for the image of the Venezuelan State, to Sánchez, the Liberator’s dancing skills are the basis of Venezuelan governmentality. Lastly, one of the book’s most interesting arguments is its reinterpretation of populism. Rafael Sánchez explains that Argentine theorist Ernesto Laclau did not theorize populism per se, but rather radical populism. As such, the empty signifier can never be empty: to Rafael Sánchez, populism is already a regime, never just a social movement. Rafael Sánchez argues that radical populism has been a constitutive element of Venezuela’s republicanism.

On November 15, 2016, the British newspaper The Guardian published an article titled “As Venezuela lurches from crisis to crisis President Maduro moonlights as salsa DJ.” The article explained that title: “Venezuela is facing a cratering economy and political deadlock but the president still finds time to show off his 70s dance music chops on his own radio show.” After reading Dancing Jacobins: A Venezuelan Genealogy of Latin American Populism, we can understand why The Guardian’s use of the conjunction but (in the phrase “but the president still finds time...”) to imply that something paradoxical has taken place is completely misplaced when describing Venezuelan populism.

Javier Guerrero is Assistant Professor of Latin American Studies at Princeton University.