Spectacular failures: Water infrastructure, hegemony, and Venezuela’s “magical state”

Authors: Rebecca McMillan*, University of Toronto
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Latin America, Water Resources and Hydrology
Keywords: Water, infrastructure, hegemony, political ecology, Venezuela, Latin America, state
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/9/2021
Start / End Time: 3:05 PM / 4:20 PM
Room: Virtual 36
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


This paper examines water infrastructure planning in Venezuela under the leadership of leftist Presidents Hugo Chávez (1999-2013) and Nicolas Maduro (2013-present). Venezuelan leaders have historically gained legitimacy in part by converting oil revenues into impressive ‘spectacles’ of modernization and development, often through infrastructure construction. But what happens when infrastructure spectacles fail? This paper explores a group of water and sanitation mega-projects that have been stalled indefinitely or have failed to deliver on promises of improving water and sanitation. The stakes of inadequate and aging infrastructure are increasingly high amidst an ongoing water crisis (2014-present). The crisis has limited residential, industrial, and commercial water supply across the country, and poses challenges for governmental legitimacy. While, globally, inadequate infrastructure often results from financing deficits, this paper focuses on infrastructure projects that corresponded with a period of unprecedented oil revenues. To understand this paradox, I argue that we must attend to the political and ecological dimensions of infrastructure planning, in addition to the economic processes that animate many critical geographic engagements with infrastructure. Key factors include electoral pressures to continuously unveil new projects, shifting geopolitical alliances of capital in the region, corruption and patronage, and the ‘uncooperative’ materiality of water itself. In drawing attention to these political ecological dimensions of infrastructure and infrastructural failure, this paper builds on recent work that emphasizes how politics and ecology are constitutive of the ‘spatial fix’. This political ecological lens helps better assess prospects for shifting these processes in more democratic and just directions.

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