Cover of The Battle of Venezuela

The Battle of Venezuela
Michael McCaughan
166 pages
published in 2004

If there's any subject where the failure of the western news media to fulfil its supposed function of objectively informing its audience is completely uncontroversial, it should be Venezuela. This was especially apparant during the 2002 coup against Hugo Chavez, when leading western newspapers like The New York Times portrayed it as a democratic uprising against a dictator. It ignored the fact that while Chavez had been democratically elected and had made no attempt to suppress political opposition against his government, the coupists immediately suspended the constitution, started imprisoning Chavez supporters and in generally behave like the traditional juntas off Latin America. Even after the coup failed the agitation against Chavez in western media continued, again portraying him as a dictator and a lunatic for withdrawing the broadcasting licence of a television station heavily involved in the coup. In short, it's impossible to get an objective view of Venezuela from the mainstream media.

And while there are alternative news sources that attempt to correct the skewed portrayal of the country, but I've found for myself that these are not enough to get the whole picture if like me you don't speak Spanish. Which is why The Battle of Venezuela was such an excellent find, as here you have a short to the point history of Venezuela and the Boliverian revolution, written by a "proper journalist" with no axe to grind against Chavez. At this length (only 166 pages in the edition I read) you can't expect an in-depth analysis, but as a general introduction it would be hard to beat.

The Battle of Venezuela is divided into four parts. The first, "On the Campaign Trail" is a short political history of the country up until the 1999 presidential elections which saw Chavez elected. In a nutshell, this could be described as the quintessential Latin American experience: freed from Spain by Simon Bolivar, descended into tyranny afterwards, followed by a "democracy" in which large parts of the population were excluded from power and the political parties were happy to divide the spoils between them without ever changing the system.

Part 2, "The Bolivarian Project" covers the first part of Chavez's presidency up to the 2002 coup against him and looks at what he and his supporters were trying to achieve. What McCaughan makes clear from the start is that Chavez isn't the socialist masterplanner his enemies paint him has, but that his movement only had vague goals when it came into power, to open up the political system and improve the circumstances of the poorest and largest part of the population. Much policy is developed on the fly as circumstances dictate, rather than as a part of a well established political programme. At the same time, much of what Chavez wants is reform rather than revolution. The promised land reforms for example did not go as far as to expropriate idle land from private landowners, but at first just took government owned land. No mass nationalisation went ahead, the media remained largely uncontrolled but Chavez did demand media time. The largest reforms were aimed at creating a new, more egalitarian constitution which also enabled Chavez to carry out his reforms. More practically, much of the first wave of reforms was aimed at improving the lot of the poor, e.g. through abandoning school fees, using the army to repair infrastructure and carry out health checks, workfare projects etc.

But as becomes clear in part 3, "Reaction", even this limited reform was too much, too revolutionary for the established order. To which not just the small rich upper classes belong, but also the roughly 20-25 percent of the population that could be called middle class and which had done fairly well under the old system. So from the start Chavez was opposed by them, through both legal and less legal methods, culminating in the 2002 coup attempt and the months long "owners strike" that followed. Ironically, many of the weapons used by the opposition against Chavez had been given them through the new constitution...

The final part of the book "Scenes from the Bolivarian Revolution" shows in a series of snapshots of various projects what has happened since the coup, how the revolution Chavez has brought is progressing, in fits and starts and not without mistakes and failures and still with a lot of opposition from those who stand to lose their priviledged positions if it succeeds.

What McCaughan has written in The Battle of Venezuela is as you would expect from a journalist, a report that's careful not to take sides, though it's clear that he was more sympathetic to Chavez and what he tried to create than to his opposition. There's no real attempt to analyse the situation other than to put the Bolivarian Revolution into a historical context. It's also written from a point of view of somebody coming from a western democracy, who accepts certain aspects of such a democracy, ideas like the rule of law or seperation of powers as sacrosanct. He therefore rebukes Chavez for supposed abuses of power which, in the context of a counterrevolution against him that's unhesitant to shoot at its own followers and blame him for it, seems a bit absurd. For the most part Chavez has been scrupulous about staying within the limits of "democratic society", even when at times it's clear that doing so weakens the revolution. Despite this, he's still widely reviled as a despot in the western media.

What we can learn from this book is twofold: how difficult it is to start and maintain a revolution, and how large and determined the opposition against it would be. It puts paid to the cartoon idea of revolution as an uprising of "the people" against "the rulers", as it's clear that even in a society like Venezuela, where inequality is far more profound than in the heart of the capitalist west, there 's still a large part of the population which profits from this inequality, which would see its position jeopardised by a revolution. The Chavez revolution as McCaughan describes it is one that's largely enacted by reforms from above, combined by popular support from the working classes, working through the liberal democratic system and it shows both the strenghts and limitations of this sort of revolution. It's strenght is its legitimacy coming from both popular support and adherence to the legal framework of Venezuela, while its main limitations are that it has to work in these confines and hence cannot fundamentally change Venezuela. Nevertheless, what it has already achieved is impressive.

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Webpage created 17-02-2008, last updated 09-03-2008.