With Friends Like This, Who Needs Enemies?

Book Review: The Battle of Venezuela

A Mistake, an Accident, a Coincidence, or Plagiarism?

Foreword to David Raby’s review of The Battle of Venezuela

By Gregory Wilpert

As one of the editors of Venezuelanalysis.com, I want to take advantage of my editorial privilege and call attention to a serious problem in the book reviewed below. I recently finished reading The Battle of Venezuela by Michael McCaughan and thought that it gave a good historical overview of what is happening in Venezuela, even though many minor details and minor facts are wrong. David Raby, in his review presents just a small selection of these errors. Also, I agree with David Raby that the book, while largely sympathetic to the Bolivarian process, presents a seriously misconceived conclusion.

On page 131, however, I was amazed to discover my own writing, in some cases word for word and in some cases in slightly paraphrased sentences, with no reference whatsoever to the article in which I had written the paragraphs and no indication that this part of the text was written by anyone other than McCaughan.

Large parts of McCaughan’s text, from p. 131 to 134, which discusses the rural land reform, and in p. 141, which discusses the urban land reform, were taken directly from an article I wrote for the May/June 2003 issue of the New Left Review, called “Collision in Venezuela.” The only reference to one of my works is found in the bibliography, to a book I edited on the April 2002 coup attempt, called, Coup against Chavez in Venezuela: The Best International Reports of what really Happened in April 2002.

In the meantime, I have been informed by the book’s publisher, Latin American Bureau, that all unsold copies of the McCaughan book will be sold with an errata page inserted, which references my New Left Review article. Also, Michael McCaughan sent an apology to the New Left Review, for having “forgotten” to include a reference to my article.

I am quite perplexed by the whole incident because I find it difficult to believe that an experienced journalist such as McCaughan would intentionally plagiarize other people’s work and expect to get away with it when the volume of written material on Venezuela in English is fairly small. On the other hand, I find it equally difficult to believe that someone could copy large sections of someone else’s work and accidentally forget to place quotation marks, indent paragraphs, and provide references.

Since I have neither the time nor the inclination to make a big deal of the issue, I will leave it at this, in the hope that issue will stand corrected, whether intentional or not on McCaughan’s part.

For those interested in seeing a side-by-side comparison of my text and that of McCaughan, please follow this link.

Book Review

by David Raby

McCaughan, Michael (2004) The Battle of Venezuela, Latin America Bureau (London), x + 166 pp, £7.99 pbk.

McCaughan, a journalist writing for the Irish Timesand other newspapers, has produced a lively and readable summary of the Venezuelan process down to October 2003. No such account has been published in English since Richard Gott’s In the Shadow of the Liberator which appeared in 2000, and in view of the rapid pace of events and the intense controversy surrounding Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian revolution, there was an urgent need for such a book. This volume appears at first sight to be a useful and balanced introduction to the subject, but unfortunately in the concluding section McCaughan allows his personal agenda to seriously distort his judgement.

In his Introduction and first chapter McCaughan provides quite a useful summary of Venezuelan history since independence, with only a couple of minor factual errors (on p 2 the 1950s dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez becomes “Jiménez Pérez”, and on p 13 the 1821 battle of Carabobo is implicitly dated to 1811). Chapter 2, “The Bolivarian Project”, gives a reasonably well-documented and objective account of the Constituent Assembly, electoral and referendum processes and the early stages of Chávez’ social and economic programmes. The third chapter also provides quite a clear and accurate account of the April 2002 coup and the December 2002 – February 2003 opposition strike/lockout, and US support for these subversive actions. Finally, in “Scenes from the Bolivarian Revolution”, the author offers interesting cameos of the agrarian reform process, the complex relations with the country’s indigenous people, the restructuring of PDVSA (the nationalised oil company) and the literacy and medical campaigns, Misión Robinson and Misión Barrio Adentro; his verdict on these programmes is positive and he rightly dismisses opposition media criticism of the Cuban personnel involved as “a litany of lies” (p 151).

He provides a scathingly ironic portrait of the wealthy elite who constitute the hard core of the opposition, describing residents of the Altamira district of Caracas as they prepare to defend themselves against the “Chavista hordes”: “…I joined neighbours chatting about houseplants and hairstyles as they waited for a police liaison unit to discuss defence plans. The discussion had an air of unreality as the world outside carried on its usual lazy afternoon rhythm with teenagers sipping cappuccinos at the French bakery and garden hoses hissing over pristine lawns” (p 3). McCaughan goes on to document the scandalously partisan behaviour of the private media: “The Venezuelan media didn’t just support the coup, they played a key role in the planning and execution of events” (p 101).

The account presented in the first 150 pages of this 166-page volume thus offers a critical but clearly positive view of an original and even inspiring process of political and social transformation, and of popular democratic empowerment. It is therefore quite perplexing to read the author’s conclusion in which he claims that since Chávez entered electoral politics, his “revolutionary dreams” have “been downsized to the point where the best-case scenario is the insertion of Venezuela into the globalised economic arena on more favourable terms than might have occurred under a neo-liberal administration. In other words – a kinder, gentler version of the corporate global agenda” (p 157). Certainly Chávez is not proposing to sever all ties with the globalised economy, but then presumably no-one today defends the former Albanian strategy of Comrade Enver Hoxha. Venezuelan policies – the educational and health missions, the petroleum strategy, the new social security law, the agrarian reform, the “Vuelvan Caras” Mission, and a host of other programmes – all of these are at variance with IMF/WTO/FTAA prescriptions, and  imply a radical break with the “corporate global agenda”,  not mere tinkering. Whether or not one agrees with the strategy, its boldness in today’s international climate can scarcely be questioned.

Even more disappointing is McCaughan’s descent into the most superficial kind of journalism when he proclaims on p 160 that “the real Chávez – if such a thing exists – is to be found in astrological circles”. More seriously, he then goes so far as to suggest that Chávez has failed in an impossible task, and should retire from power “even if he survives the recall referendum test” (p 161). McCaughan’s reasoning is that the opposition is deeply divided, and if it came to power would be unable to impose its neo-liberal project on a people “who, through the Chávez experiment, have gained enormous awareness of their own power”. But this reasoning fails to take account of the evidence that the opposition in power would, as occurred during the 48-hour coup, take all measures necessary to reverse the entire Bolivarian revolution and to ensure that, as in Chile or Nicaragua, nothing resembling the Chávez experiment could happen again for at least another generation. If this led to chaos and disorder, so be it: the blame would be laid squarely at the door of Chavistas and “Castro-communists”, and armed repression would be justified as necessary to restore “democracy” and the free market.

The source of McCaughan’s strange suggestion can be deduced from another phrase in the same paragraph: that “after five years in power Chávez has failed to reform or rethink the nature of power itself”. Taking the Zapatista notion of dissolving power rather than seizing it (and referring to John Holloway’s Change the World Without Taking Power), McCaughan is using an abstract political philosophy derived from a different context as a stick with which to beat Chávez, despite the evidence provided in his own book of Chávez’ success when judged by almost any normal standards of political analysis. McCaughan is of course entitled to concur with Holloway’s theoretical perspective, and he could perfectly well write a book on different experiences of grass-roots popular movements and the limitations of political power, with examples from several countries including Venezuela. But to write an introductory summary of the Bolivarian revolution and then smuggle in Holloway’s theory as a deus ex machina to condemn a progressive government when the alternative would almost certainly be brutal reaction is intellectually illegitimate, politically irresponsible and dangerously naive. “With friends like this, who needs enemies?” was the reaction of even the most critical Chávez supporters on being shown McCaughan’s conclusions during a recent visit to Caracas by this reviewer. Constructive critiques of the Bolivarian revolution can certainly be made, from various perspectives, but this is not one of them.

David Raby

Institute of Latin American Studies, University of Liverpool