There never has been much good writing in English – rather than in translation – about Latin America. To add to a small number of exceptions to this rule we now have the Irish writer Michael McCaughan.
His new book, on Venezuela, begins by acknowledging the ‘soundtrack’ to which it was written: ‘Joe Strummer, I miss you.’ If, as a result, you expect some sort of punk tour around magic Latin realism, you’ll be disappointed. Instead, what you get is a compact work that is exemplary. Leavened from time to time by his own, firsthand reporting, he has given us absolutely essential reading about important events, not just for the people of Venezuela, but for the rest of us as well.
Given the polarization of oil-rich Venezuelan society, between a powerful oligarchy with its aspirant middle classes, and the impoverishment of almost everyone else, it’s impossible not to look through the prism of a former general, President Hugo Chávez – for or against.
His television broadcasts may rival Fidel Castro’s for length but then the Constitution makes this just about the only space for the views of anyone other than the vengeful oligarchs who control the Venezuelan media. The radical, ‘pro-poor’ components of Chavez’s ‘Bolivarian Revolution’, and its punctiliously democratic credentials, are set against his coup attempt in 1992 and the continuing plague of caudillismo – reverence for a single, usually military, saviour. Behind all this, however, lies a long and vibrant tradition of popular activism, which McCaughan chronicles meticulously.David Ransom