28 July 2017

Venezuela’s cheerleaders must be held to account


“Venezuela” used to be a country. Now it’s a term of abuse. In the wake of last night’s Senate vote on Obamacare, for example, Twitter lit up with Trumpkins claiming that John McCain – John McCain! – wanted to turn America into a socialist paradise.

The problem is that the more we use “Venezuela” as an ideological shorthand, the further we get from the brutal truth of what is going on there. A country that was one of the richest in South America has tumbled into political, economic and social ruin. Ahead of this weekend’s plebiscite on a new constitutional assembly – a desperate attempt to shore up Nicolas Maduro’s grip on power – there have been strikes, protests and now a savage crackdown. There is serious talk of the country being on the verge of civil war.

What is happening, in other words, is not some abstract test case in the merits of socialism vs capitalism. It is the immiseration and impoverishment of a nation of millions. The basic essentials – food, water, healthcare – are either unaffordable due to hyperinflation or controlled by the armed gangs that masquerade as the security forces. Refugees are flooding out of the country. Children are suffering from hunger and malnutrition. Even toy factories have been brought under the control of the state.

It’s fair to say that we at CapX have been covering the situation in Venezuela for a while (see this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this…). We’ve reported on the destruction of democracy. We’ve pointed out that even Syrians feel more safe in their homes. That even judged on their stated goal, namely helping the poorest Venezuelans, the Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro regimes have been a miserable failure.

And at the same time, we’ve made a single basic point. The Bolivarian catastrophe does not represent some hideous deviation from the path of socialism. It represents its logical – arguably inevitable – end point.

There is no one to blame for this, try as the Chavistas might to accuse Yanqui imperialists of sabotaging their glorious revolution. This is the alternative to the market. This is what happens when the state attempts to reshape the economy to its preferred ends – and when the mistakes and the corruption and the failures pile up and up and up, all it knows how to do is intervene more and more and more.

It is hard to see what can be done for Venezuela now, beyond hoping that the Maduro regime can somehow be put out of its people’s misery. But what we can do is challenge those in the West who embraced Chavez and Maduro to explain their actions.

Support for Venezuela is, in many ways, something of a litmus test within the Left. It is what divides believers in social democracy from outright socialists – or, to put it less kindly, the rational from the irrational.

Graeme Archer wrote on CapX before the election, in a magnificent turn of phrase, that Jeremy Corbyn wanted to turn Britain into Venezuela without the sunshine. That’s because the Labour leader has made clear, time and time again, his admiration for that regime (and indeed for others that are as bad or worse).

A few months ago, I wrote on CapX about an article wiped from his personal website, but preserved on the Internet Archive, in which he waxes lyrical about the Chavez revolution.

“In a sense, history is being played out to its fullest extent in Venezuela,” says Corbyn. “In power, and faced with enormous opposition from a very hostile media, [Chavez] has allowed them to continue, preferring instead to develop an alternative form of communication and thus inspire support… Venezuela is seriously conquering poverty by emphatically rejecting the neo-liberal policies of the world’s financial institutions.”

A lot of people got carried away in those early days, of course. Yet as recently as 2015, Corbyn was claiming that the achievements of Venezuela – “in jobs, in housing, in health, in education, but above all its role in the whole world as a completely different place” – were “a cause for celebration”. He has even interviewed Nicolas Maduro – about why Tony Benn had it right.

This man wants to be Prime Minister. So it is surely incumbent upon him to answer these basic questions. So let us challenge him: what does he think went wrong? Was it all down to the “imperialists”?

The same question can be asked of John McDonnell. As recently as 2010, he published a “manifesto for 21st-century socialism” which advocated “support for the government and people of Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba and other countries pursuing policies that create alternatives to the market economy and the control of [trans-national corporations], the WTO and IMF”. Is that still his position? If not, what changed?

The list goes on. Does Ken Livingstone regret the deal for cut-price oil he signed with Chavez, effectively meaning that poor Venezuelans were subsidising the bus and Tube journeys of poor Londoners? What about Noam Chomsky, Seumas Milne, Diane Abbott, Len McCluskey and the others who went on the record, again and again, with their outpourings of support for Chavez and Chavismo? (Kristian Niemitz provides an excellent compilation.)

Owen Jones, for example, visited Venezuela in 2012 and proclaimed that he couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Two years later, in an article now unavailable on the Independent’s website, he condemned the “political point-scoring” of those on the Right, praised Chavez’s achievements in poverty reduction and argued that the opposition were just as bad.

But that’s nothing compared to Milne, who effectively blamed the country’s woes on CIA sabotage – an example of “Ukraine-style US-backed destabilisation”. Again, would he defend that position still?

Then there are the 114 Labour politicians – 114! – who signed a motion drawn up by the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign (honorary president: Ken Livingstone) in April 2015, in response to the imposition of US sanctions, condemning “the ongoing anti-democratic violence from extreme elements of Venezuela’s Right-wing opposition” and praising the saintly Maduro. This included not just the usual suspects but such reputable figures as Tom Watson, Kate Hoey, John Denham, Glenys Kinnock, Peter Hain, Gerald Kaufman and Frank Dobson. Do they now stand in solidarity with Venezuela’s people instead – or still with their oppressor?

Some people argue that this is an academic debate – that, like Corbyn’s support for the IRA, his backing for Chavez has no bearing on what he’d actually do here in Britain. But the entire point is that he and those around him weren’t admiring Chavez and Chavismo in a theoretical sense: they were pointing to it as a better path, a blueprint for the kind of economic thinking that was needed in Britain. Chavez, Corbyn has said, “showed us that there is a different, and a better way of doing things. It’s called socialism”.

Compared with the suffering of the people of Venezuela, the ideological blindness of the Labour Party leader is a small thing indeed. But it is still something for which he, and the circle around him, should have to account.

Robert Colvile is Editor of CapX