Be careful what you wish for. As the political crisis in Venezuela unfolded last week while Jeremy Corbyn was on his summer holiday, many in the Labour Party were concerned that the Labour leader’s history of ‘solidarity’ and full-throated support for the Chavista revolution was becoming a liability as images of the regime’s authoritarian crackdown on opposition activists protesting against its latest anti-democratic move – a gerrymandered ‘constituent assembly’ designed to give President Maduro sweeping powers to amend the constitution and silence dissent – were appearing nightly on TV news.
Just as Mr Corbyn was, in the wake of the party’s better-than-feared election defeat in May, beginning to get a fair hearing from the media, it seemed that his links to Venezuela might end up derailing that effort. Activists and senior figures were understandably anxious for his return from holiday and called for him to unequivocally condemn the Maduro government’s crackdown.
Yesterday Mr Corbyn released a belated statement, in which he took aim at ‘both sides’ and couched his condemnation in terms of ‘the violence in Venezuela’ and sadness that ‘lives have been lost.’ Put simply, this was far too little, too late.
As the opposition activist Juan Andrés Mejía told Newsnight last night, the ‘equivalence’ that Mr Corbyn’s statement implies – with ‘lives lost’ ‘on both sides’ does not exist. Violence is not simply ‘happening’ in Venezuela, in a vacuum, and lives have not merely been ‘lost’ through accident or carelessness. The violence is the direct result of state security forces, acting on orders from President Maduro, ruthlessly cracking down on dissent from opposition activists against an undemocratic power grab by the government. Those same security forces have executed protesters in the streets in broad daylight and rounded up activists by night – and the regime’s actions have been roundly condemned around the world.
To try to diminish or hide that, or to attempt to elide the actions of protesters opposing an anti-democratic crackdown with the actions of the state security forces enforcing that crackdown, as Mr Corbyn does by his repeated references to violence ‘on both sides,’ is not an even-handed statement. To attempt to establish a moral equivalence where none exists is, ultimately, dishonourable.
Mr Corbyn is not alone in this on the left of British politics, nor is this an isolated lapse in judgement or ill-worded statement. Chris Williamson MP, freshly reinstalled in Parliament after a brief interregnum as one of Mr Corbyn’s most ardent Twitter fans, appeared on Newsnight last week to absolve Maduro of responsibility, blaming an ill-defined cocktail of right wing agitators, big business, ‘neoliberalism’ and of course the USA for the violence. Ken Livingstone, keen as ever to prove that there is no debate that he cannot debase by intervening in it, claimed that the crisis was caused by Hugo Chavez’s failure to execute businessmen upon seizing power in 1998. And of course Mr Corbyn’s own eulogy for Fidel Castro last November lionised Cuba’s Communist dictator as a ‘champion of social justice’ despite some unspecified ‘flaws.’
All of this speaks to a widespread fascination with authoritarian strongmen on a small part of the left, smitten with their ‘anti-imperialist’ rhetoric and professions of being a ‘socialist’ alternative to the ‘neoliberal’ Western order. Mr Corbyn called Chavez’s Venezuela an ‘inspiration’ to those in the West ‘fighting against’ that system, while his old friend George Galloway once claimed that Castro was ‘the man of the century’ for much the same reason. It also speaks to a tendency on that small part of the left to view international relations as essentially a fight between ‘goodies and baddies,’ where the ‘goodies’ are those self-styled anti-imperialist regimes and the ‘baddies’ are invariably the USA, and a tendency for its moral compass to get confused when confronting the fact that the ‘goodies’ often end up acting a lot like ‘baddies’ themselves, or at least to fall back upon justifications like the ones made by Mr Corbyn and others of the spread of literacy or the reduction in inequality in Venezuela.
Those are undoubtedly good things, but in truth the wheels have been coming off the revolution in Venezuela – which Mr Corbyn called an ‘inspiration’ and a ‘model’ – for a while. In recent years the Venezuelan government’s social programmes have had to be scaled back in response to years of chronic mismanagement of an economy overdependent on oil revenues, while the country has no free press and regularly tops lists of the world’s most corrupt and most violent nations. By any reasonable yardstick, the track record of the Chavista revolution is decidedly mixed and was for years before Maduro’s security forces started shooting protesters in the street.
But this crisis is not about, as Mr Corbyn said in his statement, whether the Venezuelan regime is ‘dedicated to reducing inequality and improving the life chances of the poorest people.’ It is about, as the Labour MP Frank Field put it, ‘do we believe in parliamentary government or not?’
Maduro’s government has demonstrated, in its anti-democratic, violent and oppressive turn, that it does not. And Mr Corbyn should know that, as he once put it – ‘if you are neutral in situations of injustice you have chosen to side with the oppressor.’