During his much-criticised speech at the UN this week Donald Trump once again waded into the debate on Venezuela, giving President Maduro and his allies all the ammunition they needed to frame the ongoing crisis as a battle between socialism and capitalism. Self-determination versus imperialism. Whilst Trump’s intervention is far from helpful, he is not the cause of this crisis and merely serves as a convenient distraction from Maduro’s own failings.
Being married to a Venezuelan there is barely a day that goes by that I don’t hear about what is going on in Venezuela from family and friends who are there. I visited Caracas for three weeks last year and saw for myself what is happening and it is shocking. The Venezuela my wife grew up in is now unrecognisable.
Like thousands of other Venezuelans, my wife’s parents have left their home to live in Brazil and feel unable to return to the poverty, violence and chaos of Caracas. And why would they? We have many friends and family members still there who have been violently attacked, robbed, kidnapped and raped. This is normal life in Caracas which has the highest murder rate in the world – ten times the global average.
Venezuela is in the media spotlight now but the crisis we are seeing has been many years in the making. The situation has worsened dramatically but the seeds of economic mismanagement were sown by Hugo Chavez. Many industries were nationalised and managed so poorly they collapsed, leaving a complete reliance on oil sales. When the oil price collapsed there was then no longer enough money to import the basic goods, leading to food and medicine shortages.
Supermarkets are forced to fill their shelves so that there does not appear to be shortages, meaning you will see shelf after shelf of the same product in the stores. If people can find the food they need then they struggle to afford it. Inflation is the highest in the world – now estimated at around 800% – making the notes in circulation worthless. The government has increased the minimum wage several times this year alone, but it is not enough to keep pace. People commonly rummage in bins looking for something to eat and the average Venezuelan lost 8kg last year. Maduro’s latest idea to combat starvation is for the people to breed and eat rabbits:
“We need a publicity campaign on radio, TV, in newspapers, in cartoons, everywhere, so that the people understand that rabbits aren’t pets but two and a half kilos of meat”, he announced at a Cabinet meeting, amid laughter from his Ministers.
They can afford to laugh. They aren’t the ones starving. Chavez’s own former finance minister published a statement to show that £500bn had disappeared from state finances. The oil price may have fallen but Venezuela has still received more than £1.5 trillion dollars in oil sales. Where has all of this money gone?
Allies of Maduro characterise the opposition as ‘right wing’ and ‘US backed’ in order to rally support from the left. In reality many of the protestors are just ordinary people fed up with this ongoing corruption and mismanagement. Fed up of not knowing if they are going to be robbed from day to day. Fed up with not being able to eat properly. Fed up of not being able to access healthcare or buy toilet paper and sanitary towels.
The UN say over 5,000 people have been arbitrarily detained since April. Of those political prisoners that are allied to opposition parties, many are what we would actually consider left wing or centre left. A number of the parties that make up the opposition are even members of the Socialist International, which makes them sister parties of the Labour Party – something you will never hear from the Morning Star or the Venezuelan Solidarity Campaign.
You will also hear that the opposition is ‘anti-democratic’, but it is Maduro who has side-stepped many of the democratic checks and balances enshrined in the constitution. Last year Maduro refused to recognise the right to a recall referendum when the opposition collected the required number of signatures. Earlier this year he tried to abolish the opposition-held National Assembly which was democratically elected, simply because he lost the elections to it, and when that failed he called a power grab election to set up an entirely new Assembly and rewrite the constitution in his favour. Imagine if Theresa May’s response to losing her majority was to set up a whole new Parliament.
This latest move has been condemned, not just by the US, but by over 40 countries, including 14 Latin American countries. The election was understandably boycotted by most voters and the respected UK company administering the election said that the turnout figure was rigged by at least a million votes. The 545 seats of the new ‘Constituent Assembly’ are now being filled entirely with candidates hand-picked by Maduro’s Party. It is classic Animal Farm authoritarianism with the pigs steadily rewriting the rules as they go along to solidify their own power.
As well as the attack on democracy there are human rights abuses on a huge scale as reported by the UN, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
- The suppression of trade unions
- Food parcels delivered to the poor only in return for guaranteed political allegiance
- Any form of protest being outlawed altogether at the time of the most recent election
- Violence against women and girls and lack of LGBT rights
- TV stations and newspapers that are hostile to Maduro being closed down
- Brutal beatings and excessive use of force against protestors – including protestors being shot at point blank range and run over in armoured vehicles
- The shooting of opposition legislators in the National Assembly
- Imprisoning and torturing of political opponents and banning people from office
- Civilians being tried in military courts
- Attacks on medical centres
- And finally, pro-government vigilante gangs called ‘collectivos’ being armed to help supress the protests – which is the cause of much of the violence
Over the summer, Jeremy Corbyn’s delayed response to the crisis was to point out that there was violence on both sides. Whilst this is true, the same has been said of what is happening currently in Burma by Aung San Suu Kyi, and what happened in Charlottesville by Donald Trump. In all of these cases it was an inadequate response.
In the summer, the former Attorney General in Venezuela pointed out that 90% of those killed during the crisis have been opposition protestors, so it is clearly a very one sided situation. Jeremy Corbyn himself once tweeted: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice you have chosen the side of the oppressor”. We should heed this advice. As a Labour Party that believes in justice, fairness, democracy and human rights, we must stand with our sister parties in the opposition, but more importantly with the Venezuelan people, and tell Maduro very clearly that these human rights abuses are unacceptable.
It is understandable that many on the left felt affinity with Hugo Chavez. Programmes that he introduced initially brought improvements in education and healthcare and reductions in poverty. In a continent with a history littered with right-wing coups, military dictatorships and US interference, supporting his successor Maduro has also been a natural position for many on the left. Venezuela has been a symbol of anti-imperialist resistance, much like Cuba. But the US is not the architect of this crisis, it is down to the decisions of those in power in Venezuela. Donald Trump may serve as a convenient scapegoat for Maduro’s allies, but in reality he is simply a red herring. Labour should oppose US intervention in Venezuela whilst also condemning the abuses and failings of the Maduro regime.
We cannot turn a blind eye to such corruption, human rights abuses, and a failure to provide basic living conditions simply because it is all done by someone who calls himself a socialist. If we are to be principled and credible as a party and fight injustice wherever it occurs we must apply the same moral standards to both the left and the right – to both our supposed friends and our enemies. Should a vote arise at this week’s conference on the issue, I hope delegates will not go blind in one eye.