The revolution won't come on the back of a tank. (Juan Baretto/Getty)
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The left must speak out about the horror in Venezuela

Venezuela has gone from the Left's great hope to a scene of despair. We must speak out, or be discredited.

Venezuela is a mess. Inflation is running at 70 per cent or higher and in the capital Caracas citizens have to stand in queues for hours just to pick up the basics from increasingly empty shops. This comes on the back of a decade-long oil boom in which Venezuela earned over $800 billion in oil revenues. Accusing the government of profligacy somehow doesn’t cut it.

But Venezuela isn’t just a crumbling mess teetering on the brink of economic and social collapse. It also happens to be a country in which many western leftists have over the past decade invested their hopes for a better future.

The governments of the late Hugo Chavez and now Nicolas Maduro certainly have achievements to their name. Between 1998 and 2012 there was a reduction in the poverty rate from 50 per cent to approximately 30 per cent. The closeness of the Venezuelan government’s ties to Cuba, and the latter’s exchange of thousands of doctors for oil, also ensured that many poor Venezuelans were able to see a doctor free of charge for the first time in their lives.

Yet those achievements have been used to whitewash the human rights record of a deeply authoritarian government. Not only by the regime itself, but by western leftists and liberals eager to find a progressive cause worth supporting. In lavishing praise on the example of ‘Bolivarian Socialism’, Chavistas have closed their eyes to reports from renowned human rights organisations – organisations which they would be quick to cite were their barbs directed at western-backed governments – while holding up an imaginary Venezuela as a stage-set and exotic alternative to US-style capitalism.

Leaving aside the economic mismanagement of the Venezuelan economy, in recent years Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolas Maduro have presided over an “erosion of human rights guarantees” that have allowed the regime to ‘intimidate, censor and prosecute its critics’. Not my words but those of Human Rights Watch. According to Amnesty International, human rights defenders in Venezuela ‘continue to be attacked’ and any protest must be pre-authorised by the authorities. In a new report out today, Amnesty also alleges that the Venezuelan government has failed to bring to justice those responsible for the deaths of 43 people and the injury and torture of hundreds of others during protests last year.

And then of course there are the gruesome foreign policy alliances with Syria and Russia. Just last week, in a sop to mass murdering Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad, Venezuela was the only country on the UN Security Council not to condemn the use of chlorine as a weapon in the Syrian civil war.

Even for devotees of the so-called ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ the illusions ought by now to be crumbling. Last month police arbitrarily arrested Antonio Ledezma, the opposition mayor of Caracas, accusing him without evidence of taking part in a US-backed conspiracy against the government. Last week President Maduro also granted himself special powers to rule by decree, under the pretext that the most isolationist US Government in years is about to mount an imperialist invasion. Under Hugo Chavez critics of the government risked losing their job or having their property confiscated. The regime of his successor Nicolas Maduro does not even pretend to be democratic, with opposition figures regularly detained without arrest warrants.

Twenty-first century socialism was supposed to be different from its repressive twentieth-century counterpart. Yet if we fail to condemn the slide to dictatorship in Venezuela, it seems clear that we have failed to learn the lessons of the past. Dissidents and victims of ostensibly ‘progressive’ governments are still too often viewed by leftists as victims of history rather than as victims of men. Thuggish regimes may have disagreeable human rights records, but that is just history’s way of delivering the new world.

If ‘a better world is possible’, as the anti-capitalist slogan has it, then Venezuela isn’t it. Venezuelan democrats are being imprisoned and the economy is starting to impoverish vast swathes of the population. Now is the time for the left to speak out. A failure to do so will not only betray the Venezuelan people, but it will validate, in the eyes of our critics, the assertion that the price of socialism is always and everywhere an erosion of human rights and the roll-back of democracy.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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