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

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.