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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue