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.