The demand that a politician “condemn” something is usually an exercise in political performance. It typically has no measurable impact beyond a minor point scoring exercise. But calls for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to condemn the government in Venezuela are different in one important respect.
On seemingly good terms with the government of Nicolás Maduro, Corbyn’s words may actually carry weight in Venezuela. This is a matter of some importance when the country appears to be marching toward full-blown dictatorship.
Last weekend Venezuelans voted on a new body which the government intends to use to rewrite the country’s constitution. The aim of the proposed constituyente, or constituent assembly, is to sideline the opposition-controlled National Congress which Maduro has labelled “fascist”, and would have the power to dissolve and disband all branches of government.
Maduro himself has said that the new assembly will bring “peace” to Venezuela. Since protests broke out in the country on 1 April, 121 people have been killed, including 16 fatalities on the Sunday when the vote was held. Yet the Venezuelan leader has also promised to use the new assembly to defeat the opposition once and for all. Such rhetoric lends credence to the notion that the “peace” Maduro has in mind is unanimity enforce by the barrel of a gun.
Analysis of electoral council data by Reuters has already cast doubt on the government’s claim that 8.1 million voters turned out last weekend. Speaking to me last month, Raul Stolk, the chairman of Caracas Chronicles, an English-language blog on Venezuelan politics, said that the Venezuelan government had been “systematically closing every single legal democratic path”.
“Chavismo today is like a huge criminal organisation. There’s no ideology, there’s no party there, they work completely differently,” Stolk said.
Some Labour MPs have already spoken out about the deteriorating situation in a country which some on the left once held up as evidence that “another way is possible”. Angela Smith, member of the all-party parliamentary group on Venezuela, said she was “appalled” at the “wilful destruction of democratic structures”. Labour’s shadow foreign minister Liz McInnes has also called on the Venezuelan government to “protect human rights, free speech and the rule of law”.
Yet Corbyn – and every other politician and pundit who was slipping into colourful reveries about Venezuela a mere three or four years ago – has fallen into stony silence. The Labour leader has deleted laudatory articles about Venezuela from his personal website.
To paraphrase Victor Serge on the Russian Revolution, Bolivarian socialism contained the germ of its descent into authoritarianism and beggary from the very start. While oil revenues were plentiful and revolutionary tourists landed in Caracas to laud the great socialist experiment, human rights groups were filing increasingly concerning reports about the situation in the country. The late Hugo Chavez’s hero had after all been Fidel Castro, the Cuban leader who used socialist rhetoric to preside for 50 years over an impoverished military dictatorship.
This journey toward dictatorship in Venezuela culminated over the weekend, with the round up of several members of the opposition in midnight raids. Shoved into police cars early on Tuesday morning, Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma were accused of violating the terms of their house arrests (they were sentenced for their involvement in street protests in 2014) by calling for new protests against the proposed constituent assembly. Other opponents of the government have also reportedly been targeted by security forces since the weekend.
Demanding an apology from those who did not see the true nature of the Venezuelan government earlier on would be self-indulgent. It is also, for many, wildly hypocritical. Britain sells weapons to Saudi Arabia after all, another brutal dictatorship. Those getting on their high horse about Venezuela include admirers of Margaret Thatcher, whose relationship with Chilean tyrant Augusto Pinochet makes Corbyn’s relationship with the Venezuelan leadership look decidedly frosty.
Yet Corbyn, who engaged in a cordial conversation with President Maduro over the telephone in 2014 for the television show En Contacto con Maduro, arguably has it in his power to influence developments in Venezuela. However small his influence might be, he ought to be calling publicly for the release of the political prisoners López and Ledezma.
Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn like to say that their man has always come down on the “right side of history”. If this is to mean anything at all, then it should also mean speaking out against the abuses committed by one’s own side.