Is highlighting the failures of socialist Venezuela nothing more than political point-scoring? That seems to be the new accusation levelled at those who want pro-Venezuela advocates to retract their previous praise, now that country that has spiralled into violence and mayhem under the reign of dictator Nicolás Maduro.
No doubt, in our politically polarized climate, we’re all looking for ‘gotcha’ moments – that one miraculous statistic or example that blows our political opponents out of the water.
For years, that example for the British left was Venezuela. After Mao’s China and Castro’s Cuba both proved painful disappointments, Venezuela became the new posterchild for socialism; the ammo to fire against savage, capitalist countries in Europe that had the audacity to continue to recognize private property rights and the benefits of market forces.
But not even the most oil-rich country in the world was able to prop up the pillars of socialism, which requires similar levels of state power and control as seen in famously fascist countries throughout the twentieth century. Venezuelans are not just suffering from a collapsed economy, with inflation rates at a staggering *947 per cent; they are suffering from the most basic infringements on human rights, including the overthrow of democratic processes – severely weakened by Hugo Chavez and utterly demolished by his successor Maduro.
After an uncomfortably long silence from Labour Leader and Venezuela cheerleader Jeremy Corbyn, we finally heard his take on the unfolding horrors, which stopped (very far) short of criticising the regime. When asked if he condemned Maduro’s actions (presumably including the round-up and arrest of his political opponents), Corbyn took the opportunity to condemn ‘all violence’, making no comment about Maduro specifically, and swiftly moved on to remind us that Venezuelan leaders have made “effective and serious attempts at reducing poverty…improving literacy, and improving the lives of many of the poorest people.”
‘Serious attempts’ to implement socialist policies may be of top priority to Corbyn, but for the vast majority of us who care about outcomes, it’s important to note that the poverty rate in Venezuela is up from 48% to 82%, and infant mortality rates have increased by 100 fold.
Does mentioning these facts equate to political point-scoring? You could argue it doesn’t make a difference why you’re flagging up the facts: whether you care deeply about the human rights infringements taking place on the other side of the world, or you don’t like the politics of another party, facts are still facts. But considering the evidence, I don’t see how it can be deemed point-scoring, when up until mere moments ago, it was prominent elected officials and figures on the left who were placing Venezuela in the spotlight.
“What’s so exciting about visiting Venezuela is I can see how a better world is being created”, said Noam Chomsky in 2009. As it turns out, the renowned philosopher was wrong; as were Jeremy Corbyn, Shadow Health Secretary Diane Abbott, and Senator Bernie Sanders, who tried to paint ‘bread lines’ as an indicator of a good society.
Denouncing socialism does not mean giving up a left-wing agenda. But it does mean scaling back dewy-eyed fantasies of full state control, and moving to a moderate stance of advocating for social democracy; a system that offers higher levels of redistribution, while embracing market competition in areas ranging from healthcare to school choice.
It’s time for the likes of Corbyn and **Sanders to admit their errors, and, most importantly, change their tune on the kinds of policies they’d like to implement in the UK and USA.
Until then, countering claims about a Venezuelan socialist paradise shouldn’t be deemed as ‘playing politics’; as hundreds die under a power-hungry dictator, and millions more suffer from poverty and starvation, countering such claims is just the decent thing to do.
This article first appeared in City AM in August, 2017