A good sign that your country’s on the verge of economic collapse is if it starts being lauded as a model by the British hard-left. Such was the case with Venezuela, which held this dubious distinction a few years ago. Leading British socialists, including those who now run the Labour Party, used to praise the country’s leadership at ‘solidarity’ rallies, and even took part in visits to the country sponsored by the Venezuelan Government. This has now stopped. Socialism did its usual thing, and Venezuela has been transformed into an authoritarian economic basket case. But rather than addressing the reasons why this happened, or perhaps even apologising, the hard-left has decided to forget that the country exists. It’s as though if they don’t talk about the ongoing economic and humanitarian disaster, it’s not really taking place. This is unacceptable. The British hard-left has spent the past century backing various authoritarian socialist regimes, then refusing to explain their inevitable failures. It’s time to hold them to account.
On 26 September 2012 a pro-Venezuelan Government rally, styled the ‘Rally for Venezuela’, took place at the headquarters of the National Union of Teachers in London. The attendance list reads as a virtual ‘who’s who’ of British socialism, and includes many of those who would go on to take over the Labour Party. Speakers included Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott, Corbyn’s current Communications Director Seumas Milne, George Galloway and Kate Hudson who heads the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Also present for some reason was Frances O’Grady, current General Secretary of the TUC, who’s usually fairly sensible. The best case scenario is that she’d got extremely lost. Shortly after both Corbyn and Abbott travelled to Venezuela to act as ‘election observers’. In the same year left-wing writer Owen Jones wrote in The Independent that Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s then authoritarian socialist President, had proved that ‘it is possible to lead a popular, progressive government that breaks with neo-liberal dogma’.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro addresses supporters.
I’m not sure if it was Venezuela’s economy or human rights record which tanked first, but both most certainly have. I’ll start with the economy. Venezuela recently replaced Haiti as the poorest country per capita in the Americas. For a country which has enormous oil reserves, and had the highest GDP per capita in the 1970s, this is quite the achievement. Chavez and Nicolás Maduro, his ally and successor as President from 2013, introduced the standard socialist measures which failed in the usual manner. They nationalised more than 1,500 private companies, built up a large foreign debt and tried to bail themselves out by printing money. The result has been devastating. In 2016 the Venezuelan economy contracted by 18.6%, whilst inflation reached over 800%. Unemployment is now over 20%, and 52% of Venezuelans live in extreme poverty. In response to the crisis the Government introduced food rationing in 2014 followed by electricity rationing in 2016.
The product which most graphically demonstrates the failings of the Venezuelan Government is surely toilet paper. As a result of Government interference in the economy and general economic malaise, Venezuela has suffered from a toilet paper shortage for years. In 2013 the Government attempted to address this by seizing toilet-paper factories, but this only made the problem worse. When Venezuela’s border with Columbia was briefly opened in July 2016 over 35,000 Venezuelans crossed in one weekend to acquire goods, with toilet paper being one of the most in demand items. Some Venezuelan hotels have been advising foreign visitors to arrive with their own supply. I can’t help but feel that the true symbol of socialism isn’t the red flag, it’s a man paying vastly over the odds to buy toilet paper on the black market.
When you’re as economically incompetent as the Venezuelan Government you essentially have two political choices, become increasingly dictatorial or see yourselves removed from power. Both Chavez and Maduro chose the former option. Critical media has been attacked and undermined whilst political prisoners face arrest, imprisonment and sometimes abuse. According to the human rights body Penal Forum since Maduro came to power in 2013 6,893 politically motivated arrests, and 433 politically motivated imprisonments, have taken place.
Amnesty International claims that ‘political opponents and critics of the government continue to face imprisonment’, whilst Human Right Watch’s 2017 report said the government was using its power to ‘intimidate, persecute and even criminally prosecute its critics’. Nor are there any obvious silver linings attached to this enormous black cloud. According to Transparency International in 2016 Venezuela was the most corrupt country in the Americas, whilst in 2015 Caracus, the countries capital, was the most violent city in the world outside of warzones. Understandably anger at this situation has led to mass street protests in the past few years, with over 30 people being killed in clashes between police and protestors in the past couple of months alone.
Opposition protesters clash with Venezuelan police.
What’s truly shocking about the British hard-left isn’t that they keep on supporting terrible Governments; this is the logical outcome of having terrible politics, but that they demonstrate virtually no capacity for critical analysis. Every time authoritarian socialists come to power in a country they rush to support them, and when these new rulers inevitably mess everything up the left moves on as if nothing has happened. No discussion of why their ideas aren’t working, and how to put this right. Just a general sense that socialism hasn’t quite been done ‘properly’ this time, before moving on to support the latest ‘trendy’ socialist regime. This really isn’t good enough. The hard-left need to explain why their policies keep producing terrible outcomes, and what they’re going to do about it. Until they do so perhaps we should stop treating them as a serious intellectual force.