Don't forget there's a dark side to Hugo Chavez's Venezuela

Commentators have lauded the Venezuelan President after his re-election - but reports from Amnesty International and other watchdogs should give us pause for thought

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When things are grim at home it can be easier to seek comfort in developments abroad. And boy, are things grim at home right now. Stagnant levels of pay, an economically incompetent government determined to erode hard-fought workers’ rights and a lacklustre opposition. And worst of all, a public that remains largely apathetic.

How tempting it is to allow one’s optimism to feed on events occurring further afield.

During the course of the last week or so nowhere has this been more apparent than in the case of Venezuela. Otherwise sober journalists and politicians have been queuing up to heap praise on newly elected President Hugo Chavez - keen to emphasise his democratic legitimacy and even keener to tell of their own favourable impression of the Latin American petro-crat.

Owen Jones described the newly-elected Chavez in these pages as someone who leads a “progressive, populist government that says no to neo-liberalism”. Praise was equally forthcoming from the Labour MP for Easington Grahame Morris, who said that anyone protesting against abuses in the Venezuelan electoral system was doing so, “not because they are a democrat, but because they do not like the result”. Ex-US President Jimmy Carter even went as far as to describe Venezuela’s electoral system as “the best in the world”.

Some of the rhetoric is understandable of course. In an age of airbrushed politicians whose every word resonates with insincerity, the personality of Hugo Chavez is superficially attractive. When I first saw The Revolution Will Not Be Televised - a 2003 documentary detailing the attempt to overthrow Chavez during his first term in office - I too was a convert.

Chavez's chutzpah

For the first time Venezuela had a president that was spending the country’s vast oil wealth on generous social programmes to ensure there was a financial floor below which the poor would no longer fall. It was arguably this, rather than any real concern for political liberty, which prompted the military coup that tried to overthrow Chavez in 2002 – Venezuela’s Harvard-educated elite saw that their privileges were under threat and sought to act. Chavez had also threatened the profits of American oil companies; and as anyone versed in Latin American politics will attest, those that are brave enough to do such things are rarely left in power for long. If nothing else you had to admire the chutzpah of the man.

But it’s a funny sort of democracy (and certainly not one which can accurately be described as the best in the world) that attracts such harsh criticism from human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch - organisations which can hardly be dismissed as agents of neo-liberalism.

In its 2011 annual report, Amnesty described Venezuela as a country where “those critical of the government were prosecuted on politically motivated charges in what appeared to be an attempt to silence them”.

Human Rights Watch went further, and said the “accumulation of power in Venezuela” had allowed the government “to intimidate, censor, and prosecute critics and perceived opponents in a wide range of cases involving the judiciary, the media, and civil society”. As any good democrat knows, the strength of a democratic system is not defined solely by what happens on polling day.

Trade unions

Another sign of a healthy civil society is a strong trade union movement. Listening to those singing the praises of Chavez it’s easy to skirt over the fact that Venezuela is a country where, according to the International Trade Union Confederation’s 2012 annual survey, “anti-union discrimination, violations of collective bargaining rights and the non-respect of collective agreements were frequent and persistent in both the public and private sector”.

Last year prominent Venezuelan trade unionist Rubén González, a former supporter of Chavez, went to jail for having the temerity to test the fraternal claims of Bolivarian socialism.

After leading a 15-day strike at the state iron mining company in 2009, he was jailed for seven years for “crimes” that included unlawful assembly, incitement, and violating a government security zone. According to The Human Rights Foundation (HRF), González’s imprisonment had more to do with the fact that he took workers out on strike than with the trumped up official charges. “The on-going trial against González is yet another instance of the continuing criminalization of legitimate union activities in Venezuela,” said HRF general counsel Javier El-Hage.

Some like to view Venezuela as part of a larger progressive Latin American movement that’s turning away from the North American economic model towards something fairer. “Venezuela’s main allies are fellow Latin American democracies, themselves ruled by progressive governments,” wrote Owen Jones.

And yet Chavez’s main ally in the region is Cuba, a country ruled by a crew of Stalinist gargoyles who, amongst other things, prevent Cubans from travelling freely overseas. By providing Cuba with subsidised oil at a rate of roughly 105,000 cut-rate barrels a day - about half of Cuba's energy needs for petroleum - Chavez ensures that the Castro dictatorship retains its iron grip on power.

As the Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez made clear last week, the Bolivarian Revolution looks quite different from the dilapidated streets of Havana. “It was precisely the rise to power of Hugo Chavez in 1999 that was the key element to the walking back of reforms,” Ms Sanchez wrote.

“With a powerful and nearby partner lavishly giving us oil, why continue to deepen the process of relaxations that resulted in a loss of power?”

In his memoirs the young Russian revolutionary Victor Serge noticed how easy it was for populist charlatans to offer easy solutions to the young and idealistic in search of a cause. “When there’s no worthwhile banner,” Serge said, “you start to march behind worthless ones”.

Those keen to defend President Hugo Chavez would do well to remember Serge’s words, for history is rarely kind to those who make excuses for autocrats because they’ve not yet found a revolution worth fighting for.

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