Aside from giving the impression to those unacquainted with Venezuelan politics that Jesus Christ himself has just departed the scene, those who continue to eulogise the late Hugo Chavez as his funeral gets underway have done something else: they have given the Left a bad name again.
They have validated, in the eyes of our opponents, Friedrich Hayek’s assertion that the “preservation of individual freedom is incompatible with a full satisfaction of our views of distributive justice”.
In other words, politicians of the Left will always crackdown on dissent, lock up troublemakers and forge unsavoury alliances – that, the Right will smugly assert, is the price of Socialism.
Given much of the Left’s reaction to the death of President Chavez on Tuesday, that appears to be an assumption many of my comrades share. Commentators who would never normally flinch from citing international human rights bodies when it is expedient to do so seem to have temporarily misplaced their Amnesty International membership cards when it comes to the record of the deceased Venezuelan comandante – and all because he nationalised a few industries and got the welfare system running again.
Unfortunately, though, when progressives dismiss the human rights abuses of Chavez with a flick of the hand and an assertion that George Bush was a pretty bad guy too, they set back the very cause they seek to champion – a more just world.
During the Cold War, the old argument we on the Left used to confront was that while the Communist regimes in the East had achieved a degree of social equality, they had done so with a heavy price attached – the loss of the most basic freedoms. Honest Western Communists would admit as much, and would say that they really viewed things like freedom of the press and the right to strike as a bourgeois irrelevance to the workers of Russia and Eastern Europe. Much more important to the toilers of the East was the fulfilment of material equality and the alleviation of extreme poverty.
Today’s version of this sinister argument is phrased differently but its implications are not much better. How dare we in the West lecture those on a dollar or two a day about human rights? People in faraway lands are not worried about things like freedom of speech and the right to vote; they simply want food on the table, so the argument goes.
Yet even a short stay in Raul Castro’s Cuba – Hugo Chavez’s closest political ally and one of the few remaining states that still follows the failed model of state Socialism Chavez hoped to emulate - refutes the fallacy of redistribution without liberty. On that beleaguered island (which I have visited half a dozen times, before you ask), corruption is endemic and double-think is a way of life. It resembles the description given of the Soviet Union in its twilight by Mikhail Gorbachev’s former Prime Minister, Nikolai Ryzhkov:
“[We] stole from ourselves, took and gave bribes, lied in the reports, in newspapers, from high podiums, wallowed in our lies, hung medals on one another. And all of this – from top to bottom and from bottom to top.”
Under Chavez’s rule in Venezuela, it is true, as his Western fans enjoy repeating, that wealth was redistributed and the living standards of the poorest were raised to an extent previously unknown. But that came at the cost of an emaciated judiciary, a terrified press and a compliant trade union movement. If there is anything Socialists should have learnt from the 20th century, it is this: leaders who promise prosperity at the expense of freedom rarely deliver either.
Those on the Left who remain unconvinced ought to ask themselves whether the verdict of the International Trade Union Confederation can be easily dismissed as an imperialist ploy to subvert the Bolivarian Revolution. In its 2012 report on Venezuela, it said that “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”.
In its 2011 annual report, Amnesty International described Venezuela under Chavez 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”. And according to a statement from Human Rights Watch this week, Hugo Chávez’s presidency was characterized by “a dramatic concentration of power and open disregard for basic human rights guarantees”.
The idea of Bolivarian Socialism as a 21st century model the Left should seek to emulate is also built on economic foundations of sand. As Rory Carroll puts it in his new book, Comandante: Hugo Chávez's Venezuela, Chavez has left Venezuela “a land of power cuts, broken escalators, shortages, queues, insecurity, bureaucracy, unreturned calls, unfilled holes, uncollected garbage”.
In other words, like sad, broken Cuba.
Arturo Franco of the Center for International Development at Harvard University also noted: “Venezuela is the fifth largest economy in Latin America, but during the last decade, it's been the worst performer in GDP per capita growth.”
Any self-proclaimed progressive who believes that such things do not matter ought to consider the possibility that it might not be Socialism they are really looking for, but rather sloganeering.
Those who do know better ought to reflect on George Orwell’s admonishment of the fellow travellers of his era:
“Do remember that dishonesty and cowardice always have to be paid for. Don’t imagine that for years on end you can make yourself the boot-licking propagandist of the Soviet regime, or any other regime, and then suddenly return to mental decency.”