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Most politicians decrying the crisis in Venezuela don’t care about its people – they care about a stick to beat Corbyn with

In essence, all that he has done is to stand by his ideals and argue that there were some aspects of the Chavez experiment that worked – and there were

Mary Dejevsky
Thursday 10 August 2017 18:33 BST
Corbyn has come under fire for not condemning the events in Venezuela outright
Corbyn has come under fire for not condemning the events in Venezuela outright (Matt Cardy)

No one – I think – would dispute that Venezuela is an almighty mess. And it is a mess that is largely, though not entirely – think longtime US meddling – of its own making. But there are plenty of basketcases around the world today, some of them a lot closer to the UK or a lot more threatening to world peace. So how come the disaster that is Venezuela has occupied so much political space since our MPs went on holiday? Why all the verbal flagellation?

Let me hazard a few guesses. Could it be a) that politicians and journalists are genuinely concerned about the plight of Venezuela or fear the wider fall out from its instability? Could it be b) that without Parliament, the political class is bored and casting around for things to do? Or might it be, given that right and left have both deplored what is going on in Venezuela c) that it diverts attention from the two main parties’ divisions over Brexit?

Well, it could be all three. But there is no way to make complete sense of this Venezuela fixation, without d) and here is a clue: no sooner had Parliament risen for the summer recess than the anti-Corbyn attack dogs – restrained for a spell by the election result – were off their leash and back on the scent. Come on, Jeremy, they taunted, what are you waiting for? Go on, condemn what is going on in Venezuela. Where’s the problem, Jeremy? Just do it!

And when answer came there none – they paraded his silence as “proof” of his unsuitability for office. Here was Venezuela, a state whose late populist leader had driven its development along Marxist lines; a state Corbyn had lauded well after its Chavez heyday; a state now bankrupt, repressive, and teetering on the brink of civil war. And here was Jeremy refusing to recant.

Well, what had Jeremy been waiting for? One thing, it turned out, not unreasonably, was to get back to the UK from his holiday in Croatia. (Thank goodness, nothing too contentious about that these days, the newest EU member and all that.) But the sole purpose of the pressure was to trap him. He would be damned if he said something – whatever it was – and damned if he didn’t.

Needless to say, the statement Corbyn eventually produced pleased no one, least of all his many critics on both sides of the political divide. It contained an expression of sadness at the loss of life, condemnation of violence committed “by any side”, and a call for dialogue. The nearest he came to criticism of the President, Nicolas Maduro, was his appeal for “a process that respects the independence of the judiciary and respects the human rights of all.” Compare the words of the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, who accused Maduro of behaving like the “dictator of an evil regime”.

In response to which you have to ask, what had all those pressing Corbyn to speak really wanted? Some doubtless wanted him to be his own stubborn self and say nothing. In that event they would be able to tar him as a hypocrite who would condemn incompetence and excess from the right, but not from the left.

Mostly, though – I suspect – they just wanted to see him to squirm in the contradictions between idealism and harsh reality. And if he stuck to his socialist guns, as in effect he did? He could then be exposed as a leader whose template for the UK, if he ever won power, would be the Marxist vision for Venezuela that had gone so badly wrong.

Video shows Venezuelan men in uniform claiming start of coup

This is the new theme song of the Conservatives, and it remains so today. Over the past couple of weeks a veritable torrent of statements and commentaries and quips on social media has combined to present Corbyn as the Chavez-Maduro of the UK, who would speed our green and pleasant land to Venezuelan ruin. How far such an argument will stick, let alone prove effective in an election, however, is another matter. I, for one, doubt that it could be.

The plight of Venezuela is not in question. Here is a country that should be among the richest in Latin America, given its oil and other mineral reserves. Yet its people find themselves instead on the brink of destitution and civil war. There are chronic shortages of vital goods; inflation is running at 700 per cent; an elected parliament is disputing power with a new constitutional assembly; street protests regularly escalate into violence; police tactics are brutal. The beleaguered regime has resorted to night time arrests of opponents. Sections of the army would appear to be on the prowl.

But Venezuela is not Britain, and the reasons why Chavez won power and retained it, and why Venezuela is now in the perilous state it is, cannot be ascribed only, or even largely, to dogma-Marxist, socialist, populist or whatever. The dominance of one charismatic leader always carries dangers; corruption, incompetence, the decline in global oil market, the country’s social structures all played their part.

Similarly, the reasons why Corbyn – and others – were so taken with what was happening in Venezuela under Chavez have less to do with ideology than the simplistic labels suggest. It was not only on the far left in the UK and Europe that Venezuela was lionised: remember all the plaudits for the Simon Bolivar Orchestra; all the calls for highly drilled music-making that would “lift” poor children out of their disadvantage? Where is the left or right in that?

Opposition protesters clash with security forces in Venezuela

The point is that, for a time, in a country that was underdeveloped, but resource-rich, the politics of redistribution, with investment in health and education, worked. At a time when the free market and globalisation reigned supreme, Venezuela took another way. It is not unreasonable to ask how well either model has fared, really, two decades on.

The fact is that many of those now decrying the crisis in Venezuela across the UK media are doing so less out of concern for that country and its people than because it provides them with a new stick to beat Jeremy Corbyn with. The Labour leader, for his part, has said and done nothing that suggests any ambition to resurrect Chavez-ism here. In essence, all that he has done is to stand by his ideals and argue that there were some aspects of the Chavez experiment that worked – and there were.

You should know that I am no Corbynite. His politics are quite a way from mine. I’ve seen the iniquities of Soviet communism and where Marxism can lead. But after the Iraq war and the financial crisis, Corbyn has a lot of right on his side, and there is good reason to consider other ways of doing things. To suggest anyone now sees Venezuela as a model, however, is absurd – and I bet Corbyn knows that, too.

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