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Does UK’s Jeremy Corbyn have a Venezuela problem?

August 13, 2017

SPEAKING at an event this week, British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn offered some standard condolences on the situation in Venezuela, saying he was “very sad at the lives that have been lost” amid the country’s spiralling economic and political crisis. But when it came to the increasingly autocratic President Nicolas Maduro — a man recently labelled a “dictator” by the Trump administration — Corbyn opted for an equivocating cop-out that has sparked a major backlash.

“The people who have died — either those on the streets or security forces that have been attacked by people on the street — all of those lives are terrible for the loss of them,” said Corbyn, adding that “there has to be a dialogue and a process that respects the independence of the judiciary and respects the human rights of all.”

More than 120 Venezuelans have been killed in months of clashes between protesters and security forces. The unrest began in March after the country’s apex court, stacked with pro-Maduro judges, attempted to dissolve the opposition-dominated National Assembly. Now things have grown far worse, with the Maduro government having elected a parallel and widely criticised legislature that will draft him a new constitution.

As the dysfunction deepens, so do the woes of a hungry and impoverished citizenry. A government once hailed by many on the Western left as an exemplar of effective socialist rule — channelling the proceeds of Venezeula’s vast petro-wealth to uplift the masses — has presided over an ever-growing economic catastrophe shaped by graft and crony capitalism.

Take Corbyn himself. A few years ago, he was enthusiastic about the left-wing populist government in Caracas. After President Hugo Chavez died in 2013, the then-Labour backbencher praised the late Venezuelan leader and his “Bolivarian” revolution as an “inspiration to all of us fighting back against austerity and neoliberal economics in Europe”. The following year, Maduro even hailed Corbyn as “a great friend of Venezuela” in a conversation that was televised live.

This week, Corbyn could muster only a feeble defence of those views. “I gave the support of many people around the world for the principle of government that was dedicated towards reducing inequality and improving the life chances of the poorest people,” he said.

Of course, it doesn’t much matter what the head of Britain’s opposition thinks about the political situation in faraway Venezuela. But the chaos there is a splash of cold water on the global left that once swooned over Chavez’s socialist experiment. And Corbyn’s hard-left views on foreign policy, which largely buck those of the Western political establishment, leave him especially vulnerable to attack from the right. His remarks this week were followed by an avalanche of criticism in Britain’s conservative news media.

“We know where he stands on democracy now,” crowed The Telegraph, which is closely allied to the governing Conservative Party. The repeated implication was that Corbyn, who surprised virtually everyone by leading Labour to a spectacular rebound in June’s general election, seeks a Venezuelan future for Britain.

“The whole idea that Chavez and his successor could serve as a dry run for government in the UK is absolutely horrifying,” said Vince Cable, the leader of Britain’s Liberal Democrats. “The leadership of the Labour party must make it abundantly clear that they have ended their infatuation with the Venezuelan regime.”

“Corbyn’s refusal to denounce Maduro even now, when left-wing leaders around the world have done so, does not inspire confidence that a government led by him would be a benign experience,” said the right-wing Spectator magazine.

Others on the left have abandoned Maduro — whose demagogic, polarising populism echoes Turkey’s Erdogan, or even Trump — along with “Chavismo”.

“The crisis in Venezuela represents a complete rejection of the Bolivarian revolution: the gains made by the poor and working classes have all but disappeared while the capitalist elite have maintained their wealth and power,” an article in The Jacobin, an increasingly influential left-wing American magazine, said this year. “Rather than resisting this worsening crisis, however, the Maduro government has instead mobilised its forces to protect itself.”

Meanwhile, the backlash against Corbyn has provoked its own ripostes. Corbyn’s defenders point out that British Prime Minister Theresa May’s friendly relationship with Saudi Arabia has survived the kingdom’s human rights abuses and draconian religious laws. Britain’s Conservatives have also shielded and apologised for a host of hideous regimes, including the apartheid government in South Africa and that of former Chilean ruler Augusto Pinochet, who was arrested in 1998 in London on war crimes charges.

If this seems like too much historical “whataboutism”, consider another current crisis: writing in the left-of-centre Guardian, Brazilian journalist Julia Blunck asked where the outrage was over what’s taking place in her country, where a seemingly corrupt right-wing president, Michel Temer, has evaded attempts to prosecute him by getting Brazilian lawmakers to vote them down.

“Latin American suffering is being played out as a proxy for debates in the UK,” wrote Blunck, who is critical of the severe cuts to Brazil’s social safety net being pushed through by Temer. “As the right-wing media claim, Jeremy Corbyn might not care very much about the thousands going hungry by Maduro’s hand . . . but it’s hard to believe that the British right is sincerely committed to the region’s stability and democracy. There has been very little said about Temer.”

In the end, despite the furore, Corbyn may not suffer all that much.

“The good news for Labour is that most of the public doesn’t have a flicker, let alone a quantum, of interest in foreign affairs. They have considerably more than a quantum of interest in whether or not they are still in work, if they can keep a roof over their heads and in what state Brexit leaves the United Kingdom,” wrote Stephen Bush in the left-wing New Statesman. “It is on these issues that the Conservative Party still has precious little to say. The Conservatives might be able to win an argument about Venezuela but it doesn’t get them any closer to winning an election.”

By arrangement with The Washington Post

Published in Dawn, August 13th, 2017