Twenty years ago Venezuela was one of the richest countries in the world. Now it is one of the poorest. Venezualans are starving. The farms that President Hugo Chavez expropriated, boasting about the great increase in production that would follow, have failed. Inexperienced management and corruption under both Chavez and the current president, Nicolas Maduro, mean that there is less of each crop each year. Across the country, supermarkets are empty and most ordinary people queue for hours every day just for flour. Many of the animals in Caracas zoo have starved to death, but even those who survive aren’t safe — Venezuelans have taken to raiding the cages to butcher and eat whatever they can find: horses, sheep, pigs. In the wild, they hunt flamingos and anteaters for their meat. Inflation is expected to surpass a mind-blowing 2,200 per cent this year. Yet this is the country that, not so long ago, Jeremy Corbyn held up as a model of social justice.
When Chavez died of cancer on 5 March 2013, Corbyn proposed an early day motion in the House of Commons in which he offered his condolences to Venezuela and acknowledged ‘the huge contribution he made to conquering poverty in his country.... and the way he spoke for the poorest and most marginalised people in Latin America.’
The following day, Corbyn gave an interview to Al Jazeera in which he said: ‘Chavez was a very important figure worldwide… because he was prepared to use his position to argue for a different world order.’ Corbyn attended a vigil in London at which he gave a stirring speech about the great man: ‘Chavez showed us that there is a different and a better way of doing things,’ he said. ‘It’s called socialism, it’s called social justice and it’s something that Venezuela has made a big step towards.’
Corbyn has yet to acknowledge the terrible suffering that Chavez’s ‘social justice’ has inflicted upon his people. He ignores the fact that if the people ate better in Chavez’s day it was because of oil prices (which paid for the much-touted food programmes) and nothing to do with socialism. But then love is blind, and the British hard left really did fall in love with Chavez.
In May 2006 Ken Livingstone played host to Chavez for two days in London. He was accompanied by Maduro, at the time president of the Venezuelan National Assembly. They met Corbyn and John McDonnell, and visited Tony Benn’s home in Holland Park. ‘We know where the Labour party has come from and its traditions,’ said Chavez in a speech in the Palace of Westminster, ‘and we fully identify with these traditions.’ In a clear reference to the ideas of Tony Blair, he added: ‘My experience has convinced me that there is no Third Way between capitalism and socialism. The only way forward for humanity is socialism.’
Chavez embodied the ‘new world order’ that Corbyn wanted to see spread to the UK and everywhere. Under socialism, Venezuela was supposed to be the New Jerusalem, the great hope for the planet’s poor and dispossessed. But Chavez’s legacy in Venezuela is a pitiful disaster. Under the pressure of shortages the country has become a violent cesspit and Maduro a brutal dictator.
Venezuela shows quite clearly just how catastrophic socialism is. So you might then expect those well-meaning folk who held up Chavez as a paragon to admit their mistake. Naomi Campbell, Diane Abbott, Seumas Milne and Owen Jones in the UK; Sean Penn, Oliver Stone and Michael Moore in the US. Not a peep from any of them.
Corbyn’s ability to turn a blind eye has been astounding. He must have known, because everybody did, that Chavez allowed left-wing paramilitary groups to terrorise the middle class. He must have seen that after Chavez forcefully nationalised industries their productivity duly crashed.
Yet he is still not prepared to condemn a regime which has presided over an economic disaster that hurts the poor the most. Maduro has turned out to be an economic incompetent of the highest order. Last year imports collapsed by more than 50 per cent and the economy nosedived by 19 per cent. The budget deficit is around 20 per cent of GDP. The minimum wage is now the equivalent of £25 a month. After a Central Bank estimate that suggested that the Venezuelan economy had contracted by 19 per cent last year was leaked to the press, Maduro fired the bank’s president and replaced him with a Marxist loyalist.
Up to £640 billion of oil money was lavished on the country’s poor during the oil boom years, creating a gargantuan dependency culture. The country quintupled its national debt and hundreds of thousands of homes (of questionable construction quality) were handed to the poor. Chavez created a massive and unsustainable bubble which is now beginning its slow, painful collapse.
At the heart of Venezuela’s economic chaos lie market distortions. Petrol is sold locally for less than one penny per litre and it receives £12 billion of state subsidies a year. The country has a complex monetary arrangement that makes use of three different exchange rates simultaneously.
This feeds rampant corruption: the president’s cronies can buy dollars from the state at ten bolivars a dollar but sell them at 3,300 bolivars a dollar on the black market. Price controls have made it unprofitable for small businesses to sell staple goods, leading to widespread shortages. Carjackings and kidnappings are now epidemic. Caracas’s murder rate is 80 times higher than
One of the reasons that Corbyn was prepared to turn a blind eye to the growing signs of authoritarianism under Chavez was because he liked the anti-American rhetoric. Also, terrifyingly, because he believed in the whole project. The imagined utopian end must have seemed, to Corbyn, to justify the brutal means.
But the end for Venezuala has been not a socialist utopia but Maduro, who has locked up political opponents and ignored the people’s constitutional right to a recall referendum. Commentators fear he will rig next year’s presidential elections. He has destroyed the country’s civic culture.
Corbyn and the hard left have a broad definition of human rights. In their view, these include a right to housing, healthcare and education. Corbynistas are prepared to let these rights trump others, including the freedom of expression and thought.
That is a dangerous course. It’s more revolutionary than parliamentary socialism.
It’s possible that Corbyn believes Maduro’s line that Venezuela is being undermined by capitalist ‘mafias’. But we don’t know because the Labour leader has fallen silent on the subject. The paeans to chavismo he wrote in the 2000s have been removed from his website.
What we can say is that Corbyn has stood by the disastrous hard-left ideology that he has always espoused. So anybody who wants to know what Britain might be like under Corbyn would do well to study the recent history of Venezuela.