DENIAL in the face of catastrophic failure of one’s ideas is a predictable reaction from a believer, as per Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance reduction in response to the failure of one’s beliefs. Denial in the face of shame for one’s actions is an experience well-studied by psychologists and criminologists. One 2014 study summarises the role of ‘shame’ in creating both denial of responsibility and recidivism among offenders:
“Feelings of shame… involve a painful feeling directed toward the self. For some people, feelings of shame lead to a defensive response, a denial of responsibility, and a need to blame others — a process that can lead to aggression.”
Combining both faces of the phenomenon of denial is the behaviour of the supporters, apologists and promoters of the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’, the late Hugo Chávez and the PSUV regime in Venezuela, and their response to the present state of the country. Humanitarian catastrophe of an apocalyptic scale is now unfolding in the most oil-rich state in the world. The magnitude of human suffering is indescribable. The scenes of bread queues and shortages familiar to Eurozone-crisis Greece are long since surpassed. Venezuela has become a ‘Starvation State’ which “today drowns in a humanitarian crisis”, with lawless cities and hunger for the majority. It extends beyond humans, as the country’s pets are left in skeletal starvation and the zoos of Venezuela become graveyards of wild and endangered animals. Peter Wilson, an American journalist and schoolteacher explains in a comprehensive essay his reasons for fleeing the country after twenty-four years, details the state of human agony reached in 2016:
“Medicines are almost nonexistent. Aspirin has become a luxury for many; diabetics, people stricken with cancer, and those with high blood pressure are out of luck. The public health system – which Chávez vowed to make the region’s finest – has been gutted.”
The response of the Venezuelan government to a crisis entirely of its own making has been systemic and organised psychological denial of its own, and particularly to externalise blame through conspiracy theories. Fantasies of ‘economic warfare’ waged by ‘hoarders’ led by the United States are played out in government seizures of foodstuffs and crippling price controls. The most disturbing recent development is the prospect of Venezuelans becoming a population of forced labourers in government-run agricultural projects, a solution that would take Venezuela from Zimbabwean levels of hunger and inflationary poverty to Cambodian levels of state-led starvation.
As recently as June 2015, when this starvation crisis was already in full-swing, an event organised by the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign in London attracted the following big-name supporters, according to a triumphant write-up in the communist Morning Star newspaper:
“Labour Friends of Venezuela founder Colin Burgon was joined by party leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn, Easington MP Grahame Morris and newly elected East Leeds MP Richard Burgon in hailing the challenge Venezuela posed to neoliberalism and privatisation.”
This article is ultimately not about Venezuela, whose suffering has been accurately detailed and analysed in many sources including the reports by Amnesty International on the deteriorating state of the country. A subject more proximate to a Western reader’s understanding is the role that Western intellectuals, politicians and journalists played in creating the present crisis. In Britain they most prominently include “Corbyn and Hackney MP Diane Abbott, along with Grahame Morris, Owen Jones, and ex-Labour MP Colin Burgon, [who] all flew to Venezuela to monitor the country’s [October 2012] presidential elections.”, as well as now Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, an honorary President of the Hands Off Venezuela Campaign. The election monitoring episode was described in an article by Sinn Fein Connor Murphy MP in the magazine An Phoblacht, which included a captioned photograph of some of those in attendance. The same image was tweeted by Diane Abbott MP and her presence, along with that of fellow Hackney resident Owen Jones, was discussed at the time by the website of the Hackney Citizen.
Subsequent to the 2012 elections in Venezuela, a propaganda exercise in Britain was conducted using a speaking tour of Chavismo politicians and trade union leaders. Events were organised by left-wing groups in Britain to host and support the Venezuelan officials and “celebrate Venezuela’s alternative”. The events were held in London, Glasgow, Leeds and Sheffield and involved British speakers alongside the Venezuelan political leaders:
“… In addition to our Venezuelan guests plus Ambassador Samuel Moncada, a fantastic array of speakers includes: Owen Jones; Seumas Milne; Ken Livingstone; Esther Armenteros (Cuba); Alicia Castro (Argentina); Frances O’Grady (TUC) & Jeremy Corbyn MP.”
The election monitoring exercise, the visits to and reporting from the country itself, along with years of promoting the virtues and denying the abuses committed by the Chavismo regime, directly implicates these figures in moral responsibility to do something in response to the present crisis and the continued suffering of the Venezuelan people at the hands of a regime which they passionately supported.
Furthermore, they directly contributed to and sustained a narrative of conspiracy theory which supporters the Venezuelan government’s suppression of opposition parties, NGOs and human rights activists. There is Owen Jones’ consistent rhetorical sneer that “Is all the Western media coverage that portrays him as a dictator by chance related to his politics?” and Jeremy Corbyn and Emily Thornberry’s supportive role at an event denouncing “US, the media and the Venezuelan Opposition” at which the Venezuelan Ambassador “expressed concern” that “the US is funding opposition groups and NGOs in Venezuela” – a charge routinely made by the Chavismo regime against its enemies when arresting their members and dismantling their organisations. Denouncing the exposure or criticism of human rights abuse as the malicious work of a foreign conspiracy is nothing new, but stock and trade for dictators left, right and centre. See Srdja Popovic’s brilliant article in Foreign Policy, ‘When Dictators Cry Conspiracy’:
“In Russia, protesters and anti-corruption activists are called “CIA shills,” or more ambiguously, “foreign agents.” In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez and his successor, President Maduro, see foreign conspiracies everywhere. And in Hungary, Viktor Orban claims that NGOs who point out the deficiencies of his rule are subversives from abroad”
Conspiracy narratives explain away national crisis and demonise political opposition, as well as both denying and justifying human rights abuse. Case in point; sociologist Hugo Pérez Hernáiz’s blog ‘Venezuela Conspiracy Theories Monitor’ which tracks the cosmology of the Chavismo regime and its explanatory framework by conspiracy:
“Germán Saltrón responded for the Venezuelan State that all human rights NGOs operating in the country are “financed by the United States,” and that they are in cahoots with “90% of the local and international media” in a plot to “attack and play down the historical importance of the victories of the Venezuelan government.”
The Chávez apologists are confronted with two cognitively distressing facts; that a favoured political project has failed, dragging millions into an abyss of hunger and despair in the process; and that they played an instrumental or even essential role in bringing this state of affairs about, whilst enabling the regime responsible to suppress and destroy its opposition by legitimising and even providing its conspiratorial narrative, pro bono. What is most striking in the Western socialist left’s response to Venezuela’s agony is the absence of response.
The vacuum of recognition or even acknowledgement in the face of disaster is followed by an absence of moral accountability. Knowing full-well that Venezuela is still there, suffering beyond measure, those who involved themselves intimately in the politics of a South American republic now conduct their lives “as if” nothing had happened. In a devastating article, the writer Paul Canning named this as ‘The left’s giant forgetting’. Venezuela has become a collective unperson to those who formerly proclaimed it an example for humanity’s emulation; although tacit recognition of their previous behaviour is found in some of the apologists, as in Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s deletion of any reference to ‘Venezuela’ from his website in March 2016, after two decades of promoting the Chavismo ideology in articles, demonstrations and media appearances.
As of this writing, Owen Jones has not used the word ‘Venezuela’ in print or online in the English language since 31st May 2015, over 580 days, mentioning it only when interviewed for a Spanish newspaper in June 2016, admitting “Venezuela is in a horrible state” while making no reference to Chávez, socialism or his own involvement.
Denial of Venezuela’s very existence has not set in entirely across the left. Indeed, the ‘great forgetters’ are not entirely consistent, with the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign making a fringe appearance at the 2016 Labour Party Conference. In almost perfect continuity from its role as the Daily Worker during the Stalin era, the communist Morning Star newspaper, where Corbyn remains a contributor, continues repeating Venezuelan state propaganda. The October 24th 2016 front page headline describes protests by the starving population as a right-wing “coup plot”, following a narrative that all opposition to the PSUV stems from the machinations of the political right. In the feed of pro-PSUV stories in the Morning Star, there is no mention of the mass starvation, mass imprisonment of political dissidents and explosion of street violence, kidnappings and murder in the state which now define life in the country which the more mainstream and popular British left, now embodied in Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Jones, would prefer to forget.
The Fellow Travellers
The publication of Robert Conquest’s groundbreaking history of the USSR, The Great Terror, led to an outbreak of cognitive dissonance on the British Marxist left. The writer and Observer journalist Neal Ascherson, a former student of Eric Hobsbawm who had graduated from Cambridge with a triple-starred First in History, was like his tutor sympathetic to Marxism and the USSR. When confronted with Conquest’s book, he later recalled:
“Everyone by then could agree that Stalin was a very wicked man and a very evil one, but we still wanted to believe in Lenin; and Conquest said that Lenin was just as bad and that Stalin was simply carrying out Lenin’s programme.”
When the history comes to be written of Venezuela’s descent into dictatorship and starvation, and the cheering on of this process from the left, a throat-clearing defence will be offered. It may be the first of the eventual breaking of silences by Venezuela’s erstwhile promoters in the West. The defence will contrast the starvation and chaos of Venezuela under Maduro in 2015-16 with the prosperity, openness and legitimacy of Venezuela led by Hugo Chávez from 1999 until his death in 2013. This myth has already begun taking hold in Venezuela itself, as believers in the Bolivarian Revolution insist that Chávez was a good man whose legacy has been spoiled by self-interested crooks led by Maduro. It is represented in Jacobin Magazine’s ‘Redeeming Chávez’s Dream’, an article of hand-wringing moral confusion by Chávez biographer Mike Gonzalez, speaking of “the hope that Chávez offered, and the promise that Maduro betrayed”, in between parsed criticism of Chavismo policies and indulgence of Maduro’s cruel fantasies that “There is no doubt that Venezuelan capitalists are hoarding goods, which disappear and reappear without explanation and with ever-increasing prices.”
Over the sixteen years that Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro ruled Venezuela through the MVR, then PSUV coalition parties, the regime enjoyed the enthusiastic support, endorsements and defensive apologetics of prominent members of the political left in Europe and North America. Support predictably came from far-left parties including the Communist Party of Britain, whose involvement in the Cuba Solidarity Campaign in support of Fidel Castro’s communist dictatorship led organically to a Venezuela Solidarity Campaign. However, in addition to this, support came from members of mainstream centre-left political parties, academics, Hollywood celebrities, artists and popular authors. They championed the regime for its open and real-world application of the socialist ideas they dreamed of implementing in their own societies and saw it as an important ally in the ‘anti-imperialist’ politics of struggle against US foreign policy. Embodying British left-wing support for Venezuela at the height of Chavismo’s popularity, and the wall of silence since 2015, is Owen Jones.
Every person errs in judgement and makes mistaken predictions about politics, a sphere of human affairs in permanent flux and subject to the intrusion of the unpredictable. Francis Fukayama’s now-infamous declaration of ‘The End of History’ in 1992 should not disqualify him from the table of economic discussion, much less the public square. Election-winners are wrongly declared, economic crashes are either unforeseen or mistakenly prophesised and alliances are entered which end badly for all parties.
Owen Jones possesses a Masters’ degree in History. He has a record of accepting difficult questions facing the political left, recognising the existence of anti-Semitism in left-wing movements and the Labour Party. He has hosted friendly and open discussions with conservatives and right-wingers on his YouTube series for the Guardian, in stark contrast to the no-platforming and safe-space obliteration of disagreement practiced by many on the activist left. In more recent months, he exposed himself to inevitable waves of criticism and abuse from fellow Labour members when he openly criticised the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Jones’s capability for intelligent reflection and recognising hard truths are worth noting, and this article does not seek to drive aggravated condemnation or abuse in his direction. Whereas support from Venezuela on the hard-left fit a consistent pattern of supporting communist and Stalinist regimes in the cases of McDonnell, Abbott, and especially Milne, Jones had at least seemed consistent in support for representative democracy and the liberty of others to disagree.
Grahame Morris MP wrote on October 15th 2012 that he had been part of “a contingent of independent election observers, including my colleagues Diane Abbott MP, The Guardian‘s own Seumas Milne, Independent columnist Owen Jones, and Hugh O’Shaughnessy”. There was nothing remotely ‘independent’ about the observers – all were from the socialist left, all had expressed support for Chávez and most crucially, all were involved in some capacity with the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign.
Rob Marchant, writing at Left Food Forward after Chávez’s death in March 2013, noted the strange truth about the ‘official election observer’ status given to Abbott, Morris, George Galloway and others and where it originated from:
“For the first time this election, there was no official, institutional election observation (EU, UN, and so on) other than the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), a relatively new organisation rather dominated by Chávez and his friends among South American leaders.”
Owen Jones openly considered the accusation that he had served as a ‘Useful Idiot’ for a despotic regime in an article published during his visit to Caracas on 8th October 2012. He repeated this consideration in his article mourning Chávez’s death, 6th March 2013; “perhaps you think I was like those hopelessly naïve Western leftists who visited Potemkin villages in Stalinist Russia.” He was powerfully aware of the historical precedents for Western intellectuals serving as legitimisers for dictatorships whose economic policies they supported. The analogy was not far from the imagination of anyone raised or inducted into the world of the left, where the tendentiously-litigated memory of the Bolshevik Revolution, the Soviet Union, the essays and novels of George Orwell and the Spanish Civil War was fought out in lived attempts at emulation as much as in articles and theoretical discussion.
It is wrong to conclude from this article and the unfolding tragedy of Venezuela that Jones and the other British leftists who supported Chavismo were ‘Useful Idiots’. Their responsibility is ultimately far worse. The Useful Idiots of Stalin’s USSR in the 1930s had little information to go on besides official Soviet propaganda and carefully-staged tours, which they chose to naively accept. Bertrand Russell had met and recognised the brutality and cruelty of the nascent Bolshevik dictatorship in 1920 when part of a Delegation of socialists that the Soviet rulers had expected to be sympathetic to them. Russell used his time in the Delegation to conclude that “a great part of the despotism which characterises the Bolsheviks belongs to the essence of their social philosophy.” Though sympathetic to the goals and purpose of revolutionary socialism, he consistently denounced the brutality and humanitarian failures of the Bolsheviks. However, a lack of consistent reportage on conditions in the country left even Western intelligence services blind and ignorant to the extent of suffering in the USSR. Extensive documentation on human rights abuses in the Soviet republics were not readily available at the time.
In contrast, Human Rights Watch and other organisations provided overwhelming and easily-accessible evidence that Venezuela had during the 2000s become a dictatorship, a home to mass murder and political repression sliding towards economic and social collapse. This was or should have been self-evident to any journalist, politician or educated person who visited Venezuela even if they were under the chaperone of a tightly-managed official tour. Direct contact was not even necessary to know what was happening there. Nothing more than an Internet connection and a library card would provide the mountains of information collected on political and social conditions in the country which had not been produced by Venezuelan state media. An amateur journalist could do it. A student could do it. That salaried journalists working for broadsheet newspapers and politicians elected to represent their constituents did not do this would be scandal even without the apologetics and ideological prejudice which belies it.
Human rights under Chávez
“But when it comes to his relationship with his opposition, Chávez has arguably been pretty lenient.”
– Owen Jones, October 2012.
“States raised concerns about a number of issues including the independence of the judiciary, threats to and harassment of human rights defenders, prison conditions, freedom of expression and impunity. In October, the Supreme Court breached legally binding international obligations by disregarding a ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that the ban be lifted on opposition politician Leopoldo López running for office.”
– Amnesty International, ‘State of the World’s Human Rights’, January 2012.
In contrast to the mourning and celebrations of Chávez offered by Jones and others following Chávez’s death, Human Rights Watch stated in a March 2013 retrospective, Venezuela: Chávez’s Authoritarian Legacy’ that Chávez’s rule consisted of “Dramatic concentration of power and open disregard for basic human rights”. Defenders of Chávez may accuse HRW of bearing a grudge against the Chávez regime, albeit to which any reasonable NGO and human rights defender may be entitled:
“In 2008, the president had representatives of Human Rights Watch forcibly detained and summarily expelled from the country after they released a report documenting his government’s violation of human rights norms. Following the expulsion, his then-foreign minister and now chosen successor, Nicolás Maduro, announced that, “Any foreigner who comes to criticize our country will be immediately expelled.”
Had Owen Jones and the leftist supporters of Chávez changed track during their time in the country, they could have faced the same fate. However, there is no evidence to support any retrospective claim of duress in justifying their praise for Chávez or Chavismo; nor would there be in claiming Human Rights Watch and other NGOs had only documented aberrations which were beyond the control or responsibility of Chávez himself. Peter Wilson’s essay on Venezuela summarises:
“Under Chávez, the country’s institutions – from the courts to the military to the legislature – lost whatever autonomy they once had. All became appendages of the Bolivarian socialist revolution. Under Chávez, it wasn’t strange for the supreme court to open one of its sessions by warbling a pro-Chávez ditty. Or for the head of the National Electoral Commission to show up at Chávez’s funeral in 2013, wearing the armband of Chávez’s political movement.”
The status of human rights deterioration and abuse in Venezuela was apparent and visible for the entirety of Chávez’s rule. Ending any illusions that the endemic problems of authoritarian rule, extrajudicial state violence and infringement of political freedoms began after Chávez’s death are the catalogue of reports from Human Rights Watch from the beginning of Chávez’s rule through the MVR in 1999. HRW’s annual World Report, an international survey of human rights records and human rights abuses has run since 1989 and reporting on Venezuela began in 1994. Some of the problems which were endemic to Venezuelan society under Chávez, particularly the problem of domestic prison conditions and prisoner abuse which Venezuela became associated with internationally, were inherited from previous governments, as were long-running social diseases of official corruption and police excessive use of force (“Venezuela’s intractable human rights problems, especially the ingrained abuses that have long been a feature of law enforcement work, remained of primary concern to human rights defenders during 1998.”) Additionally, the country suffered its worst economic crisis for fifty years in 1994-1995 as a result of declining oil prices and a banking crash; though the effects pale in comparison to the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Venezuela in 2016.
Progress to overcome these issues would inevitably be difficult and mitigated with obstruction and setbacks. It is worth considering in comparison the transformative success of Northern Ireland in the same period as Chávez’s rule, where sectarian violence, frequent murders committed by and of police officers and an infamously brutal prison system had been reformed substantively following the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. However, Chávez’s methods of governing, led by revolutionary ideology and emulation of Marxist one-party rulers who held human rights in contempt would sustain Venezuela’s existing problems or make them significantly worse.
In 2000, HRW reported that “in the space of six months, Chávez had accrued more power than any ruler in Venezuela since the dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez in the 1950s.” There is at this time a gradual move to abolish separation of powers in the Venezuelan state. For the same period, Freedom House described Chávez’s efforts as being “to abolish congress and the judiciary, and by his creation of a parallel government of military cronies.” In 2001, despite “ambitious plans for prison reform”, HRW stated the Chávez government had “failed to mount an effective response to Venezuela’s deep-seated human rights problems, in particular the ingrained abusiveness of its police forces and appalling prison conditions.” In 2002, HRW noted “A disturbing recent development was the emergence in some states of organized death squads, acting with impunity and even publishing their hit lists in local newspapers.” The next report, World Report 2003, covered the coup attempt and its aftermath, noting that Chavismo failed to secure justice even for the victims of the anti-Chávez coup; “failure to make progress in investigating the April violence was symptomatic of endemic problems within the Venezuelan justice system as a whole. The attorney general’s office and the judiciary–under-funded and inefficient–proved incapable of dispensing justice efficiently and impartially.” Prison violence and conditions of an “inhumane” and extreme character continued, as did mass murders committed by police “extermination squads”, the investigators of which faced routine harassment and intimidation.
One of the most-vaunted evidences of Venezuela being a “free” society which apologists raised in its defence was the predominance of opposition-supporting press and minimal state control of the media, as in Owen Jones’ assertion in October 2012 that “the private media enjoys a 90 per cent audience share and routinely pump out vitriolic anti-Chávez propaganda.” There was some truth to this assumption in the 2000s. In 2004, HRW declared:
“Venezuela has a vigorous and uninhibited media. Indeed, as part of the often heated and acrimonious debate between supporters of the government and its opponents, members of the media have been able to express strong views without restriction.”
The absence of a systematic policy of state censorship at this point does not entail freedom of the press; Chávez, as later ‘illiberal democrats’ would do, exercised an extra-governmental soft power to intimidate journalists and opposition figures which did not require closing their publications and broadcasting stations outright. When it came to upholding individuals’ rights of freedom of expression and freedom of the press when they were attacked by vigilantes or organised assailants, “In the majority of cases, the Chávez government has not done so.” The majority which Chávez won in a referendum on his right to remain in office in 2004 provided him, in the regime’s view, with a mandate for political takeover of national institutions including the judiciary. Furthermore, the development of legislative censorship was apparent from late 2004 onwards. In a clear denotation of things to come, HRW marked the onset of overt state interference in broadcasting content through punitive and censorious measures:
“In October 2004, the National Assembly moved to pass a government bill on the “social responsibility” of radio and television stations…. the draft law provides for a regime of drastic punishments for infractions… If found responsible for infractions, the stations could be fined, ordered to suspend transmissions, or even have their broadcasting licenses revoked.”
The 2005 Report described the laws passed “since late 2004” as having placed “onerous restrictions on the media”, in addition to further expansion of “Venezuela’s desacato (disrespect) laws, and increased penalties for desacato, criminal defamation, and libel.” Police violence, prison violence and rising crime continued to worsen throughout the decade, and Chávez’s social justice ‘missions’ failed to prevent street crime and paramilitary violence spiralling beyond control. One subject that should have been of concern to socialist supporters of Chávez in the West was the issue of trade union and labour organising rights; HRW reported in the 2008 report that “State interference in trade union elections has weakened the right to free association.” Venezuela continued deteriorating socially despite multiple elections and referendums which were supposed to demonstrate the vibrancy of popular democracy, and the reorganisation of Chávez’s ruling MVR into the PSUV. Whilst it is true that Chávez accepted the outcome of a constitutional referendum in 2007 that involved “reforms allowing the indefinite suspension of rights during states of emergency”, the regime circumvented this through continued use of indirect power through extra-governmental actors including paramilitary forces.
By 2009, following Human Rights’ Watch initial expulsion from the country, the reports on Venezuela were approaching a red-line of authoritarian regimes:
“President Hugo Chávez and his supporters have effectively neutralized the independence of Venezuela’s judiciary. In the absence of a judicial check on its actions, the Chávez government has systematically undermined journalists’ freedom of expression, workers’ freedom of association, and the ability of civil society groups to promote human rights.”
Without irony, many of the human rights tropes invoked in justification, defence or apologia for Chavismo; the 1989 Caracas massacre, the 2002 “US-backed” and “Pinochet-style” coup, the “social justice” policies of Chavismo – lie in ruins after examining the factual record of what Chávez did for – and did to – those involved. Chávez showed little real gratitude to those who returned him to power in 2002, particularly when they became an obstacle to him in later years. As Human Rights Watch reported in 2009:
“Raúl Baduel, an army general who commanded the military operation that returned Chávez to power during the April 2002 coup attempt, is currently in Ramo Verde military prison, facing trial by a military court on corruption charges. Baduel was an outspoken critic of constitutional reforms proposed by Chávez and his supporters in the National Assembly.”
One policy in particular associated with the censorship of Venezuelan media and the press was the revocation of broadcasting license rights for Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), ostensibly for its role in supporting the failed 2002 coup against Chávez. The broadcaster lost network licensing in 2007 when the state refused to renew its license, with Chávez citing the coup attempt as the reason. Jones would repeat this in his October 2012 article:
“Five years later, the government refused to renew the licence of one broadcaster, RCTV, because of its role in the coup… I wonder how many governments would tolerate TV stations advocating their armed overthrow.”
Similar justifications of the shut-down of RCTV by revocation of broadcasting rights were made in an official motion adopted by the Trades Union Congress in 2007, drafted by supporters of Hands Off Venezuela. In a delusionally over-reaching statement commending the TUC for adopting the motion, “Hands Off Venezuela spokesman Charley Allan hailed the result, saying: “This vote shows that Venezuela’s peaceful and democratic revolution is backed 100 per cent by the workers of Britain…”
If British trade unionists and journalists repeating the censorious propaganda of a foreign state were disconcerting enough, the results of the world’s acceptance of the legitimacy of RCTV being removed from the airwaves were damaging. The claim of RCTV’s involvement in inciting or assisting in a coup was repeated by Venezuela’s defenders whenever the question of press censorship and state powers of censorship was raised. Whether the involvement actually occurred was never established with any sufficient evidence beyond the assertions of the Venezuelan government. Human Rights Watch stated in the 2010 World Report:
“Neither this accusation nor an alleged breach of broadcasting standards was ever proved in a proceeding in which RCTV had an opportunity to present a defense.”
After losing its primary broadcasting rights in 2007, RCTV tried to reinvent itself as a cable channel. However, this limited range of capacity was interfered with again in 2010 as the state sought to punish broadcasters which did not broadcast Chávez’s (frequently long, Castro-esque) speeches and addresses. The following year’s HRW Report detailed:
“In January 2010 the government broadcasting authority CONATEL ordered the country’s cable providers to suspend transmitting channels that did not comply with the broadcasting statute—including the requirement to transmit presidential speeches… The suspension affected seven channels, including RCTV International… CONATEL rejected RCTV International’s application for status as a national broadcaster. At this writing the channel was only available online and unable to transmit in Venezuela.”
Government interference and hobbling of Venezuela’s much-vaunted diverse media market continued to escalate, again using circumnavigation which avoided the explicit removal of scores of stations from the airwaves directly. Instead, regulations compelling broadcasters to transmit quotas of government-approved programming were implemented and restrictions were placed on what original programming could be broadcast and syndicated to other broadcasters. The result was a diverse and decentralised media that operated under dictatorial and centralised content-control policies. Needless to say, human rights conditions beyond press freedom continued to deteriorate as the murders by criminals, the police and in the lawless prison system escalated into the 2010s.
The HRW World Report for 2012, the last report issued before the visit of the ‘election observers’ from the British left in October 2012, detailed the move to overt political prosecutions by the Chavismo regime – a matter which would have been visible and prominent to any remotely-curious foreign journalist interested in Venezuelan politics, let alone those visiting on an election-related trip:
“Several prominent critics of Chávez’s government have been targeted for criminal prosecution in recent years. The courts’ lack of independence reduced the chances of them receiving a fair trial.”
Chávez’s increasing authoritarianism and systematic abuse of the justice system was condemned even by a long-time supporter and ally Noam Chomsky, whose writings Chávez had frequently promoted including during his 2006 address to the United Nations. In 2011, Chomsky accused Chávez of launching an “assault on democracy”. Chomsky’s public letter to Chávez was published in full in The Guardian on July 3rd 2011, lobbying for an end to the “cruelty” of an imprisoned judge and others locked up per Chávez’s denunciations on television.
With over a decade of freely available publications by a leading and respected human rights organisation, alarm bells being rang by many other NGOs, and public condemnation of the dictatorship being created in Caracas, including by the world’s most-cited living scholar, himself a titanic figure of the left, the ‘election observers’ who flew to Caracas in October 2012 had no excuse or justification for being ignorant of the situation in which they involved themselves. If the pro-Chavismo socialist left found it impossible to believe or accept the evidence and testimony of even these sources, they could have easily found cause for alarm in a source they were much more likely to trust: the beliefs, claims and actions of Chávez himself.
Chávez and the Dictators
Jones acknowledges the admiration and support Chávez gave for “autocrats and tyrants such as Gaddafi, Ahmadinejad and Assad” in his October 2012 apologetic, and again in the March 2013 obituary article, “he also supported brutal dictators in Iran, Libya and Syria. It has certainly sullied his reputation.” On both occasions, however, Jones engages in a profoundly dishonest exercise of whataboutery, introducing the irrelevant throw-back invocations of “the West’s own support for dictatorships such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kazakhstan – whose regime is currently paying Tony Blair $13m a year for PR services.” Because of this, Jones claims of Chávez’s human rights critics, “a giant glasshouse looms behind them”. The irrelevancy of Western involvement in the Middle East, not least the business activities of a former Prime Minister, to the very real and material human rights abuses committed by Chávez and supported by him in other countries is self-evident. Human Rights Watch and other human rights defenders in Venezuela were not synonymous with the personage of Tony Blair; associating criticism of Chavismo with them only repeats the paranoid and repressive narrative of the regime against its victims.
Furthermore, Jones omits a distinction between Chávez’s support for dictator’s and those of the West which should be recognisable at point-blank by himself and other pro-Chávez leftists keenly seeking to emulate the regime “that says no to neoliberalism”. Whichever palpable support has been given by Britain and the US to various regimes, Western democracies have not sought, as a matter of ideology and policy, to emulate the governmental and economic systems Saudi absolutist monarchies and Central Asian autocrats, transposing their emulation onto their own societies. Just as Jones, Milne, Corbyn and Abbott dreamed of creating a Venezuela in Britain, Chávez sought to remake Venezuela in the image of the despotisms he most admired for their anti-imperialist credentials.
Chávez’s admiration and even fetishism for Fidel Castro and the Cuban model of one-party dictatorship was avowed and promoted by Chávez himself. The efforts to transform Venezuela into a second Cuba were one of the most well-established facts about Chavismo:
“Mr Chávez portrays Cuban help as socialist solidarity in the struggle against “the empire”, as he calls the United States. When he was visiting Cuba in 2005 Fidel Castro said publicly to him that their two countries were “a single nation”. “With one flag,” added Mr Chávez, to which Mr Castro replied, “We are Venecubans.”
Unsurprisingly, a strong overlap exists on the British left between the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign and the Cuba Solidarity Campaign. Receiving no solidarity are the trade unionists, political dissidents and various minority groups systematically persecuted by the regime. Also absent from typical socialist discussions of the virtues of Cuba as a nation of anti-imperialist defiance is Cuba’s historical role in supporting regimes elsewhere in the developing world, Angola and Ethiopia being the most prominent, which have inflicted catastrophic humanitarian suffering on their populations via repression and man-made famine. ‘Venecuba’ is merely the latest in a long line of one-party state projects sponsored and supported by the Castro brothers and the Communist Party of Cuba.
Considerably more disturbing than Chávez’s relations with Cuba were his admiration and more than pragmatic relationship with the Kim Dynasty regime of North Korea. Cuba’s human rights abuses, whilst palpable, were considerably less in scale, execution and genocidal ambitions than the monstrous scale of human suffering maintained for the entirety of North Korea’s existence as a state. In December 2011, ten months before the ‘election observers’ would travel to Venezuela, Chávez responded to the death of Kim Jong-il in the following:
“Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez sent condolences to North Korean authorities expressing the “most sincere sorrow” for the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, on behalf of “all Venezuelans,” after learning about the death of his “comrade.”
A leader responsible for the starvation of his country in an artificial famine, the terrorising of its immediate neighbours with nuclear weapons, the imprisonment of tens of thousands in gulags and the punishment of political prisoners’ families ‘down to the third generation’, the creation of a political theocracy around the worship of Kim Il-Sung the Father and Kim Jong-Il the Son and the supreme rule of a society ranked worst in the world for human rights and press freedom was, in the mind of Chávez, worthy of being named ‘comrade’. After Chávez, with Venezuelans experiencing a diet of leaves and refuse-searching as North Koreans have for decades, it was a statement of unknowingly accurate portent.
Why They Did It
The possible motivations for supporting and publicly propagandising for an authoritarian regime which ostensibly violates the most essential principles of the democratic left are manifold. Without access to the inner minds of the ‘election observers’ or other pro-Chavismo authors who legitimised the regime in the West, it is not possible to know with any certainty what drove them.
Mass nationalisation and the state control of the economy for ‘need not greed’ and ‘for the public good’ appealed to every socialist who supported Venezuela. Transposed from Marxist and socialist political theory textbooks into real life, the long-term consequences were as follows:
“Starting around 2005, Chávez also began expropriating businesses by the dozens, claiming that many weren’t producing or operating to his standards. By 2015, over 1,200 private companies had been nationalized, seriously denting local production of food, medicine, and oil — the country’s largest export. Many oil production facilities now stand idle.”
Contrary to Jones’s claims to Chávez’s success in boosting oil production, the deliberate mismanagement of the oil industry left the already overly-depended-upon sector incapable of performing. In March 2013, the New York Times energy correspondent Clifford Krauss wrote that “Venezuela’s annual oil production has declined since Mr. Chávez took office in 1999 by roughly a quarter, and oil exports have dropped by nearly a half, a major economic threat to a country that depends on oil for 95 percent of its exports and 45 percent of its federal budget revenues.” This simple warning, made by many others and capable of being made by any economist not entranced by the Chavismo ideology, went unheeded. The results are found in the catastrophe of 2015-16.
One of the last triumphant mentions of Venezuela involving Corbyn, Colin Burgon and Richard Burgon MP, Grahame Morris MP and other prominent political backers of Chávez comes from the June 2015 rally in support of the regime, held during Corbyn’s first Labour leadership campaign:
“Politicians, journalists and peace campaigners, along with the Venezuelan and Argentinian ambassadors, praised the “inspirational” example that the Bolivarian revolution is setting the world. Speakers hailed the Latin American country’s achievements in poverty reduction and improving literacy and healthcare. Cuba Solidarity Campaign director Rob Miller noted the unshakeable friendship between Caracas and Havana, which saw Cuba send doctors and nurses while Venezuela provided economic aid and helped break the US blockade of the socialist island.”
Corresponding directly with support for Fidel Castro’s socialist regime in Cuba, which became pertinently more visible following the former leader’s death in November 2016, the hard base of support for Chavismo came not only from those seeking an economic alternative to capitalism but a defiant obstruction of the United States.
There is a bitter and horrifying irony to the praise lavished on Venezuela’s regime by its supporters during and even after the Chávez years. The proclamation by the Guardian columnist, activist and now Jeremy Corbyn’s communications chief Seumas Milne as one that would “offer lessons to anyone interested in social justice and new forms of socialist politics in the rest of the world.” Diane Abbott MP, now Shadow Home Secretary, said that Venezuela “shows that another way is possible”. Oliver Stone mourned Chávez’s death by assuring that “Hugo Chávez will live forever in history.” These predictions made by the authors have been validated and realised, albeit in ways they did not wish or allow themselves to consider possible.
What Can Be Done: Accountability
“Oh, Western freedom-loving “left-wing” thinkers! Oh, left-wing labourists! Oh, American, German and French progressive students! All of this is still not enough for you. The whole book has been useless for you. You will understand everything immediately, when you yourself — “hands behind the back” — toddle into our Archipelago.” – Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
There is a telling episode in the research of Jeffrey Meyers, a biographer of Orwell whose work led him in 1999 to track down two surviving contemporaries of Orwell from the Spanish Civil War. The men, Frank Frankford and Sam Lesser, had been responsible for a pro-Soviet propaganda story fed to and published in the Daily Worker of September 14th 1937 which accused the P.O.U.M and its commander Georges Kopp of collaborating with the Fascists to destroy the Spanish Revolution, an episode which Orwell detailed in Homage to Catalonia. Meyers had sought to interview the now-octogenarian men and ascertain the truth behind their reasons for promoting the story, and particularly if Frankford had, according to one contemporary account, broken down and begged Orwell’s colleague John McNair for forgiveness in 1937, only to deny this for decades afterwards. The article is entitled ‘Repeating the old lies’:
“Brockway’s account of Frankford’s remorse (witnessed by McNair) is convincing. Why then did Frankford “stick to his story” and repeat his lies to Crick, yet retract essential parts of his statement — as he did long ago in Spain — and claim to be a cynical realist when he was really a disillusioned fantasist? Was it stubbornness, pride, bravado, or bitterness?
His uneasy recantation on television, reinforced by his guilt-ridden pleas when I interviewed him, seemed inspired by bad conscience… My interviews with Frankford and Lesser reveal that the political battle lines of the 1930s have endured into the 1990s. Hard-liners still believe it’s ethical to lie in the service of Communism — even when the system has withered and supporters like Frankford have begun to crack. “
Corbyn’s removal of any trace of ‘Venezuela’ from his website in an act of Ministry of Truth memory-holing is the clearest example of such behaviour regarding Venezuela. Eventually it may be claimed by Corbyn supporters, as with other historically dubious assertions made about Corbyn’s relationship with Iranian state television, that Corbyn was never an apologist for the brutality of Chavismo and simply used his position to ‘raise concerns’ about human rights. Owen Jones has at least recognised the continued existence of Venezuela in his Spanish interview, albeit without acknowledging or much less expressing remorse for his own involvement in legitimising the Chavismo regime. The silence of other apologists whose articles are still visible but who now live their lives ‘as if’ they were never involved in the making of Venezuela’s present tragedy is a silence which screams.
Owen Jones has continued his life a prominent political commentator with a large social media following and a frequent guest on current affairs programmes. After Venezuela’s collapse into catastrophe unseen in the Western Hemisphere for decades, he has carried on as though nothing happened. In fact, he has taken up the mantle of promoting the Spanish populist party Podemos, arguing that “the continent’s last hope lies with the leftwing Podemos party”; once again, his articles ignore and omit the relationship between Podemos and the Chavismo regime. Venezuela loomed large over Spain’s June 2016 elections as the leaders of Podemos were made to face their own history of support and advice provided to Chávez and Maduro:
“A handful of Podemos leaders — including Mr. Iglesias, Juan Carlos Monedero and Iñigo Errejón — once used their academic credentials as political scientists to work as advisers to the government of Mr. Chávez, who died in 2013… Even as Podemos has distanced itself from Venezuela, it has not joined other parties in condemning Mr. Maduro’s policies.”
Podemos, like the Corbyn front bench, does not wish to talk openly about Venezuela and their history of direct involvement in the Chavismo regime, but also refuses to condemn the regime’s catastrophic inhumanity when asked to do so in Spain or the European Parliament.
If Owen Jones did eventually admit to his many journalistic and moral wrongs in his involvement with Venezuela, it would not be sufficient recompense to say the least. Jones deserves no special recognition or credit for realising, often too little and too late, what others outside his political sphere were capable of warning years or even decades prior. This is especially pertinent in relation to Jones’ instrumental role in the election of Jeremy Corbyn and Jones’s own former boss John McDonnell to the highest seats of Labour Party office, defying all warnings of their unelectability and unpopularity in the eyes of the British electorate, only to finally acknowledge in June 2016 that “Labour and the left teeter on the brink of disaster.” His widely-read post on Medium, ‘Questions all Jeremy Corbyn supporters need to answer’ is an exercise in hubris and a dearth of titular self-awareness. Having failed to answer the questions he now makes of others when he was engaged in getting Corbyn into the leadership, Jones seemed to be following a pattern which began with his reporting on Venezuela in 2012.
When Jones, Corbyn, Abbott and others eventually break their silence on Venezuela, they may respond with protestations that the collapse of the socialist state created no worse a situation than had been seen in capitalist or colonially-occupied countries. Should tens of thousands of Venezuelans die of malnutrition and disease, the Bengal Famine of 1943 will no doubt be invoked. But as with Castro, Mugabe, Khomeini, Kim-Jong-un and every other anti-Western dictator who places their regime in American crosshairs, the defence and apologetics offered through whataboutery will ring as hollow and diversionary excuse-making.
In an eviscerating condemnation of the pro-Chávez intelligentisa, Nick Cohen created a lucid analogy between “radical tourists” apologising for dictators with the “sex tourists in search of ‘exotic’ thrills”. Having failed to persuade electorates to embrace policies in their own countries, radical tourists seek to vicariously live out their fantasy of a successful socialist or ‘anti-imperialist’ state through the experimentation on captive masses in Venezuela. Just as Cuba became a tourist trap for Western socialists with spending money, a resort for revolutionary fantasists, its partner in ‘Venecuba’ attracted the political tourism of the domestically unsatisfied intellectual Left of Europe and America.
On the death of Fidel Castro in November 2016, the writer James Bloodworth, former editor of Left Foot Forward, reflected on the place of Cuba in the left-wing imagination, as well as his own year-long stay on the island in 2006, beginning as a sympathiser and ending completely disillusioned. The ability of Cuba to attract the support not only of Communist Party members but of leftists across the spectrum was fixed in its oppositional position to the United States; all human rights abuses and state-controlled economic failure could be “rationalised away” by reference to social-welfare accomplishments and the dream of keeping a piece of the Earth cleansed of American consumer culture:
“Therefore the hair-splitting Marxist dialectician who sees Cuba as a “bulwark” against American capitalism, or the young western Socialist intoxicated by the romantic penumbra surrounding the bearded guerrilla fighters, is closer to the high Tory imperialist of the nineteenth century than they imagine. In both cases foreigners exist to be experimented upon or sent over the top of the trenches to take a bullet from the opposing side…”
The imperial implications are obvious. Nick Cohen’s analogy of the sex-tourists may have appeared brutal, but the inverse and perverse relationship of “anti-imperialist” Cuba and Venezuela making their populations captive playthings for Marxists of the rich world is palpably apparent. Bloodworth summarised the prevailing fetish for Cuban revolutionary chiq as “a mentality which views that country as a fly-blown museum attraction there for the enjoyment of wealthy westerners”. This was the position Venezuela found itself in when being fawned over by Chávez’s British admirers; now even they are, for the most part, unwilling to speak the name of the country which once brought them so much pleasure.
From those who supported, propagandised, politically emulated and are now silent on Chavismo and its policies in Venezuela, moral accountability is required. It is ultimately not a question of political ideology, of socialism or capitalism, but of respect for the most essential human rights. Moral accountability is inseparable from intellectual honesty. It must now be demanded from those who would have turned Britain into Venezuela and now live in the shame of denial. Corbyn’s self-conscious obliteration of Venezuela from his website is the merely the most obvious expression of shame without acknowledging guilt. The deafening silence and the vacuum of empathy for the victims of Chavismo is in itself a new moral obscenity.
Corbyn, McDonnell, Abbott, Milne and Morris are in their senior years and will not have many decades to contemplate their actions. Owen Jones is still in his thirties, as is Richard Burgon MP. The latter may lose his seat at the next General Election as a result of Labour’s disastrous polling. Self-reflection may follow or it may be subsumed by Festinger’s dissonance reduction and the journey further into face-saving denial. Owen Jones faces no similar concrete disconfirmation of his politics and ethics. In the assumption of his good health and a long life, internal discord and despair over his role in Venezuela’s tragedy and his relationship with others on the left may haunt him well into the late twenty-first century.
UPDATE (04/01/2017): Thanks to the support and forwarding work of Paul Canning, David Paxton, Nick Cohen and others, this article is now spreading much further than I initially expected. I owe Paul Canning particular thanks for being among the first to promote it to his followers on Twitter. He has just completed a new article detailing the links between the Labour Party and its sister socialist and social democrat parties in Venezuela and the persecution they are subjected to by Chavismo and the PSUV. ‘Venezuela: A Corbynvista warning’ is viewable here.
Owen Jones has been approached for comment. As of 04/01/2017, he has made no reply. I dislike response-demand or “debate me!” trolls and Jones, as any public figure, is under no obligation to respond to the claims of an unknown writer. However, his continuing silence on the issue in contrast to his earlier enthusiasm for the subject of Venezuela and Chavez will, I believe, cause greater harm to his reputation in the long-term than a simple mea culpa made to the people of Venezuela and his readers.
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