As the economic and social collapse in Venezuela continues daily, the many politicians that hailed the country as an example of how socialism can work – and should provide a basis for policies here – refuse to recognise its tragic demise.
The rising evidence of a humanitarian crisis, based on facts that are beyond dispute, tells a shocking story of immense poverty where there was once general prosperity; of massive aggrandisement and corruption where there was once a functioning pluralist democracy; of the perversion of justice where there was once independent institutions and of depravity where there was once culture and civility.
Supporters of the Venezuelan government blame the failing economy – of the nation with the world’s largest oil reserves – on the collapse of oil prices, but the causes predate this and show no prospect of reversal even when oil prices are recovering. Almost 18,000 employees of the state-run oil company Petroleos de Venezuela were sacked in 2003 by the late president Hugo Chavez after a failed strike. He replaced them with political placemen often without the necessary experience and starved the refineries of investment.
Oil production is expected to fall this year to one million barrels per day when it was achieving 2.5 million in 2016. As the economic crisis has mounted, the government of President Nicolas Maduro (Chavez’s deputy) turned to simply printing money. Consequently, inflation is predicted by the IMF to reach one million per cent by the end of this year, while the proportion of people in poverty is put at 87 per cent and more than two million refugees have fled to neighbouring countries.
The economic suffering has hit public services, with hospitals struggling to obtain medicines and treat patients; there have been food riots as people find shops empty and turn to raking the bins for waste that is edible. All this is documented.
Venezuela is now 169th in the world rankings for corruption by Transparency International – the seventh lowest score. Elections are viewed as predictable shams and political opposition is increasingly difficult and life-threatening.
Reporting Venezuela’s fall from a nation of relative prosperity to one whose rankings in categories such as economic performance, corruption, human rights, healthcare and education are falling like a stone has led to a climate of repression and violence by the ruling government. Radio stations that raise the problems have their electricity cut off while pro-government stations do not; newspapers that take a critical editorial stance struggle to obtain newsprint while organs of the government flourish; students and academics are dismissed – 17 professors have been charged with “disturbing public order” or “threatening the revolution”. Last year there were 120 deaths from beatings, arrests and torture at the hands of government-backed vigilante groups or the police – often in plain sight. Many of these cases are secretly filmed and posted on the internet, yet the response from the West has been tepid at best.
How ordinary citizens are forced to behave just to get by is saddening enough, but the consequential treatment of animals is sickening.
In a country where people scavenge for food, malnutrition among animals is rife. In the first six months of 2016 some 50 animals in Caricuao Zoo in Caracas died from starvation, while intruders killed a horse and stripped it for its meat. In Zulia Metropolitan Zoological Park, San Francisco, keepers were forced to sacrifice the pigs, goats and ducks to feed carnivorous animals while some species have started to cannibalise weaker specimens. Locals stole 40 animals, presumably for food.
Farm animals fare no better; a video in January showed locals stoning a cow to death and butchering it with machetes when it fell, a fate reported regularly in the state of Merida. In 2015 a kilogram of meat cost 40 per cent of the average wage; it costs more now.
The prospect for domestic animals is just as grim, with reports of malnourished Venezuelans eating their family pets, such as rabbits, or purchasing dog meat on the streets where they have been abandoned by owners that cannot afford pet food or vaccinations.
As is usual when socialism fails so disastrously, two things happen. The first is that external actors are blamed, usually neighbouring countries or the US. The second is to deny that this particular example of socialist failure was not socialism at all, and a purer form of socialism would have turned out differently and for the better.
These arguments are specious; the US sanctions, introduced by Barack Obama (who opened up relationships with Castro’s Cuba), relate primarily to individuals. If the US wanted to undermine Venezuela’s economy it would stop buying its oil.
It does not matter if we take the socialism of North Korea, Zimbabwe, East Germany, Cuba or other countries that the likes of Labour Party figures wish to extol for their revolutionary zeal – all turn out the same way, with state-enforced poverty, surveillance, violence and corruption. Tens of thousands are murdered or executed, others disappear or are put in work camps while many more struggle to feed their families unless they bend to the will of the ruling party.
These countries and many other debased and disgusting examples extolled and held out to be how we should adopt socialism in Britain have endured the inevitable end result of revolutionary socialism wherever and whenever it has been tried. There is no strain that turns out well.
Venezuela represents the vision of socialism of many in the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn – it is their inspiration rather than a warning. It was the shadow chancellor John McDonnell who said at Davos this year the country’s problems were because it took a “wrong turn” – not the right type of socialism. The Venezuela Solidarity Campaign, a regular defender of the latest socialist experiment that has turned to tragedy, enjoys the support of many Labour and SNP politicians in Westminster and Holyrood.
Fortunately the truth is being promoted by theVenezuelaCampaign.org that seeks to provide news of the people’s plight and organise humanitarian help – but will the supporters of Chavez and Maduro here in Britain renounce their claims for socialism’s latest brave new world? I doubt it.