At first, Venezuela appeared to be a modern day socialist success. Official figures showed that a million houses had been built with money made from the sale of oil - an industry accounting for 95% of the country’s exports. Hugo Chávez, elected in 1999, was bringing people out of poverty with the help of the country's vast oil supplies.
Chávez died in 2013. His successor, Nicholas Maduro, was faced with a crash in oil prices and an ever-changing international climate. Corbyn and the left of the Labour party were understandably enamoured with Chávez and his endeavours to enact multiple social programmes, known as the ‘Bolivarian Missions’.
Venezuela today, however, is a place of civil unrest where political opponents are imprisoned and violence is all too common.
Chávez led a coup d'état against the then president of Venezuela, Carlos Andrés Pérez, in 1992. The coup was a reaction to the neoliberal policies of the government. The attempt to overturn the people in power failed but left hundreds of people dead and ensured that Chávez was very much in the spotlight for years to come.
He won the 1998 election with a majority of 56.2%. His reforms targeted healthcare, housing, social justice, and education, among other policies. High oil prices helped Chávez to lift many Venezuelans out of poverty with his ambitious ‘missions’. Supporters of Chávez’s regime call themselves 'Chavistas' and they are the backbone to the United Socialist Party’s eighteen-year reign over Venezuelan politics.
Chávez’s supposed championing of the poorest in society and his socialist regime were undoubtedly a cause for celebration for Britain’s left wing politicians. At the time of Chávez’s death, Corbyn called him ‘an inspiration’. Corbyn also rang Chávez’s successor, Maduro, to congratulate him on his appointment.
But now a fall in oil prices has left the regime in crisis, with more than 120 people killed in civil unrest. Maduro’s government, which started as a progressive revolution, is now making headlines for its imprisonment of political opposition and destruction of democracy.
The situation in Venezuela is now at a crisis point.
In March, Maduro’s regime overturned the democratically elected National Assembly, essentially giving Maduro more power. The crash in oil prices has led to social policies being cut, angering many Venezuelans. President Maduro refuses to acknowledge that the country is in crisis, despite most citizens now suffering from food shortages. Zulia Metropolitan Zoological Park in Maracaibo, reported in June that several animals had been stolen and eaten amid widespread hunger. Likewise, Caricuao Zoo in Caracas reportedly fed mangoes and other tropical fruit to lions, due to the shortage of meat.
So, how did Corbyn respond to this failure of the Venezuelan socialist revolution? He condemned ‘violence on both sides’ and offered condolences to all those that had lost their lives so far in the conflict.
Maduro’s regime is becoming increasingly autocratic as it diverts power away from democratically elected bodies and silences opposition through violent measures. The gains made by the socialist government to reduce poverty have all but disappeared as the country plunges into its third year of recession. The IMF estimates an inflation rate of 720 per cent for this year, hitting the very poorest the hardest.
Whilst Corbyn was right to comment that both the government and its opposition have used violent means, he has failed to point to the government’s unsustainable policies which have been disastrous in the long term. Chávez’s intentions, which at first raised millions out of poverty, have led to an autocratic country facing shortages of food and medical supplies.
Why does it matter what Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of an opposition party in the UK, says about Maduro's government? With the country preoccupied with Brexit negotiations, the general public have barely noticed what is happening in Venezuela. But, whilst our government is orchestrating Brexit, President Maduro is orchestrating the death of democracy.
We might disagree on what constitutes ‘British values’, but most would argue that democracy should always be a pillar of UK society. Corbyn must denounce his previous friendship with a leader who now seems set on turning a once progressive country into a dangerous dictatorship.