What do Democratic Socialists Do about a Problem like Venezuela?

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British Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn still refuses to condemn Nicolas Madero’s government in Venezuela for its human rights violations and appears even less willing to admit that the Venezuelan socialist experiment has failed.

Corbyn’s neutrality on the violence in Venezuela, which has claimed 124 lives since April, recently drew criticism from Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Andrés Mejía. When asked about the violence in Venezuela, Corbyn replied that he condemned the violence “on both sides,” arguing that violence was not the way to solve Venezuela’s problems. This, despite the fact that the United Nations Human Rights Council has employed “widespread and systematic use” of excessive force, arbitrary detention and other rights violations against demonstrators and detainees.

Mejía told BBC Newsnight that Corbyn “really has to know what is going on here” to make such a statement. Mejía added that it is not only the government crackdown that is a problem, but the 20,000 people killed every year because of crime, disease, and food scarcity. He said, “violence has not been committed by both sides.” Mejía blamed the government for arming paramilitary groups who in turn have taken the lives of millions of people in his country. He added that the mothers and fathers of those who have been killed would love to speak with Corbyn and explain how their children, many of them only teenagers have been struck down by Maduro’s forces for peacefully protesting the direction of their country.

In 2013, Corbyn praised the socialist South American nation, saying, “We salute Chavez and the people of Venezuela for turning the clock of history full circle… I look forward to the development of Venezuela, the efficiency of Venezuela, in providing good services and decency for all the people of that country.” He was not alone among Western politicians on the Left to praise the Hugo Chavez disaster. In 2011, Vermont’s Senator Bernie Sanders stated, “These days, the American dream is more apt to be realized in South America, in places such as Ecuador, Venezuela and Argentina…” On another occasion, Corbyn said, “Venezuela is seriously conquering poverty by emphatically rejecting neo-liberal policies.”

Praising Chavez’ left-wing populism has become cliché for many on the Left. American actor and filmmaker, Sean Penn claimed Chávez “did incredible things for the 80 percent of the people that are very poor.” Oliver Stone made a positive film about South American socialism and Michael Moore praised Chávez for eliminating 75 percent of extreme poverty. American philosopher, Noam Chomsky even credited Venezuela for creating a better world.

The dilemma Corbyn and many others on the Left face is the question of what to do when a perfect example of socialism implodes before their eyes.
Libertarians often claim no country has ever truly had a libertarian government and a complete, free-market economy, therefore no one can disprove their theory of government. Many Marxists also accuse the Soviet bloc and Asian equivalents of faux Marxism and argue that true Marxism has yet to be put into practice. But, democratic socialists cannot credibly make such an argument about their ideology. Corbyn, Sanders, and others who support government control over nearly every aspect of the economy have their example of populist, democratic socialism in Venezuela. They cannot credibly accuse Venezuela of being a bad example of democratic socialism when they themselves have eagerly praised it as such in the past. The only alternative is to reject their lifelong ideology as a insufficient to deal with human action and global markets and admit the error of their ways.

Corbyn chose neither to accuse Venezuela of corrupting socialism, nor to disavow his former support of the country’s government. He not only refused to recognize the crackdown on protesters, but doubled down on his praise for its economy saying, “we also have to recognize that there have been effective and serious attempts at reducing poverty, improving literacy and improving the lives of the poorest people.”

The Venezuelan government is responsible for political suppression and the deaths of hundreds of its people, not to mention the millions that have suffered through malnutrition, a precipitous drop in living standards, and crime. But, Venezuelans have not always known this level of poverty. Its per capita income in the 1970s was higher than Spain’s and it was among the ten richest countries in the world. Chavez used the nation’s oil wealth to create a massive welfare system, create price controls, and stifle private enterprise. Oil prices rose shortly after Maduro took control after Chavez’ death, which sent the country’s economy into a death spiral.

But, as Corbyn points out, the Venezuelan government has made “serious attempts” to help people, therefore in his logic, the government’s intentions must override its results.

Mejía’s criticism of Corbyn’s ignorance of the situation in Venezuela reveals the disconnect between those who praise democratic socialism and those who have to live with its destructive results. Promising free things through government coercion wins votes and accolades at home. But, as Corbyn’s response to the gripping poverty in Venezuela and Maduro’s increasing totalitarianism reveals, democratic socialists do not know how to handle the situation when a socialist experiment fail.

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