Dogmatic political allegiances are clouding our judgement on Venezuela—we must resist them

There are important lessons to be learned from what has happened in Venezuela. But we won't learn them as long as the British press uses it as a political football

August 04, 2017
VENEZUELA, Caracas: A device explodes as clashes erupt between protesters and police in late July. Photo: PA
VENEZUELA, Caracas: A device explodes as clashes erupt between protesters and police in late July. Photo: PA

Events in Venezuela are covered in the British press as if we were football supporters backing our respective side. The left promoted Hugo Chavez, so now it either keeps silent or, worse, repeats government propaganda. The right wants to use Venezuela to show how flawed the left's moral judgement is and how it would act in power in Britain.

I'm a mixture of British, Guatemalan and Lebanese, but my mum's side of the family still lived in Guatemala City when I was growing up. We'd visit every year. My political education was British and Latin. The hate figures of my formative political years included Rios Montt, the Guatemala president, as well as Margaret Thatcher.

In Latin American politics, your emotional base camp is pitched at a different altitude. The stakes are higher. Mostly it’s the poverty. But it's not just that. It's that every attempt to tackle that poverty is met with tyranny.

In 1954, a moderate Guatemalan president called Jacobo Árbenz was overthrown in a coup carried out by the CIA after he tried to introduce agrarian reform. He was replaced by the military dictatorship of Castillo Armas. He survived, which is unusual in Latin coups, but was humiliated at the airport by being forced to strip naked in front of the TV cameras.

Four decades of civil war followed, as leftist guerillas took on the government. It culminated in the genocide of the Maya. The slaughter was systematic and extraordinarily cruel. They targeted the children and the women, inflicting terrible levels of sexual torture and mutilation. These atrocities, which killed tens of thousands, were carried out by a US-backed Guatemalan army, using US-training. They were diligently documented by Bishop Juan José Gerardi in his crucial report, Nunca Mas. He was beaten to death in his garage on the day of its publication.

The Guatemalan story is particularly awful, but it's the same basic story across the region, from Nicaragua to Chile. That's the backdrop. That's the emotional baggage you carry with you when talking about Latin American politics.

At first, I backed Chavez

When Chavez took power, he was like a superhero: a dashing military officer committed to helping the poor. He was elected president in 1998 and then again in 2000, 2006 and 2012, each time convincingly and in free and fair elections. He benefitted from high oil prices and a distracted US, which in the early part of the 2000's was focused on the war on terror. Poverty was reduced, literacy and quality of life improved.
"Here was someone changing his country for the better"
I backed Chavez throughout. Yes, he was military. Yes, the financial decisions were short-termist and sloppy. Yes, he was erratic and preening. But here was someone changing his country for the better. He was inspiring change across the continent, culminating in the election of Evo Morales in Bolivia in 2006. Like Guatemala, Bolivia has a majority indigenous population. It is hard to fully describe the sense of pride you felt, coming from a country like that, at the sight of an indigenous man taking the presidency.

It's tempting to invent a clean break between Chavez and Nicolás Maduro, the increasingly brutal president who replaced him, but it's false. The signs were there already. The economic policies weren't just sloppy—they were irresponsible to the point of criminality. Those oil windfalls had been spent. When problems with exports and currency hit, there was no shield to deflect them. The result was catastrophic. Chavez wasn't just eccentric. He was delivering TV speeches that went on for hours. He was clearly lost in his own cult of personality.

In context, anything seems worth it

Yesterday Ken Livingstone suggested Venezuela's problems stemmed in part from failing to kill the oligarchs when he came to power. It was horrific. He'd never have commented like that about rich British families. It's part of a way of thinking about places like Latin America as if they are backwaters of savagery, where different standards apply.

But my outrage was tempered by the fact that I'd once had similar thoughts. You sit in Guatemala and see teenage boys with police uniforms, given shot guns because the spread of shrapnel means they don't have to learn how to properly aim. You see a society in which murder and rape are initiation rituals into gangs. It's a place with no safety nets, no security, no justice.
"I had forgiven or ignored things which shouldn't be forgiven or ignored"
So you think: OK, Chavez shouldn't have added those places to the supreme court. He is weird on TV. But anything is worth it to fix this horror story. If someone is cutting a few corners, that's tolerable.

Now Maduro is turning into an outright dictator. Venezuelan democracy is a farce. Institutions which could keep executive power in check have been sabotaged. The economy has been burned to the ground. Political opponents are jailed.

Lessons to be learned

I feel some measure of personal shame. My opinions made zero difference, of course. I was in my twenties. I didn't have even the tiny platform I have now. Whether I supported or opposed Chavez was of zero consequences to the events which unfolded there.

But I had forgiven or ignored things which shouldn't be forgiven or ignored. I had adopted that moral detachment in the West where we hold other parts of the world to lower standards. I'd fallen into hero worship—the opium of politics. I'd found a leader who was attractive enough for me to suspend my critical faculties, or at least to only use them for the purpose of his defense. For my own tiny part, I’d helped protect the system that is now pulverising the country in the way Washington's murderous dictators once did to Guatemala.

The lessons of the right aren't much use when looking at Venezuela today. What we're seeing is about authoritarianism, the cult of personality and rank irresponsibility, not a lesson in how socialists are always tyrants or why nationalisation always ends in disaster. That's just childish game-playing cynicism.

But there are lessons to learn, about hero worship and political standards. Don't go in for the former and always maintain the latter, regardless of where you're from or which country you're talking about. I wish I'd learned them sooner.