Para Los Muchos, No Los Pocos – Why The Left Should Unite Behind Juan Guaidó

By Gray Sargeant

The decision by segments of the western Left to support Nicolás Maduro’s election rigging, human rights abusing government in Venezuela once again exposes their undemocratic and illiberal impulses. Over the past week they have spread the regime’s lies about; the causes of the country’s economic crisis, the political situation there, and about its left-leaning interim president Juan Guaidó. More worrying still, the indulgence of pro-Maduro propaganda is not confined to the old hard-Left here in Britain. Rather, it appears to be gaining traction amongst a new generation of American ‘progressives’ – a sea change which no doubt makes it politically savvy for Democratic presidential hopefuls to continue ignoring the cries from Caracas.

The decision by segments of the western Left to support Nicolás Maduro’s election rigging, human rights abusing government in Venezuela once again exposes their undemocratic and illiberal impulses. Over the past week they have spread the regime’s lies about; the causes of the country’s economic crisis, the political situation there, and about its left-leaning interim president Juan Guaidó. More worrying still, the indulgence of pro-Maduro propaganda is not confined to the old hard-Left here in Britain. Rather, it appears to be gaining traction amongst a new generation of American ‘progressives’ – a sea change which no doubt makes it politically savvy for Democratic presidential hopefuls to continue ignoring the cries from Caracas.

Under the leadership of Maduro, and his predecessor Hugo Chávez, political power in Venezuela has been increasingly concentrated in the hands of the president, while human rights have been continually eroded. The warning signs were there all along. For many years Freedom House consistently downgraded Venezuela in its freedom level rankings, and in 2017 changed its status from ‘Partly Free’ to ‘Not Free’. More recently, Maduro has stepped-up his suppression of the opposition – detaining and torturing those who protest against him. At the same time, the government’s mismanagement of the country’s economy has led to fatal shortages of food and basic medical equipment – and the country has experienced sharp rises in malnutrition and infant mortality. Last year, the United Nations reported that the situation had become so dire that the number of Venezuelans fleeing the country had surpassed three million. Yet due to the increasing restrictions on democratic institutions, crackdowns on opposition politicians and civil society, and a sham presidential election in 2018, the people of Venezuela have had little opportunity to resist Maduro’s tightening grip.

That is until 23 January 2019, only days after Maduro was illegitimately sworn in for another six-year term, when Guaidó as leader of the democratically elected, but marginalised, National Assembly took the presidential oath of office, as per the country’s constitution, establishing himself as Venezuela’s interim leader.

For all the complexities this contest of legitimacy raises, there is one choice which is very clear for both governments and individuals – that is to either maintain the status quo by backing the government or side with the opposition who are calling for the restoration of democracy.

In the region the opposition has been backed by Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay and Peru in a joint statement by the Lima Group – alongside the United States which also quickly recognised Guaidó as the interim leader of the country. Unsurprisingly, Mexico, Bolivia and Cuba all expressed support for Maduro’s regime, as too did the Kremlin which continues to regard the dictator as the ‘legitimate head of state’. While, the People’s Republic of China, which over the past decade has given the Venezuelan regime; loans, cash, and investments totalling sixty-five billion US dollars, has condemned American interference.

As the world divides so too does the Left here in Britain and America.

It is pointless dwelling on the Labour Party’s pathetic hand-wringing response to the Venezuelan crisis. Jeremy Corbyn and his hard-left followers, who now control the party, have long fetishized Latin American strongmen. For years they have been vocal apologists for the crimes and blunders carried out by these leaders in the name of socialism. They believe, as Corbyn has said himself, that Chavismo offers the world a ‘different and a better way of doing things’. Since becoming leader, Corbyn has dodged, and dodged again, the chance to call out Maduro for the human rights abuses committed by his regime. Given this, it is no surprise that Corbynistas, including prominent Labour parliamentarians, have rallied around the Maduro regime in the papers and in the parliament.

However, more worryingly is the similar pro-Maduro narrative being pushed by a number of newly elected House Democrats in the United States. These politicians came to power promising to push a progressive agenda – and while on domestic issues they most certainly are, on matters of foreign policy they appear tragically regressive. While their contributions to America’s debates on healthcare, wages, and taxation are commendable, their comments about the ongoing crisis in Venezuela are unwelcome. Here we have seen them regurgitate the same pro-Maduro lines pushed by Britain’s hard-Left.

When, Senate Minority Whip, Dick Durbin sent a powerful message of support for Guaidó, who he met last year, his fellow Democrat, and House Representative from California, Ro Khanna hit back and condemned America’s recognition of the interim president. These remarks gained traction, thanks in part to a retweet by, the rising star of the Democratic Socialists of America, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Khanna then went on to approvingly comment on a tweet, from a journalist at the Putin propaganda project In the Now, which denounced events in Venezuela as a right-wing coup. The newly elected Minnesotan Ilhan Omar went further by actually writing:

‘A US backed coup in Venezuela is not a solution to the dire issues they face. Trump’s efforts to install a far right opposition will only incite violence and further destabilize the region. We must support Mexico, Uruguay & the Vatican’s efforts to facilitate a peaceful dialogue.’

Initially, one might dismiss this as blind isolationism, or at best attribute it to an overly cautious approach to foreign policy, but everything about their comments: what they mention and what they ignore, the language they use, and how they frame the ongoing crisis echoes the lines put out by the dictatorship in Caracas. This narrative, which they do not appear to be pushing unwittingly, needs to be challenged.

These Democrats treat the Maduro regime as the legitimate ruler in Venezuela and fail to acknowledge the widespread criticism of the 2018 Presidential Election. International and regional bodies have raised serious concerns about the conduct of this vote, and numerous democratic countries have called for a fresh election. This was a vote which took place while opposition leaders were imprisoned or forced into exile, and was carried out in an uncompetitive and corrupt electoral environment. Yet, Representative Khanna, ironically on the news program Democracy Now, compares recognition of Guaidó to interference in America’s 2016 Presidential Election – as if both countries hold equally free and fair contests.

The likes of Khanna and Omar do not push for a new presidential vote. Instead they echo Maduro’s calls for dialogue and a negotiated settlement – as if the forces of tyranny and liberty in Venezuela can be reconciled. What makes these politicians think the dictatorship in Caracas is interested in genuine talks?

This is a regime which silences, not converses with, its opponents. It was Maduro who neutered the, democratic and opposition held, National Assembly back in 2017 by replacing it with a Constituent Assembly stacked with his allies. And it is under Maduro’s orders that security forces are, according to Human Rights Watch, routinely brutalising and arresting protestors, and torturing and even killing dissidents. The United Nations Human Rights office has reported that on 23 January this year alone, 696 people were detained across the country, and in the days surrounding this roundup numerous killings were reportedly carried out by pro-government and security forces. Yet these US representatives fear that it is their president, and his recognition of the opposition, which will destabilise the country.

Again this is more than simple naivety. These House representatives go out of their way to lay the blame for Venezuela’s economic woes at the feet of Washington, and its sanctions policy, instead of where it truly lies. When they do direct their fire at the Venezuelan government their criticism of Chavismo policies are more cushioned than they ought to be: ‘Of course there is suffering in Venezuela’ writes Omar, ‘everyone recognises there have been extrajudicial killings’ says Khanna. Equally banal was Khanna’s clarification that he thought Maduro’s policies were ‘bad’ and ‘not helping his people’. Which quite an understatement if there ever was one. Does he really think policies which have caused starvation and hyperinflation are just ‘bad’, or merely unhelpful? And while we are on Khanna’s disconcerting choice of language: who the hell are ‘his people’?

Again returning to the deliberate and systematic violations of human rights carried out by the Maduro regime. Is the representative from California aware of El Helicoide, the former shopping mall turned detention centre. A place where the Maduro regime has crammed, into makeshift cells, increasing numbers of anti-government protesters and subjected them to excruciating and degrading forms of torture. Does Mr Khanna know about the work of the country’s former chief prosecutor, Luisa Ortega Diaz, who in exile has submitted to the International Criminal Court claims of widespread corruption under Maduro and over 8,000 cases of extrajudicial killings by government security forces since 2015?

If he is, and if his colleagues Omar and Ocasio-Cortez are as well, how can they so easily dismiss the idea of supporting the Venezuelan opposition – with their flippant remarks about spending taxpayer’s money at home not abroad, and their use of cheap whataboutery. It is not like the opposition are asking for much – only that they be recognised.

Yet these Democrats do not just ignore this plea, they spit in the faces of those demanding democracy by promoting the Maduro regime’s foul smears against Guaidó, and his Popular Will party (Voluntad Popular).

Popular Will is not a ‘far right’ movement, as Representative Omar would have you believe. As has been pointed out by many observers, Guaidó’s party is a self-proclaimed social-democratic party which is, along with the governing socialist parties in Spain and Portugal, a member of the Socialist International. Not only is this a group unlikely to keep fascists within its ranks but it is an organisation, of Leftist parties, who have repeatedly criticised Maduro for undermining Venezuela’s democracy and has worked tirelessly for the release of Popular Will leader Leopoldo López, who was detained for ‘treason’ by the regime in 2014. This is also an extremely liberal party which can boast of having elected to the National Assembly Venezuela’s first openly-gay and transgender representatives. All the while Guaidó himself has a long track record of challenging Chavista corruption and championing freedoms in his country. This is a party which any progressive should be proud to stand in solidarity with.

The false branding of oppositionists as ‘rightists’ or ‘fascists’ has long been used by left-wing dictators in attempts to silence and discredit those who challenge them. As too has the charge of being a ‘puppet of the imperialists’. Here too, these self-proclaimed progressives in the House of Representatives perpetuate the narrative that the accession of Guaidó is a matter of imperialism.

These Democrats are guilty of pushing the line, put out by the Maduro dictatorship and the thuggish governments which back it, that what is taking place in Venezuela is a ‘coup’. In doing so they ignore the flawed 2018 election, the provisions within the constitution for establishing an interim president, and the fact the army remains in Maduro’s hands. This is not an elite or military coup of which Venezuelans are used to. This is a popular uprising, a revolt if you will, and, if successful, quite possibly a revolution.

Yet none of this will matter to these Democrats. For politicians like Representative Omar, this debate is not really about the Venezuelan people, throughout all of their commentary the focus is clear – this is about America and the man sitting in the White House.

In Venezuela, they believe the sinister and all-powerful hand of Washington is at play. Not only is this well-worn explanation, for all the badness in the world, so often overplayed this narrative is downright insulting. After all, who is Guaidó but a pawn of Wall Street? What is support for the opposition but a continuation of the Monroe Doctrine? And is not the attempt to restore democracy in Caracas just a repeat of all those times the US aided anti-democratic despots in Latin America? It is as if these representatives did not give a damn about the situation in Venezuela before Mike Pence’s broadcast.

This sidelining of Venezuela, in favour of the Yankee-imperialist narrative, denies the country’s people agency. It gives the false impression that the recent protests against Maduro are somehow manufactured, anti-Venezuelan or at the very least unrepresentative of people’s views in the country. This is deliberate.  It is a way for them to undermine the legitimacy of the opposition.

They also deploy this pseudo-anti-imperialist narrative to undermine those around the world showing solidarity with the pro-democracy protestors. Sadly, this is a job made easier given there is a Republican sitting in the White House, and a pretty despicable Republican at that. No doubt, for us leftists, democrats and liberals having demagogues and reactionaries like Donald Trump, and his equally repugnant counterpart in Brazil Jair Bolsonaro, on our side is uncomfortable – to say the least.

But it is our side – and Trump’s support does not alter the opposition’s case for using constitutional procedures to hold a free and fair presidential election. In fact, for those Venezuelans who want democracy restored, or simply want the supermarket shelves to be full again, the question of who is backing Guaidó around the world, and why, is probably at the very least a secondary concern.

Trump clearly does not care for liberal-democratic norms. However, for all the gross threats Trump makes against journalists and for all the bluster about locking up his political opponents it is Nicolás Maduro who actually carries out these acts. If this new generation of ‘progressive’ Democrats could go after human rights abusing despots in the same way which they, rightly, go after President Trump we would not be in such a sorry state of affairs.

Fortunately, amongst the party’s elected representatives the foreign policy views of Ocasio-Cortez, Khanna, and Omar remain on the side-lines, for now. There are senior ranking, and left-wing, Democrats who have strongly spoken out against the Maduro government.

This is not a question of hawks versus doves nor is it about what side of the centre-Left one sits on. The picture should not be confused by Corbyn who has both backed Maduro and positioned himself on the left of the Labour Party, strongly opposed western liberal and humanitarian interventions abroad, and has called for cuts to Britain’s defences.

After all, Senator Bernie Sanders has also called for cuts to America’s military expenditure and is still able to explicitly condemn the Maduro regime’s ‘violent crackdown on Venezuelan civil society’ and its violation of the country’s constitution. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also sent a strong signal when she tweeted: “America stands by the people of #Venezuela as they rise up against authoritarian rule and demand respect for human rights and democracy.” Neither she nor Sanders have especially hawkish voting records and both have, to varying degrees, positioned themselves on the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

Hopefully it will be these Democrats, who genuinely stand up for human rights and democracy, which prevail in the years to come. For all the complexities involved in this crisis the question of which government to recognise is a simple one. Guaidó, and his many followers, are calling for democracy in opposition to the brutal Maduro dictatorship. What is happening right now in Venezuela is not a ‘far right’ ‘coup’ nor is it the product of American imperialism. It is a disgrace that self-proclaimed progressives would promote such insulting lies. There is nothing noble about being a mouthpiece for Maduro nor is it in anyway progressive to turn a blind eye to the regimes illegitimacy and increasing authoritarianism.

While such voices remain on the fringe, the moral decline of the British Labour Party in recent years should serve as a warning that one should never be complacent about these pseudo-anti-imperialist narratives, which at the end of the day are simply pro-dictatorship. In the long-term, if the Democratic Party goes the way of its UK counterpart then those fighting for human rights and democracy around the world really will be in trouble.

For now, an increasingly popular segment of the American Left have turned their back on fellow social democrat Juan Guaidó as he fights for democracy in his country. They have deliberately refused to aid the Venezuelan people’s efforts to determine their own future and build a country which is both peaceful and prosperous. For them, this should be a mark of shame.

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