Monday, May 28, 2018

Venezuela's Presidential Election

If there’s such a thing as a ‘nation non grata’, Venezuela in its current political configuration would be near the top of the list on both sides of the North Atlantic. From the moment when Hugo Chavez first won the presidency in 1998 - he was twice re-elected and died in office in 2013 - Western governments and the media viewed him with a combination of alarm and contempt. Charismatic, left-wing, deeply hostile to neoliberalism, Chavez made clear that his aim was to transform Venezuela’s social, economic and political landscape. At the core of his domestic programme lay a determination to provide the two-thirds of the population then living below the UN official poverty line with access to health care, education and the prospect of a dignified life. Revenues from oil during a period of high world prices furnished the necessary funds and, as UN Human Development Reports show, the programme achieved some, at least, of its initial objectives. Internationally, Chavez aimed to reduce if not eliminate what he felt to be the economic and the political domination of his country by the United States; and he collaborated with other like-minded governments in Latin America to achieve the same at continental level. He called his political programme, the “Bolivarian Revolution” and even changed the country’s formal name to the “Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela” - in honour of Simón Bolívar, the great 19th century leader of South America’s independence from Spain. Romantic certainly, but a permanent reminder that independence - the right of a nation to choose its own destiny lay - and continues to lie - at the heart of the “Chavista” project.

For some within the country, the Bolivarian Revolution has always been an anathema. An attempt to unseat Chavez by force in 2002 nearly succeeded. It was foiled by the army which has remained a stout defender of the country’s democracy. Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’ successor, has met with a different kind of resistance: street violence and calls from opponents for the United States to help topple Maduro and his “regime”. Maduro is a substantial figure, with an impressive command of the stage; but he came to power during an economic downturn brought on by a dramatic fall in the price of oil; and he won the 2013 election - with very narrow majority - to cries of fraud from the supporters of his right-wing opponent, Henrique Capriles. Without the oil revenues that had financed Chavez’s social policies, Venezuela’s ill-balanced economy with its heavy dependence on oil became evident. Imports of food, medicines and consumer goods fell away, creating shortages that severely affected the less-well-off.

Devaluation of the national currency - the Bolívar - began then and has continued at an increasingly rapid pace. At the time of writing, the unofficial exchange rate is 1 million Bolívares to US$1, down from 250 thousand Bolívares a month ago. Tomorrow there may be a further fall. Long queues form daily outside supermarkets and banks - evidence of the acute shortage of both goods and currency. Distribution of food and household products is largely controlled by the private sector and there is evidence of hoarding and reluctance to supply poorer neighbourhoods. A US embargo on trade and financial transactions with Venezuela has made it difficult to import essential goods and has probably done more to impoverish the less-well-off than to damage the Maduro government. Compounding the economic distress is the permanent insecurity caused by casual gun crime, robberies in the street at gunpoint, and “express kidnaps” in which victims are invited to empty their bank accounts in exchange for their lives. Such was the societal context of the May 20 elections.

Equally disquieting has been the attitude of the so-called West. Canada, the United States and the European Union have dismissed the elections as invalid, despite having called for them. Urged on by the Trump administration, six Latin-American countries have followed suit. For these international accusers, Nicolás Maduro is a ruthless, corrupt dictator, the elections a breach of Venezuela’s constitution, and the results de facto fraudulent.

Unsurprisingly Maduro’s opponents don’t approve of him and they’re alarmed at the state of the country. But as the campaign drew to a close, none - even under close questioning - repeated the accusations against him made by the United States and the EU. And all expressed confidence in an electoral system that US President Carter has described as the best in the world, though that didn’t prevent Henri Falcón, Maduro’s closest rival, from crying foul moments after learning of his defeat. Entirely digital, but with an automated manual verification back-up, the electoral system is designed with multiple safeguards against fraud. As an international observer, I had the opportunity not only to watch the system in action but to explore its workings. It is impressively efficient, with results available within a few hours of the closure of the polls. Among our observer group were officials responsible for electoral processes in their own country. They could find no fault in Venezuela’s system. Maduro’s electoral victory with just over two-thirds of the vote was more than comfortable; though the turnout at 46% was dangerously low by Venezuelan standards and has given rise to charges both within and beyond the country that the election lacked legitimacy. An abstention campaign by the right-wing MUD coalition (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática) undoubtedly had some negative effect on turnout, but general disaffection with politics and politicians in the face of increasing economic hardship will also have played a role in discouraging participation, not least because none of the candidates took the trouble to explain how they proposed to pull the country out of its current mess.

Meanwhile, foreign media have been making hay with defamatory rhetoric - much of it consisting of outright fabrications. On May 20th, Venezuela’s election day, we international observers, who had spent a week investigating Venezuela’s electoral procedures and meeting with campaign managers of all four candidates, learned from the Guardian/Observer website that we had been barred from the country and were not really there. “Venezuela has fallen to a dictator” screamed a Guardian headline two days later, assuring readers that the elections were fraudulent, and that among the methods employed by the regime to remain in power was “violent censorship of the press,” an assertion especially remarkable because most of the Venezuelan newspapers are openly hostile to Maduro. Perhaps the Guardian doesn’t read them. Milder, though no less free of prejudice, was the Telegraph’s May 21st headline: “Nicolás Maduro filmed victoriously waving to an empty plaza after a ‘sham’ election,” the editor having apparently forgotten that on the previous day his newspaper had described Maduro speaking to a crowd of cheering supporters after his election victory. Similarly threadbare complaints against Venezuela are available courtesy of The Economist, the New Statesman, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal and no doubt many others.

Most of the media venom directed at the Venezuelan government is evidence-free and based on little more than rote copying from press releases issued by the United States, the European Union and other hostile governments. All decline to acknowledge that despite the intense international pressure on the country and its disquieting economic situation, Venezuelans have spoken, and have demonstrated more than anything that they do not wish to be told what to think and do by foreign governments and media.

The freshly-elected government’s immediate task, a huge one, will be to rebuild Venezuela’s shattered economy. Whether Maduro and his team are able to accomplish this while maintaining peace within the country remains to be seen. Some would undoubtedly prefer to see them fail. What they and the people of Venezuela need and deserve from the rest of the world, however, is not hostility but respect , support and recognition of their right as a soveign people to decide their future for themselves.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Venezuela: Lies, Damned lies and the Media

“… the newspaper that started to tell the truth now exists to prevent the truth being told.”
(G.K. Chesterton: Orthodoxy, 1908)

Hard to imagine a better example of Chesterton’s barb than the unremitting assault on the current Venezuelan government by much if not all of the Western media. Like parrots, they repeat the critical howls of politicians and pundits whose opinions they might otherwise view with scepticism, among them Donald Trump and Michel Temer, the unelected president of Brazil. Even Pope Francis has come out against Venezuelan President Maduro’s “regime”, but then the Catholic Church has a track record in these matters. It also sided with the Chilean military in the coup against Salvador Allende’s government in 1973.
    No one can credibly dispute that Venezuela is in a mess. Reasons to criticise the ineptness of the Venezuelan administration are not hard to find; though the same could be said of plenty of others - including the ones currently residing in the White House and Downing Street, neither of whom won the popular vote in their respective elections.  Nevertheless, Venezuela is a functioning democracy with an elected president whose term ends in 2018.  Should Maduro stand again,  he can be democratically defenestrated, and there has been no suggestion that the next election will not take place on time.
    Why, therefore, the calls for regime change? Whence the hostility of the international media? Why, above all, is the Venezuelan government being tasked with acts of violence for which the Opposition is largely if not entirely responsible? It is the latter that has been setting fire to public buildings, attacking medical centres, erecting street barricades, destroying or blocking access to polling stations, using molotov cocktails and roadside bombs against police and security personnel, and horrifically burning alive the odd “Chavista” in broad daylight - aggressions that have been caught on camera - mostly by passers-by. 
    Such outrages would be termed ‘acts of terrorism’ in the countries now calling for Maduro’s head; and the perpetrators would be in gaol.   Over 3,000 arrests followed the 2011 riots in England with nearly 1,300 receiving gaol sentences. Politicians and media alike called them “criminals”.  Their more vicious and deadly Venezuelan counterparts, on the other hand, receive billing as heroic “political prisoners” confronting a repressive regime. Notable among these heroes are Opposition leaders Leopoldo López and former Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma, both currently under house arrest for fomenting street violence - the former having already been tried and convicted in 2015 of responsibility for inciting riots that led to over 40 fatalities.
    Among the most egregious and disappointing purveyors of disinformation on Venezuela is the BBC.  On 29th July, BBC News broadcast a truly virtuoso piece of misrepresentation in which most of the interviewees were juveniles wearing masks, though viewers were also treated to a  smorgasbord of anti-government slogans from Opposition activist María Corina Machado who was a signatory to the attempted coup against Hugo Chavez in 2002 and has worked tirelessly ever since to overthrow his successor - including appealing for US intervention.  BBC Newsnight on August 7th, treated viewers to an interview with Juan Andrés Mejía who was introduced as the leader of “Popular Will”  a Venezuelan political party supposedly “of the left”.  Sr Mejía - a Member of the Venezuelan National Assembly - recited the standard  Opposition line, accusing the Maduro government of murdering and torturing hundreds of civilians, a charge for which no one, anywhere, at any time has been able to offer the least shred of evidence for the simple reason that it’s untrue.
    What the BBC failed to mention is that Mejía’s constituency in Caracas is the wealthiest in the country, that his party was founded not by him but by Leopoldo López, that its raison-d’être was and remains to organise “La Salida” which, in plain English, means toppling the government, and that it is a member of MUD - the Opposition coalition.  In place of host Evan Davis’s usual forensic interrogation, Newsnight’s Venezuelan guest received a green light to pile lie upon falsehood with no other restraint than the time allotted for the interview. 
    On the following morning, BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme - scraping the barrel for Venezuelan pundits - came up with Gabriela Montero, a classical pianist and composer who lives in Barcelona but happens to have been born in Venezuela.  A safe choice, She dutifully trotted out a handful of Opposition clichés of the kind available for a pittance on the newsstands or free of charge over the airwaves and on the Web. Not once has the BBC bothered to interview what are known in Latin America as “el pueblo”, the people - trades unionists, rural workers, the disabled, indigenous peoples  - who make up the bulk of the population and who are all represented in the recently-elected Constituent Assembly.
    Domestically, the assault on Venezuela’s government and the “Bolivarian Revolution” comes from the traditional masters of the country and its economy - the wealthy elite whose younger members have been busy over recent months erecting street barricades and causing mayhem while the elders ramp up the political rhetoric and employ their control of key business sectors to generate shortages of essential goods, notably in the working-class areas of the main cities. Shortages are useful to the Opposition because they are seen as a means of weakening support for the regime. Getting the poorer classes to vote or to act against their own interests is a prime tactic of the neoliberal right. Governments invariably take the blame for popular misfortunes regardless of how they are caused or who may be responsible.
    Venezuela has become a target of international concern for two main reasons.
First, it has the world’s largest oil reserves - currently estimated at 300 billion barrels. Despite the impact of fossil fuels on the global climate, oil deposits of this magnitude give the country a strategic value similar to that of the Middle East. Successive US administrations have therefore looked askance at the efforts of  a ”left-wing regime” under Hugo Chavez and now Nicolas Maduro to strengthen economic and political ties beyond the western hemisphere.  Evidence of those efforts is a surge in Chinese support for the Venezuelan economy in the form of both loans and investment. As recently as June this year, planning minister Ricardo Menendez revealed that high-level discussions were underway to increase further Chinese involvement in Venezuelan agriculture, industry and technological development.
    Second, Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution - were it to succeed - might offer an example that another world is possible and thereby contaminate the opinions of voters in Latin America and beyond. Hence why a push is underway by the local elite in tacit alliance with Western governments and the international media to keep not only Venezuela but Latin-America as a whole within the neoliberal fold.  Last year, a  congressional coup in Brazil removed left-wing President Dilma Roussef from office and installed a right-wing replacement - with no election in prospect. There have been coups against left-wing presidents in Paraguay in 2008 and Honduras in 2009; and a probably fraudulent election in Mexico in 2006 that kept left-wing radical, Andés Manuel López Obrador,  from getting the keys to Los Pinos - the presidential residence. In Chile the left is constrained by a constitution framed in the 1970s under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet  that makes changes virtually impossible.
    Only Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador and Venezuela remain as hold-outs for the left - of which the latter is by far the most significant for the West. The country is suffering a major assault not just on the Maduro administration but on a political project - the Bolivarian Revolution - that for the first time in Venezuela’s history has given the poor access to health care, education and the prospect of dignified participation in the nation’s economic life. That assault is being orchestrated by the wealthiest sections of Venezuelan society with the overt backing of the United States , the European Union and much of Latin America. Should it succeed, it will be a triumph not for democracy but for neoliberal capitalism, and for government by the one percent. Such is the context of calls from Tories and from UK media for Jeremy Corbyn to condemn President Maduro. Corbyn is right to resist them. Venezuela’s struggle is also ours.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Ermita de Llutxent

    Taizé - my usual room at the Ermita - is now part of a bathroom with double showers and all the necessaries of modernity.  Fifty years ago bathrooms were rudimentary. We showered in the garden, hauling water in buckets from one of the underground cisterns, pouring the cold water over each other and drying ourselves in the early morning sun. Free as nature made us, we bathed naked as mankind must have done before the fall.

    Named after the Community of Brothers in the village of Taizé, the room reflected the austerity of the order - whitewashed walls, a bed, a small wooden desk, a chair and a lamp.  And like them,  it offered spirituality and peace to whoever rested there, a sense that simplicity  and an unceasing openness to truth are the keys not to happiness,  which is a paltry, evanescent  thing, but to leading a productive and faithful life - faithful to the best that human beings can be, which is to serve humanity and to do what we can to safeguard our fragile world.