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Monday, 7 August 2017

Venezuela: In every way a terrible week



Tomorrow in Lima, Peru nine Latin American states (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama and Paraguay) plus Canada will meet with the aim of establishing a “contact group” that they hope can be the best way of pressuring Venezuela to return to democracy.

That Venezuela has left democracy trailing behind in the dust is beyond dispute but for those still with doubts this piece by Francisco Toro helpfully explained the process whereby Venezuela has arrived at this point by putting it into American terms:
Using the FBI to threaten and intimidate them, the president forces three Supreme Court justices to resign. After Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor leave, a lame-duck session of Congress rushes through the appointment of Roger Stone, Kellyanne Conway and Anthony Scaramucci to the court. The liberals kick and scream, but there’s nothing they can do. Scaramucci becomes chief justice.
It has taken the crisis to reach this point for Latin America to finally address the problem of Venezuela - because they see how it will effect them.

As Wall Street Journal reporter Anatoly Kurmanaev told Canadian public radio:
It has had a major impact. Columbia is talking about a looming refugee crisis. That's a country [with one of the] biggest refugee populations in the world itself because of decades of civil war. So this crisis has put a real strain on its limited resources already. 
The treatment of the refugees, by the way, by the region has been incredible. They have not been turned back - instead they have been made welcome.
Hundreds of Indigenous people live in abject poverty on the border of Brazil. And we're seeing them crossing into the tiny island of Trinidad that Venezuela borders by sea, trying to find food and trying to escape.
That's Commonwealth member Trinidad, which already hosts 40,000 refugees, 5% of its population. The neighbouring tiny island of Curaçao, which because it's part of, or rather one of, The Netherlands is also part of the European Union, already hosts 10,000.

The Venezuelan crisis is happening 11km from the EU.

Javier Lafuente and Carlos E. Cué in El Pais quote a Colombian Official:
There is no coordination between the Venezuelan military and the Colombians, there is absolute distrust, it is as if one spoke in Chinese and the other responded in Quechua.
"It is a chaos and a permanent anarchy," Joaquin Villalobos, the Salvadoran ex-guerrilla turned consultant for conflict resolution, told them. "In the midst of chaos, the power acquired by criminal platforms is incredible."

The move to create a 'contact group' is because the Organisation of American States, whose General Secretary is the socialist former Foreign Minister of Uruguay, has been blocked from taking collective actions because of countries like Cuba as well as Nicaragua and some Caribbean islands which rely on Venezuelan financing and Venezuelan oil. As well the Vatican has been working behind the scenes to promote the idea of a 'contact group'.

[Listen to the powerful statement by OAS General Secretary Luis Almagro]
The strategists who are trying to put together a regional agreement to corner Maduro, report Lafuente and Cué, believe that, despite the opposition of some countries like Bolivia, that a consensus is being established in which the crisis is deep, with enormous risk for all Countries, and the region can not stand still.

Says Kurmanaev:
Few countries are prepared to tolerate [Maduro's authoritarian rule] and stay quiet about it, which reduces the number of countries that might be able to mediate.
He explained that it is hoped that the Dominican Republic and Uruguay might be among the few potential Latin American countries left who could open the door for dialogue with Maduro.

Uruguay may no longer be a candidate after it agreed to Venezuela's suspension from the regional trade body Mercosur. (Though Venezuela had already lost its rights as a State Party as of last December because it had not incorporated required regulations into its legal system.)

Countries like Canada may be able to quietly exert some pressure on its neighbours to the south to push for a regional solution, he said.
I think the bigger, more powerful countries like the U.S. and Canada should focus on trying to provide incentives for the smaller countries in Latin America and the Caribbean to take a united stance — for them to say, 'Enough is enough and you have to change.'

This requires offering some sort of financial incentives, or maybe [tightening] immigration and remittances rules … It's in everyone's interest to have a stable Venezuela on their doorstep.

Although the UK has condemned the establishment of the Constituent Assembly and the sidelining of the Parliament (as have 42 other countries, including Switzerland), moves by the EU maybe made difficult because of the blocking of joint efforts by the Syriza government in Greece.

Comparing the situation to a game of Jenga with so many pieces already removed, Kurmanaev says "it's very difficult to see how it will end, but it could certainly come crashing down at any moment."

********



You might not know about any of this if you're a casual news consumer let alone one of the many who gets their news via social media. In the UK the past eight days has been one long shitfight between right and left over Venezuela.

This piece by Ian Dunt, repenting his past support for 'Chavismo', is very good and one of several lamenting the 'gotcha!' coverage. Writing for the New Statesman James Bloodsworth bemoaned a "point scoring exercise" and pointed out that Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn could do some practical good over getting political prisoners freed. (President Maduro is well aware of who Corbyn is and would undoubtedly take his call.)
On seemingly good terms with the government of Nicolás Maduro, Corbyn’s words may actually carry weight in Venezuela. This is a matter of some importance when the country appears to be marching toward full-blown dictatorship.
This was the point I argued in May when I wrote that Corbyn had a chance to be a Man of Peace, not just play one on TV:
When his visit to the region he professes to love was reported by Telesur at the beginning of this year Corbyn could have spoken out on Venezuela. When he spoke to the Cuban Solidarity crowd last June he could have spoken out.

He could have demanded:
  •  That the Venezuelan government rejoin the peace process
  •  That the Venezuelan government declare a food crisis
  •  That the Venezuelan government allow humanitarian aid agencies and NGOs to freely operate and to bring in aid
He could have repeated the words, practically word-for-word, of the Pope.
Mostly though what we've had is Gotcha! reporting, highlighted by a set-to setup on BBC's Newsnight between the "strongman of Corbynism" (as a Spanish newspaper described him) Chris Williamson MP and the Blairite former Minister Tom Harris.

Then we had the breaking-of-the-omerta by Owen Jones, the well known writer and man bouncing on Oprah's sofa, on Sky News' Paper Review. Goaded by the IEA's Kate Andrews that 'Corbyn should apologise!' this event was gleefully reported by the right-wing blogger Guido as where Jones finally called the Maduro regime 'authoritarian'.

But here's the thing. Jones was actually referring to a Labour Party statement, one which has had precious little analysis during this melee but which represents a truly terrible policy on Venezuela. One which concerns me as a Party member and should concern others too.

This statement was issued a week ago but not emailed to journalists or announced on Twitter.
We mourn all those who have been killed and injured in the protests leading up to this election, and we urge everyone in Venezuela, on all sides, to end the bloodshed immediately.

In particular, we urge the government of Venezuela to recognise its responsibilities to protect human rights, free speech and the rule of law. The outcome of this election cannot be treated as a mandate for a further escalation of repression, division, and violence.

President Maduro must also respond personally to the legitimate concerns of the international community about the increasingly authoritarian nature of his rule and the growing hardship facing his people.

If he believes those concerns are misplaced, it is up to him to prove them wrong, not through his words, but through his deeds.
After two days of attacks on Corbyn, including a Times Editorial, on Wednesday a social media meme was created.

This vague, who-can-disagree, policy-free waffle showed no connection to anyone or anything. It should be judged on what it did not say and whose influence it obviously did not reflect.

Take for example the strong statement issued by the Socialist International, the grouping which Labour is an observer to and which has four parties who are members in Venezuela.
Given the lack of legitimacy of the path taken by the Venezuelan government, the Socialist International, along with condemning this serious breakdown of democratic order, today reiterates its deep solidarity with every citizen who has been suffering from the consequences of the serious political, economic, social and humanitarian crisis to which the country has been subject for a long time; a crisis that is deepening and worsening the further Venezuela moves away from good governance, and respect and recognition of the institutions of democracy.
That statement, unlike Labour's, did not accept the legitimacy of the Constituent Assembly. It also did not talk about "both sides".

Labour MP Angela Smith, by contrast, has condemned the “wilful destruction of democratic structures” in Venezuela.

They go on to say:
Venezuela, which has always been an ally in the struggles for democracy and freedom in the face of past dictatorships in Latin America, does not deserve this fate.

The government of Venezuela must respect the life, liberty and rights of all of its citizens and must release immediately all political prisoners. The government should listen to those who have an opinion to contribute to democratic coexistence, beginning with those who have been duly elected to do so, the members of the National Assembly, elected in December 2015 for a tenure lasting until 2021. The government must respect and recognise the mandate given by the people to the National Assembly and the powers of this institution in line with the country’s constitutional system.
Labour does not mention political prisoners. It has not called for the release of Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma. The meme was put out after their arrest and after it was established with overwhelming evidence that the results of an election it does not condemn were rigged, the turnout inflated by at least double.

The statement gives no solidarity to those from Labour's sister parties in the region trying for a peaceful resolution to the crisis. Perhaps most depressingly it does not call on the regime to do something absolutely minimal: declare a 'food crisis'. This technical requirement would immediately trigger international humanitarian aid - food and medicines - for a desperate, starving, dying population.

Instead the statement is a solipsistic, too clever by half concoction produced on the quiet and simply intended to deflect, to have something that can be waved around to say, as Jones did, 'see, we did do something'.

*******



Jones, Williamson and many others have also defaulted to 'whataboutistry' by pointing at the UK's corrupt relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Apart from the pedestrian lack of nous shown in not, instead, pointing at Conservative support for the Rwandan dictator Paul Kagame, as the former Minister Denis McShane has been saying for the past few days, this completely ignores the UK's corrupt relationship with Venezuela.

The truly astonishing levels of corruption by the 'Bolivarian bourgeoisie’ is enabled by the UK's famously lax financial regulation and our possession of tax havens like the British Virgin Islands (BVI). Read anything about the characters pouring billions into Miami real estate and the use of shell companies in the BVI will invariably come up.

And that corruption kills people as surely as a bomb sold to the Saudi armed forces does. “Malnutrition in Venezuela is a problem of corruption, not a lack of money,” Maritza Landaeta, a director of the Bengoa Foundation, a Caracas-based health and nutrition charity, told the Financial Times.

Recognition of our role here is not a failing, though, solely of left figures like Jones. Those on the right who have cited the gobsmacking wealth of Chavez' billionaire daughter also seem to be unaware of our part in that.


*******



Nobody seems to know what will happen next though it is clear that the opposition is exhausted and divided on what to do. It is not even clear if the street protests will return to the level they have been. I was struck by this observation from a Reuters piece about the connections between Venezuela's protesters and those in Ukraine:
While Ukraine's protesters endured freezing conditions day and night, Venezuela's thin out quickly when rain starts, and they go home in the evening and enjoy balmy Caribbean weather.
The Venezuelans point out that criminal gangs make the streets dangerous at night. And with their economy in meltdown, they are often short of medicine, food and other needs, whereas the Ukrainians had a good supply line.
Apparently the 'Revolution of Dignity' or 'Maidan' in Ukraine has been inspiring Venezuealan protesters and the film Winter on Fire has been sought out and has been shown on the street, in cafes, in halls, everywhere.

There is also the possibility that the crisis could resolve itself within Venezuela, without any outside pressure.

Yesterday's supposed military insurrection, which lit up social media for a few hours, may be a nothingburger or may not be. As Guillermo Tell Aveledo points out the civilian-military alliance that runs Venezuela may fray because the military, or parts of it, thinks that that Maduro's gone too far and he has become an obstacle to their personal (read financial) best interests.

Phil Gunson, International Crisis Group's Senior Analyst for the Andes, says:
While the Constituent Assembly inevitably will alter relations between the government and opposition, it could also bring to light splits within the government camp itself.
The most important question the Assembly will face once installed is who will become its president. The outcome will depend on which faction from the ruling party is deemed to have won most seats. If Maduro’s main rival, Diosdado Cabello – Vice President of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) – were to prevail, this would represent at least a change of style, and could presage a split in the government.
Maduro, a former trade union leader who received ideological training in Cuba, represents the hardline, civilian left of the movement. Cabello, an army captain who took part in Hugo Chávez’ 1992 coup, belongs to its military wing, and tends to be more hawkish in public than Maduro. His comrades from the military academy are now well-placed generals.
Friction between the two camps, each of which controls distinct state institutions and sources of revenue, has occasionally surfaced despite largely successful efforts to date to maintain a unified front against the opposition. Cabello is seen by some as hostile to Cuban influence in Venezuela, but whether one of the two is more likely to negotiate remains a matter for speculation.

A whole series of 'Chavistas' have already split with Maduro, most visibly the former Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz.

But Gunson says the regime may also hit a financial wall:

The regime’s Achilles heel is its economic and financial crisis, and in particular its crushing foreign debt. Some US$5 billion in debt service payments must be disbursed before the end of this year. A chaotic default would transform the country’s economic landscape and further weaken the government’s international and domestic position.
Much will depend on the posture taken by Venezuela’s key international backers, Russia and China. As a major oil producer, Russia could step in to reduce the impact of future U.S. oil sanctions, while China could increase its financial support for Caracas by extending the debt repayment period, affording the Maduro regime some breathing space. So far, Moscow has reiterated its public stance condemning what it sees as “outside interference”, while Beijing has remained silent.
All sorts of fractures already visible could become wider and civil war is not a hysterical suggestion. Says Gunson, everybody, in particular the Opposition, faces an unpalatable but best option for an end game:
The best outcome would be for the international community to offer members of the regime a safe exit for themselves and for the country as a whole, in exchange for a credible negotiations process that reverses recent governmental decisions. ... Credible assurances should be conveyed to the government’s core leadership that a negotiated exit can include guarantees for their personal safety, and to mid-ranking officials that a transitional justice system can be put in place to prevent witch-hunts.

*******

To cap off what was a terrible week yesterday The Observer published a surreal Editorial which pretty much told regional leaders that they had no right to lecture Venezuela because 'neoliberal'.

What it suggested anyone actually does was a complete mystery because it's final pretentious line - "Stop harrumphing. Start helping." - led to a review of a book about Chavez in the London Review of Books whose proposed 'solution' appeared to me to be 'bring back Chavez from the dead'.

No, rather than taking the opportunity to bash 'neoliberals', 'socialists' or even (despite the oh-so-strong temptations) Owen Jones what we should all be doing first and foremost is hoping that those Foreign Ministers meeting in Lima tomorrow are successful and from that they can talk, cajole, whatever Maduro down off the cliff edge.

Note:

As I was writing this a statement signed by Corbyn was issued. Apart from the 'both sides' rhetoric and the rote calls to end violence. A couple of things leapt out. Firstly that he was calling for a dialogue which regional leaders are attempting (as I explain) to which he appears completely, blithely unaware of and secondly that he references Macron calling for this rather than, say, an actual Latin American. Corbyn has a very good friend in the Mexican left-wing Presidential candidate Lopez Obrador. What I got a strong whiff off with this statement is that he hasn't called up Obrador to ask 'so what can I do to help?' Solidarity my arse.



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