And so Jeremy Corbyn has decided not to condemn the thugs who run Venezuela and instead would like us to recognise the regime’s ‘effective and serious’ attempts at reducing poverty.
Try telling that to my skeletally thin friend, Tyrone, who lives in a city in the Venezuelan Andes, almost in tears on skype. Ty is a student, aged 23, and has been living on nothing but potatoes for the past couple of weeks. Like millions of others he is desperate to leave the country but he does not have the money to buy his passport. It costs around 130,000 bolivars to obtain – in other words, around £9,900 at the official exchange rate (13.1 bolivars to the pound) or a snip at £7.70 at the black market rate (16,900 bolivars to the pound).
In Venezuela, you see, the minimum monthly wage is around 250,000 bs a month, including luncheon vouchers – in other words, an amazing £19,080 at the official rate or a measly £14 at the black market rate. Of course, no one apart from the drug traffickers in president Nicolas Maduro’s extended family earns almost £20,000 a month. And, so, Ty has to work at least three weeks in order even to be able to afford his passport. How he can possibly consider the cost of a flight by one of the few remaining airlines that operate to and from the country? How can he possibly contemplate re-locating to a normal, peaceful country?
Incidentally, 250,000 bs or £14 is the monthly state pension in Venezuela. Corbyn may think that is a dignifying sum and amounts to an ‘effective and serious’ stab at reducing poverty but I suspect that the millions of Venezuelans who have to live on it every month would beggar to disagree. You see it’s not much fun being a member of the Third Age in Venezuela. Your grandchildren may have already left the country. You have to queue for four hours every day just to get rice or pasta. Eight out of ten medicines are not available. Last year, the University Hospital of Merida, the main hospital in a city of 1m people in the west of the country, did not even have running water for four months of the year.
I understand the water is now back but try looking for loo paper in the hospital’s toilets. Try looking for a functioning dialysis machine in its renal department. Try searching for diabetes medicine in the hospital’s medicine cupboard. Do you think it can be found? Of course not.
I suppose Corbyn thinks that amounts to social progress and social justice but I suggest that many millions of Venezuelans would disagree. Furthermore, pop a few blocks away and ask the doctors in the city’s main psychiatric hospital whether their patients suffering from severe schizophrenia have access to meds. I think by now you know the answer.
And, so, Corbyn thinks there has been social progress in a country whose murder rate has shot up from 35 murders per 100,000 people a year in 2002 – when his socialist super-hero Hugo Chavez came to power – to around 88 per 100,000 in 2016, according to the NGO, the Venezuelan Observatory on Violence. In Caracas – the world’s most dangerous city outside a declared warzone – it jumped to 119 per 100,000 (in London, by the way, it is around one per 100,000). Of course, in Venezuela where a policeman earns the equivalent of £20 a month, there is not much incentive to fight crime and only one in a hundred murders is solved.
And Corbyn says there has been poverty reduction in the country. I suppose he feels that it does not matter that the country’s poor now live in a far more dangerous nation. That there has been an explosion in the number of rapes; that carjacking and kidnappings are now commonplace. Another sign of the social progress that Chavez encouraged was the setting up of paramilitary gangs – known as colectivos – balaclava-wearing, gun-toting thugs who ride around on their motorbikes in middle class areas to ensure that people do not go out to protest.
I suppose Corbyn thinks that it does not really matter that diphtheria has returned to the country after a 20-year absence. Or that the government cronies have stashed billions of pounds abroad. Or that inflation is now running at more than 1,000 percent (of course, the poor are immune to inflation). Or that the country’s vice-president, Tareck El Aissami, allegedly tried to sell passports to Islamic terrorists and has been indicted by the United States as a cocaine king-pin (probably the Great Satan made it all up, no, Jeremy?). Or that there have been reported cases of cannibalism in the country’s jails. Or that the country’s infant mortality jumped by 30 percent last year, maternal mortality shot up by 65 percent, and cases of malaria leapt by 76 percent.
He would probably say, ah, but you have not mentioned those one million homes that Chavez and Maduro built for the country’s poor. Firstly, where is the independent verification that any such number of homes was constructed; secondly, most of them are of questionable quality; and, thirdly, there was huge corruption between government officials and building companies that constructed the homes.
Of course, another indication of all that social progress is Chavez’s decision to strip Venezuelans of human rights when the country left the American Charter on Human Rights in 2013. Another one is the setting up of the Russian-style Soviet constituent assembly this July. I suppose it does not really matter that this was established in clear violation of the 1999 constitution – which Chavez had spearheaded – that says the assembly can only be established on the basis of a national plebiscite.
Corbyn does not like the idea that the opposition supporters who have been protesting against the government could be freedom fighters. They do after all represent around 80 percent of the population. He condemns ‘violence on all sides’. Pity he does not do the same in the case of Hamas and Israel. He also seems to have forgotten his January tweet to Trump: ‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.’ I suppose that does not apply in the case of socialist Venezuela where his buddy Maduro runs the show. You know the one with the big, bushy moustache, who looks a bit like Stalin, and who wears Maoist-style jackets.
However, perhaps we should not be that surprised by Corbyn’s support for a military dictatorship. He has after all worked for the Ayatollahs in Iran and he did hail Fidel Castro as a ‘huge figure of modern history, national independence and 20th Century socialism’ upon his death in November.
Jason Mitchell is a British freelance journalist who lived in Latin America between 2002 and 2014, including four years in Venezuela until 2014. He tweets @JasonFMitchell