The victims of foreign dictatorships have become chips in our political games. In our corner of the rich world, for instance, the suffering of Venezuela matters only because Jeremy’s Corbyn’s enemies can use it to attack his support for the Chavist regime when it was unchallengeable, and his cowardly equivocation when the inevitable catastrophe followed. Saudi Arabia matters only because leftists can use it to damn the British establishment’s bootlicking support for the House of Saud and its suppression of democratic, women’s and minority rights.
Yet the smallest concern of the Venezuelans is the praise the western far left lavished on their corrupt and massively incompetent dictators. I don’t mean that individual human rights campaigners are not filled with a well-merited contempt when they see comfortable western socialists condemning the citizens of a poor country to an oppression they would never endure without protest at home. As I have said before, Corbyn, Noam Chomsky, Sean Penn and their kind are the political equivalent of sex tourists. They scour the poor world looking for people who can act out their revolutionary fantasies, then jet off leaving them to live in poverty and oppression.
I am simply asking you to engage in a thought experiment. Imagine if Corbyn and the rest of them had the honour to recant. Even if they did, it would not improve the life of one Venezuelan.
Western irrelevance hit me when I joined a panel discussing the new Venezuelan film La Soledad at a London cinema. It’s a quiet, art-house movie – part mystical drama, part documentary – about a poor family living in the ruins of the director’s once magnificent home. No one in the West, I think, would find this gentle study of poverty sensational. There were no denunciations of Western leftists and Hollywood actors. No overt criticism of the socialist regime.
But to Venezuelans in the audience, the film was a taboo-breaker. It showed scenes the censors refuse to allow on government-controlled TV stations: queues in shops with near empty shelves; the sick lying untreated in filthy hospitals. After it finished, workers from the charity Healing Venezuela appealed for help. Their description of the state of the nation’s health was sensational, at least for those of us who knew Venezuela was once a middle-income country with vast oil reserves, which had no need to be poor.
The extent to which it has been engulfed by a man-made disaster can be measured by its treatment of the sick. Or rather its failure to treat the sick.
The Venezuelan crisis is dismantling Western assumptions. Progressives tend to welcome nationalisation of, say, the railway network as a benign policy. We do not see it as a way for the ruling elite in socialist countries to take over private assets and ransack them for their own benefit. So much looting has gone on in Venezuela, the only free market left is the drugs market. And it operates only because the cartels pay lavish bribes to the politicians.
More generally Westerners of all types do not realise how lucky and exceptional we are to live in relatively uncorrupt societies. Because we do not experience it, we fail to grasp that corruption is the most vicious form of class politics. If you can’t afford the bribes, you can’t get access to your supposed entitlements. Most crucially, you can’t get access to health care.
As the regime debases the currency and robs Venezuelans of their property, inflation and the national debt have reached Weimar levels. The poor and much of the old working and middle classes cannot get reliable treatment or any treatment at all.
The scenes in La Soledad of doctors turning away patients are hardly fictional. Infection rates for malaria and diphtheria are rising fast. Meanwhile, Maduro sacked his health minister Antonieta Caporale after her department revealed that the number of women dying in childbirth had risen by 65 per cent, while child deaths were up 30 per cent.
Like Corbyn, Trump and Putin, Maduro’s response to hard facts is to protect himself with a bodyguard of conspiracy theories. He blusters that the suffering has nothing to do with his regime’s decision to destroy private enterprise and let inflation rip, but has been stoked by saboteurs hoarding medicines to encourage a coup against him.
If you need treatment now you must bring your own medicines. The task would be hard enough for the poor in any event, but it is close to impossible now because in many cases the relevant medicines aren’t for sale at any price. Healing Venezuela tries to address the life-threatening shortages by flying medicines in the Caracas children’s hospital. When a country collapses, anyone who can get out does. Everyone welcomes doctors, and 19,000 have fled. Healing Venezuela has therefore allied with the Royal College of Surgeons to train the medical staff who remain. It is also trying to help with an epidemic of psychiatric conditions, which, as you should be able to imagine, is huge.
Yet I wonder how many of the people who are rightly denouncing the far left for its fellow travelling are giving money to charities that are trying to alleviate the suffering they purport to deplore. Equally, I wonder how many leftists who say they despise Saudi Arabia support the campaigns to free Raif Badawi and other dissidents.
The regimes Western politicians support abroad are always worth watching. They tell you something about what they would like to do at home if they got the chance. Given Corbyn’s support for Venezuela and Iran, I would worry about the future of freedom of speech and the press and his willingness to let inflation rip if he ever came to power here. Equally the failure of most Conservative politicians to denounce Donald Trump tells you much about their willingness to engage in industrial-scale lying, most notably about Brexit.
But let us not fool ourselves. If you care about the oppressed, you help them. You don’t just use them as a weapon in your own domestic battles.