An inspiration, a hero: these are the words leftists in Europe lavished on the late Hugo Chavez for his “Bolivarian revolution” in Venezuela.
For British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and left-wing parties like Syriza and Podemos in southern Europe, Chavez’s ascendance was long the clearest challenge to inequality in Latin America, neoliberalism in Washington, and austerity at home.
Today, it's a decidedly foggier picture.
A humanitarian crisis is enveloping Venezuela. The country is turning increasingly dictatorial under President Nicolás Maduro. And that has placed those like Mr. Corbyn who praised chavismo, Chavez's ideology, into a political minefield. Now, some on the left are calling for a more clear-eyed assessment in Europe of what is happening in the troubled nation.
“I think the left internationally is very confused around the question of Venezuela,” says Mike Gonzalez, a British historian and a former professor of Latin American Studies at the University of Glasgow. “It is very distressing to lots of people who have given their lives and hopes and commitments to that hopeful process of change to come face-to-face with reality,” he says.
Asa Cusack, managing editor of the Latin America and Caribbean Center blog at the London School of Economics, wrote in a recent Guardian piece: "For many academics on the left, broadly supportive of chavismo's aims, this democratic slide has been a cause for much heartache and soul-searching.”
'By all sides'
Clashes between protesters and security forces have left more than 120 Venezuelans dead since March after Venezuela’s supreme court attempted to dissolve the opposition-controlled congress. Largely seen as a power grab, Maduro held a vote in July to form a Constituent Assembly to rewrite the Constitution. On Friday, the body acted to take over congress, effectively putting all power under the executive. In the meantime, food and medicine shortages worsen and thousands of Venezuelans are fleeing and seeking asylum.
It's put the international left in an uncomfortable position.
Mr. Corbyn, the old-school leftist who shocked Britain when he won control of the Labour Party in 2015, called Chavez an “inspiration” in 2013, “to all of us fighting back against austerity and neoliberal economics in Europe.”
Now the opposition leader is under pressure to clarify his stance. Speaking at an event earlier this month, when pressed on Maduro’s actions in Venezuela, he responded: “What I condemn is the violence that's been done by any side, by all sides, in all this.”
When he later criticized President Trump’s placing blame on “both sides” in the Charlottesville white supremacist march, his right-wing opponents lambasted him. Tory MP Andrew Rosindell told the Daily Mail: “Jeremy Corbyn is being totally hypocritical. He refuses to condemn his extremist far-left comrades in Venezuela and then attacks Donald Trump for using exactly the same words to avoid attacking the far right in the US.”
Dr. Cusack says he supports the fact that Corbyn’s statements on Venezuela have underlined that both sides have resorted to violence – which he says the media fails to report – and that Corbyn urged a peaceful solution even as many have simply assumed that Venezuela is condemned to civil war.
But being explicitly critical of Maduro – even distinguishing between Chavez’s successes (and failures) and Maduro's democratic backsliding – puts Corbyn in a political bind. “Partly why he can’t go down that road is because it will be used as a stick to beat him with.”
Such associations have dogged other leaders in Europe, from Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who attended Chavez’s funeral in 2013, to Spain’s left-wing Podemos, whose leaders served as advisers to Chavez.
On Facebook, Podemos founder Pablo Iglesias earlier this month called for dialogue between both sides. “Neither chavismo nor anti-chavismo will cease to exist and hopefully the leaders of both sides understand that the worst agreement is preferable to conflict,” he wrote.
Critics panned his comments as false equivalence, particularly as Venezuelans have become the No. 1 group seeking asylum in Spain, surpassing Syrians and Ukrainians.
Indeed, the Venezuelan crisis is as polarizing outside of the country and the ideological cleavages run deep. Some on the right are using events in Venezuela to tar socialism broadly, says Cusack, which he calls “overblown.” At the same time, some on the left seek to defend Venezuela’s path at all costs. Mr. Gonzalez addressed such people in a piece entitled “Being Honest about Venezuela” that he penned this month in The Jacobin. “Others on the Left have chosen to say nothing or ignore the complex reality” in Venezuela, he wrote. “Whatever their motives, their silence amounts to complicity with a new ruling class that hides behind the language of socialism.”
His criticism has garnered praise – and backlash from leftist true believers who accuse him of being an agent of the CIA. But he says the international left has a job before it. “The Left outside Venezuela can help rebuild the movement,” he summed up in The Jacobin, “by participating in an honest accounting of what went wrong.”
So far, however, they are not taking cues from their leadership. French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy recently condemned Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the French leftist who almost upset the French presidential election, for refusing to condemn Maduro or admit the mistakes of Chavez before him.
In an opinion piece this month he wrote: “Like Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, and Jeremy Corbyn in Great Britain, Mélenchon and his ‘rebellious’ followers seem to believe that bloody hands can be excused in the struggle against ‘imperialism.’ ”