PARIS – Venezuela, which sits atop the world’s largest proven oil reserves, was once one of Latin America’s most prosperous countries. Though it was hardly a paragon of democracy, it did make strides toward building solid institutions.
Then, in 1999, the former tank commander Hugo Chávez came to power. And before his death in 2013, he selected his successor: Nicolás Maduro, a sorry, bloodthirsty Chávez clone, who assumed the presidency after a bogus election, and has ruled the country ever since.
Today, the world watches as the Venezuelan dream becomes a nightmare, as a mix of incompetence and stupidity brings everything – the political system, the economy, and society – crashing down. It watches as Venezuela is carved up by a “Bolivarian” oligarchy that is beholden to a Cuba that has itself been bled dry, and no longer believes in its own political model. It watches as Maduro, the tinpot Liberator, appropriates revenues from the national oil company to finance his clientelism, and to top off opaque funds that are managed without oversight by his regime’s satraps.
Under Maduro, Venezuela has joined the pack of countries headed for mass poverty. Its rate of inflation, to cite just one indicator, now rivals that of Zimbabwe or Weimar Germany. One is reminded of Cockaigne, that mythical land where gold – the yellow oil – flows freely, or of El Dorado, that lost city of gold visited by Candide. But the myth of El Dorado – as recounted by Luis Sepúlveda, Alejo Carpentier, and others – never ends well.
Venezuela – its own kind of El Dorado – will pay a heavy price, once Maduro has drained it dry. Already, it faces escalating violence that has brought it to the brink of civil war. In just the last few weeks, 124 protestors have died. Opposition figures have been persecuted, dismissed, kidnapped, imprisoned, and tortured in police stations and jails. Adding insult to injury, an electoral farce recently handed Maduro a deconstituent assembly with the power to dismantle the country’s fragile institutional balance.
In the face of this disaster, two questions come to mind. The first reflects my French perspective, but can also be applied to other Western countries. How long, one wonders, will Jean-Luc Mélenchon – a contender in France’s presidential election last spring, who now aspires to lead the opposition as the head of La France Insoumise, a left-wing populist party whose name translates roughly as “rebellious France” – continue to sing the praises of Venezuela’s murderous regime?
One wonders how many people have to die before Mélenchon calls a spade a spade, and acknowledges that Maduro’s security forces are no different from those that sowed terror in Chile and Argentina not too long ago. What would it take for Mélenchon to accept that Venezuela’s brutal regime was never a proper “source of inspiration,” or acknowledge that his presidential-campaign proposal to enter into a “Bolivarian alliance” – to cozy up to the heirs of the dear, departed caudillos, Castro and Chávez – was a really bad idea?
For the moment, it seems as though nothing will change Mélenchon’s mind. 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.”
Worse, when they do speak out, it is either to blame the victims or to denounce “disinformation.” For example, Djordje Kuzmanovic, a sinister spokesman for Mélenchon’s party, has compared peaceful Venezuelan protestors to the putschists who delivered Augusto Pinochet to power in Chile in 1973.
Similarly, Alexis Corbière, a newly elected far-left member of the French National Assembly, has layered shame on top of cowardice by insulting the Venezuelans who have died for democracy and the rule of law. He has implied that they were merely young people from fancy neighborhoods who got what they deserved; and he has dismissed the government’s savage attacks on the opposition by musing that, “sometimes people get burned.” The statements from Mélenchon and his confederates are unworthy of any party that wishes to be viewed as the opposition in France.
My second question is addressed to the international community, which has at least two reasons to take an interest in Venezuela’s plight. The first is the “responsibility to protect,” as spelled out in the Charter of the United Nations. UN member states should uphold this principle by sending a strong signal to Maduro’s government to end the current violence.
To that end, the Security Council needs to muster the courage to issue a clear statement of condemnation against the regime. Venezuelan opposition leaders who still enjoy freedom of movement in Paris, Madrid, and Washington, DC, should be extended official welcomes. French, Spanish, and American foreign ministries should express their solidarity with the Venezuelan legislature, which Maduro’s coup by constituent assembly threatens to dissolve. And, of course, the toothless warnings from Mercosur and US President Donald Trump’s timid saber-rattling should be replaced with stronger economic and financial sanctions.
Second, the situation in Venezuela should concern all countries that have an interest in the fight against terrorism, and the money-laundering networks that finance it. After all, what purpose was served by the “Bolivarian alliance” between Chávez and former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? And where have the members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia gone? Just before his death, the FARC leader Iván Ríos told me that many FARC militants had been sent “on a mission” to the country of “twenty-first century socialism.”
More recently, certain leaders of the anti-Chavista opposition – now exiled to the wilderness, for the time being – have alleged that Maduro’s regime has deep ties to North Korea, Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, and the freelancing militant group Hezbollah. Should we put stock in these claims?
These are all questions that must be asked – and answered. We know from past experience that no act is too depraved for a desperate regime. At a minimum, Venezuela’s slow-motion coup d’état warrants commissions of inquiry in the spirit of the Russell Tribunal, and greater interest from the Western media – not the embarrassed silence with which the international community has responded so far.