Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Chávez and the TUC - further correspondence

Further to my open letter to the TUC published here last Thursday, there was a response published on Easter Sunday at LabourList by Jennie Bremner, Chair of the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign (and Assistant General Secretary, I understand, of Unite: The Union).

So as not to subject LabourList readers to "Venezuela overkill", I have written my response here instead.

Dear Jennie,

Thank you for your letter of 24 April 2010. My response follows: I have tried to respond to all the areas you touched on as comprehensively as possible.

1.         The current TUC support for Chavez may well be consistent with its conference resolutions of 2005 and 2007, however:


a.     The fact that something is the subject of a resolution at a trades union conference does not make it good or right: and neither does the number of trade unions supporting this cause make it good or right. In the 1980s, Labour Party conference supported unilateral nuclear disarmament and nationalisation of a large number of industries, but this was not good or right either, in the opinion of the vast majority of today’s party members. Conference motions may be democratic but, I’m sure you’d agree, they are not always an unequivocally good indicator of correctness or common sense, either. Democratic process does not automatically bestow right upon an argument.

b.    The last resolution was four years ago, during which time various significant events have occurred, including the press clampdown and the constitutional changes of 2009. I would imagine the sensible thing for the union movement to do would be therefore to review its involvement on an ongoing basis or, at least, a little more frequently than every four years.

2.        Regarding trade union rights and denials of trade union freedom, I wonder if you are familiar with the article regarding the killing of trade union members in Venezuela. (for the record, my attention was drawn to the issue by a former UK trade union activist, now working internationally). The same article also highlights that there appear to be two types: those which truly represent the people, and have been attacked by Chavez supporters, and those which do not, and are front organisations for the Chavistas.  I put it to you that the reason why the “overwhelming majority of trade unions in Venezuela support the progressive government” is not, as you claim, because everyone is comfortable that their rights are being upheld; but because non-Chavista unions are being threatened, to extinction, by the Chavista ones.

3.        I do not deny that there may have been some social gains for some parts of the population in Venezuela, but I am not sure why that justifies the human rights abuses recorded by Amnesty/HRW, which were the principal point of my letter, and which you have not addressed in your response.

4.        I am glad that you and other union officials have witnessed all this first-hand, to inform your case. I should also state the obvious: that it is certainly not unknown for unpleasant regimes to host stage-managed visits for Western emissaries, in order to bolster themselves against outside criticism. Indeed, although the following regimes have slightly different politics, it happened in Soviet Russia, North Korea and many other places during the Cold War. You may wonder why friendly visits such as yours to Venezuela are rather less common amongst Western government envoys.

5.        No-one would claim that the previous regime was a good one. However, this really is irrelevant in discussion of the Chavez regime. The issue is now, what is happening in 2011, not the late 1990s.

6.        When we talk about human rights abuses as documented by such organisations as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, I am not clear on whether you think these are a “price worth paying”, or whether you simply deny they exist.

7.        Regarding lack of democracy, no-one has said democracy is absent: clearly there is a democratic process. However the problem with a democratic process is, unless it is truly 100% free and fair, it serves only as a cover to hide abuses of power. One can engineer a flawed democratic process, and a partly-free press, as fig-leaves to pacify the West and at least some of one’s own people. In many ways it is superior to full-blown dictatorship, in that a leader can continue to project a democratic façade while eroding civil rights from within, maintain themselves in power indefinitely and implement laws as they please. Chavez has already removed the barriers to the first and is getting closer to the second by controlling the media and threatening the opposition: the final end result is as yet unknown, but is hardly likely to be a million miles from dictatorship.

8.        I am interested to see where all Venezuela’s elections have been unconditionally reported free and fair by a credible body such as the EU or UN. There have been concerns in most cases, particularly in the use of state-controlled media by Chavez to get out his message. For example, in 2004 the EU refused to be an observer because of its serious concerns about fairness. In another, the opposition boycotted the election. These are not events which inspire confidence in the democratic process. Some other thoughts on democracy:

a.     I am interested to know your reasonable explanation for the removal of term limits for the president, this generally only ever happens in countries which are on the road to becoming less and less democratic. Why would you do this, if not to try and perpetuate yourself as leader indefinitely? Neither am I sure that Fidel Castro, who set the bar in this area, is a great role model for a 21st century democrat.

b.    You seem to take, as an example of Chavez’ great democratic credentials, the fact that he accepted the loss of a major constitutional referendum in 2007, as if we should be delighted that he abided by a democratic result. Of course he accepted it: if he had not done so, of course, that certainly would have made him not a democrat but a dictator. However, conversely, his acceptance does not make him a democrat. Let’s examine a few example clauses from that referendum:
·        abolish presidential term limits;
·        allow the president to declare an unlimited state of emergency;
·        reorganize the country's administrative districts and allow the president to control elected state governors and mayors by an unelected “popular power” dependent on the presidency;
·        allow public funding for political associations (by the way, do you know whether Chavistas and opposition parties get comparable funding?);
·        allowing the state to provisionally occupy property slated for expropriation before a court has ruled (i.e. allow confiscation of land from its owners without the backing of a court);
·        place the president in charge of administering the country's international reserves.
These are hardly the actions of a democrat. They are the actions of someone acting to limit democracy; also some (e.g. term limits) have now been passed, in 2009.

9.        A second point on democracy: there is an anecdote in a  Times piece from an EU election observer in Venezuela, Tom de Castella, which is worth quoting:
“By dusk we’re safely installed in the final polling station to monitor the count. The machine begins spurting out bits of paper, while the polling staff begin totting up the number of signatures in the register where electors have to sign before they vote. I start looking at the various numbers and realise there’s a problem – there are 20 more votes in the machines than voters’ signatures. It might not sound a lot but with a total of 500 voters, this is a significant margin of error. The polling official tries several times using different excuses to explain it away, but none adds up. A little later, as I’m taking some time out in the corridor, my mobile phone rings and a voice I don’t recognise warns me to stop interfering in things that do not concern me.
The mystery is never solved. Chavez is well ahead but the incident leaves a bad taste in the mouth.”
Not a great advert for Venezuelan democracy, is it?

10.   Regarding freedom of speech, of course Chavez has not (yet) managed to shut down all opposition. He merely keeps it around, and subjugated, for the purposes of keeping up democratic appearances. You seem to imply that having more than one media source implies freedom: it does not. Here I am surprised that you have not mentioned the rescinding of the terrestrial licence for RCTV, a station known for criticising Chavez, which later, in January 2010, was closed down entirely for refusing to carry government campaign material during an election. Or, the proposed law to “impose prison sentences of up to four years for journalists whose writings might divulge information against ‘the stability of the institutions of the state’". In other words, anything that Chavez sees fit to charge them with.

11.     I am not sure what relevance good access to media for the Venezuelan people has, when the media itself is slanted towards Chavez. Surely, common sense dictates that this would merely reinforce his own propaganda.

12.    Your statement on human rights abuses, worryingly, seems to be only relative; that is, in comparison with something that happened 20 years ago. So, there hasn’t been a massacre of more than 3,000 people for over 20 years: excellent. This is an extraordinary moral relativism. You clearly have not checked out HRW and Amnesty recently on Venezuela (links above): I suggest you do so – you may be surprised. It is not enough to simply compare the current situation with what has gone before.

13.    I am not sure what relevance the 2002 coup or subsequent amnesty have to the present day situation, either.

14.    A couple of other points of interest: as Denis McShane has pointed out in an excellent Guardian piece in 2009: “Unless you read the Spanish press, you are unlikely to have picked up his words of support to the Belarus strongman Lukashenko or his endorsement of Robert Mugabe. The Open Democracy website has a long piece by the Mexican leftist Enrique Krauze on Chávez's links to antisemitic ideologues in Venezuela” (as it happens I do regularly read the Spanish press). And his refusal to condemn Colonel Gaddafi, even after recent atrocities, is well-known. He has known links to the terrorist FARC in Peru, as reported in the Guardian. I would be delighted to hear your comments on these statements, as the sources are very reliable.

Jennie, I am truly sorry for your hard work on behalf of what you believe to be a noble cause when, sadly, it is not and you may be finding this out before long.

For clarity, I am not saying for a moment that the Chavez regime is not the same or perhaps even better, with regard to human rights, than a number of regimes such as China or Saudi Arabia, which realpolitik demands that we deal with at a government level. However, what we do not do, in the Labour Party at least, is get actively involved in the propaganda machines of these regimes, because it is necessary to reserve the right, even while engaging, to stand apart and criticise the things that we do not agree with.

The union movement’s uncritical support for the Chavez regime – without any public criticism to counterbalance it – as it slowly deteriorates, clashes, not only with the vast majority of public opinion in Europe and developed countries. It also clashes with that in most of the countries – generally much more democratic, with two or three exceptions – of South America, which largely do not see the regime as either free, or much of an ally in the development of the continent.

My ultimate concern is not only one of what is right in terms of human rights and democracy, but also of the effect of support for this regime on the credibility of the British Labour movement at home and abroad. Even in continental Europe, where politics is often to the left of us on many issues, many Labour parties and unions are rightly either silent on, or critical of, Venezuela.

It’s for a reason.

Yours sincerely,
Rob Marchant

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