Where Tom Watson goes wrong part 2. Venezuela.

Just after the turn of the century I read an article in the Washington Post that quoted a State Department report on a crisis in – I think – South East Asia. I then read a statement from the (Labour) UK Foreign Secretary at the time which expressed the UK’s stance on the same issue using almost identical language and some of the same turns of phrase. This cutting and pasting illustrates the point that the dominant current in the Labour Party has often been as supinely Atlanticist as the Conservatives, especially in government. What made this shocking was that the Foreign Secretary concerned was Robin Cook, a man with more principles than most, who at least held out the prospect of an ethical foreign policy as an aspiration.

Getting up the arse of the White House and staying there was an indelicate turn of phrase from Tony Blair, but could be taken as a constant of Labour leadership policy from Gaitskell onwards – with Labour’s opposition to the Suez adventure completely in line with the policy of the Eisenhower White House – albeit with the odd wobble from Harold Wilson keeping my generation out of the Vietnam war (thank you Harold) to Neil Kinnock’s briefly heretical gestures on Nicaragua during the 1980’s and Ed Miliband’s resistance to intervention in Syria (resisted of course by a substantial part of the PLP keen to “do our bit”). The UK has, nevertheless, taken part in virtually every US intervention – Iraq, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq (again), and in Libya worked with the French as US proxies- as a matter of national consensus whatever the composition of the government – with only the Labour left awkward squad coming out against in Parliament – sometimes – and increasingly – representing the majority view in society.

Arguments for all these interventions have depended heavily on the notion of the West as a defender of human rights; but the human cost of each of them has been dreadful of course. Three to five million people displaced in Iraq alone and estimates of deaths that range from 98 000 to nearly a million.

I had the same sensation that the text I was reading was a routine palimpsest of someone else’s words when reading the section on Venezuela in Tom Watson’s letter to Labour Party members this week. This was odd in several respects. The tone was ringing rhetoric, not at all the slightly rambly meander that we are used to from Tom: drawing out the detailed bye ways of some aspect of domestic policy that particularly obsesses him. This makes his letters interesting in places where he has genuine expertise but all to often rather inconsequential; as titanic questions like climate change only just peep above his horizons.

Since I have been getting his letters, Tom’s attention very rarely raises to anything beyond the domestic agenda. This may be because, for him, matters of foreign policy outside of Europe are simply a matter of cutting and pasting US State Department press releases; and therefore an area in which an lack of attention is almost required. If you accept the dictates of the Pax Americana – even under Trump – as a given – there really is little point in paying attention to it. Its almost above your place. Until it comes under threat; and at that point Tom will jump to attention and do his bit for it. Of course, one of the threats to it is the leadership of his own Party.

If you look at Tom Watson’s voting record between 2003 and the present day he voted FOR UK military interventions six times (against twice and absent three times) FOR the Iraq war five times (absent once) and FOR an investigation into the Iraq war once – and AGAINST fourteen times. His stance is clear. The casualties involved do not appear to make him squeamish. No doubt he would do it again.

Jeremy Corbyn represents a different kind of socialist tradition, which has hitherto been a very small minority in the UK Labour movement – that sees its alliances in seeking to transform the relations of domestic wealth and power as bound up with other movements and countries internationally that are seeking to do the same. The crisis for traditional Labour currents – like that represented by Tom – is that they have preset limits on the extent to which they are prepared to challenge the powers that be.

Blair’s “Third Way” perception was that a Labour government could only come about if it explicitly did NOT make any challenge to people ” getting filthy rich” – let alone those who already were. This was only possible at a particular moment in UK politics – when the USA’s unipolar moment coincided with rapid globalisation and continuing oil revenues allowing a superficial modernisation on social issues while leaving archaic institutions, imbalances and failings substantially intact. From the 2008 crash that tradition has run into the sand across Europe; and is either facing electoral oblivion after participating in pro austerity coalitions and/or serious challenge to its left. In the UK, the capitulation of the old leaderships to austerity means that the awkward squad now leads the Party – but the defenders of the old order are fighting tooth and nail to save it for the outmoded politics they represent – and if that means destroying it, so be it.

Tom has used an extraordinarily biased report for the UN from former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet on the current crisis in Venezuela and framed it as an attack on international solidarity. “Do not defend the indefensible because someone decides for you that it is socialism.”  Quite so, so lets not skid along the rhetoric, lets make a serious analysis of what is and is not defensible and make our own minds up about what is socialist and what is not.

First, a matter of style. Tom takes a BBC report as evidence but, in his own account, removes all the conditional words that indicate that an inaccurate picture may be being painted. Words like “allegations”, and phrases like “may indicate” are removed from Tom’s account the better to stoke indignation. Accuracy is not a consideration here. Given the way the intelligence services were caught out “sexing up” the “dodgy dossier” you’d think Tom might be a bit more cautious. He does not mention that the Venezuelan government has pointed out 70 factual errors in the draft report, arising from its authors having ignored most of the evidence gathered inside the country or submitted by anyone other than the opposition; relying instead on unverified allegations from opposition supporters in exile – who are responsible for 82% of the statements in the report – none of which are independently corroborated.* Far be it from them to have an axe to grind. These are people who demonstrated with the slogan “Bomb us – we have oil too” so a shovel full of salt might be in order. A more accurate way to talk about this would be to say that the Venezuelan opposition accuses the government of all sorts of dire things and the government denies it.

The same method – of giving credence to opposition allegations while dismissing those of government supporters – was also used in reports from Amnesty and International Human Rights Watch. Why they would produce such a politically biased account is a question for them. The background is that they operate in an international human rights framework in which the US and its allies affect the position of international moral arbiters while ensuring immunity for themselves, their secret services and black ops agents, torturers and armed forces. No US personnel will ever be put on trial in the Hague. Civis Americanus sum. Human rights organisations compete for funds in a world in which the ten main sources are all US Trusts with a particular view of the world+. Any organisation that wants to survive as a viable enterprise has to tailor its view to theirs even if, like Amnesty, they are primarily funded by individual donations. For an assessment of Amnesty’s reports on Venezuela see here. https://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/14357

You would think from reading Tom Watson’s account that Venezuela had not, since the election of Hugo Chavez in 1999, transformed aspects of Venezuelan society as a conscious attempt to build a 21st century socialism in a way that most Labour supporters would want to defend. Tom sneers about a “socialist paradise”. No one would claim that, but they have done the following in very difficult circumstances.

  • extended education to all and eliminated adult illiteracy – building new schools and universities and giving out 4.8 million computers to students to carry their whole learning course from nursery to university
  • extended health care – free at the point of use – to all areas – building clinics in the barrios
  • provided aid and free or cheap oil to countries in the Caribbean suffering from natural disasters or unnatural economic pressure from the United States ($1.3 billion direct aid and $359 million debt forgiveness to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake for example – between double to three times the $650 million that came from the whole of the EU).
  • cleared slums and built two and a half million new homes (for free or very low rent) towards a target of 5 million by 2025, and they are still building
  • passed laws against gender, racial and age discrimination and boosted participation by women and the ethnic majorities at every level in society
  • vested Venezuela’s natural resources in the Venezuelan people
  • generated popular participation in all these missions and projects, so the poorest sections of society that have befitted most from them are also integrally involved in their design and running
  • presided over a sharp increase in the number of people registered to vote – up from about 75% in the 1990s to 96% today (from 11 million to 19 million).

Nor in Tom’s account is there any reflection that Chavez and his successor Nicolas Maduro have won every Presidential election from 1998 to the most recent one in 2018 – in which Maduro won 67.8% of the vote to his nearest rival’s 20.9%, Venezuelan elections use a system described in 2012 by former US President Jimmy Carter in unambiguous terms; “the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world”.

Nor does Tom seem to notice that, since 2014, Venezuela has been subject to sanctions from the United States that are designed to overturn the results of these democratic elections – after an attempted coup in 2002 failed. Kissinger’s injunction to “make the economy scream” applied to the Allende government in Chile in the early 1970’s is being applied to Venezuela today. After all, as Kissinger explained then, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people”. These sanctions have been supported by a coalition of wealthy developed countries (principally Canada and the EU) and US client regimes in Latin America, but spurned by the rest of the world. Not just Russia and China – but everyone else. The effect of these sanctions – on top of a drop in world oil prices that has slashed Venezuela’s annual revenue from $43.9 billion in 2014 to $5.918 billion in 2017 – has been crippling for the Venezuelan economy, but only partly the desired political effect. Support for the Venezuelan Socialist Party has declined but remains substantial and still outnumbers the opposition, especially in the poorer areas where people know and fear what a US led regime would do to them. Latin American has enough experience of this for people to know.

Tom also appears not to have noticed that the man in charge of the US operation in Venezuela is Elliott Abrams. This is a man with form. He was in charge of Central American operations for Ronald Reagan in the 1970s; which involved support for Contra terrorists in Nicaragua (financed by illegal arms for oil deals with Iran) building up the death squads in El Salvador – whose modus operandi included the sorts of horrific murders currently associated with ISIS or Mexican drug cartels; perhaps a clue as to where both got their ideas from – and supporting the Guatemalan government of General Rios Montt – whose campaign against the Maya in Yucatan led him to being tried for crimes against humanity and genocide just before his death in 2017. A question for Tom. What do you think a Venezuelan regime installed at the behest of this bloke would look like – and what do you think it would do to the Venezuelan working class if it took power?

Tom really should be aware that a Center for Economic and Policy Research report co-authored by economists Jeffrey Sachs and Mark Weisbrot, states that US sanctions have deprived Venezuela of billions of dollars needed to pay for essential food and medicine, leading to a rise in disease and mortality and the displacement of millions. This has disproportionately harmed the poorest and most vulnerable Venezuelans resulting in 40,000 deaths and a 31% rise in general mortality from 2017 to 2018. 40,000. Tom somehow misses this.

By late 2018 more than 300,000 people were at risk due to lack of access to medicines or treatment; including 80,000 people with HIV  16,000 people who need dialysis, 16,000 people with cancer, and 4 million with diabetes and hypertension unable to obtain insulin or cardiovascular medicine. As a former diabetes sufferer you might think that Tom would have more empathy. Instead he describes anyone that points to the responsibility of the Unites States and its supporters for this suffering as “cynics”. Oh to be so innocent.

Tom argues that “Democratic Socialism requires consent”. This is interesting on two counts. Firstly, the sort of socialism being developed in Venezuela requires not consent but participation. So will any attempt to seriously transform the UK through Labour’s investment plans and Green Industrial Revolution. Secondly, the implication of Tom’s argument is that the Venezuelan government does not have consent from its people because there is a violent and racist US supported opposition, primarily drawn for the wealthy elite who formerly ran the country and kept hold of its benefits for themselves. These are taken by Tom to be “the people”. He ignores not only successive election results in which more of “the people” have voted for the government than the opposition, but also very large recent demonstrations supporting it. His caricature of a government ruling by fear over a cowed people is belied by these shows of support. Its fair to say that the impact of the economic crisis has reduced the support that the government has, but the opposition vote has not grown; which says quite a lot about the limits of their appeal. Overthrowing the government will also mean crushing its supporters. There is no neutrality in this. When there is a conflict, anyone who stands aside is consenting to the victory of the power with the greatest force.

So, withdrawal of support from Venezuela by our Party or our unions would be a green light for a US intervention of the sort that Tom has voted for elsewhere in the world; and would, no doubt, have a similar result; with human rights as much a consideration as they were in the Fallujah free fire zone or in Abu Ghraib.

Tom says that the people of Venezuela “deserve a future that they consent to and can forge together.” Quite so. Support for the opposition won’t achieve that. A peaceful and democratic way out of the crisis requires, on the contrary, the mass support that the government has to be taken into account, the opposition to abandon attempts at coups, a dialogue between government and opposition (consistently offered by the government) an end to US sanctions and no further attempts to violently overthrow a democratically elected government from inside or outside the country.

Hopefully all democratic socialists can agree on that.




Top Ten Funders of Human Rights Projects Worldwide

1. Open Society Foundations – $261.1m

2. Ford Foundation – $171.1m

3. National Endowment for Democracy – $105.7m

4. W.K. Kellogg Foundation – $59.2m

5. Oak Foundation – $40m

6. Atlantic Philanthropies – $39m

7. Arcus Foundation – $36.6m

8. Vanguard Charitable Endowment Foundation – $32.9m

9. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – $31.4m

10. Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation –  – $28.5m

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