Venezuela once was one of Latin America’s most prosperous countries.
The country sat on the world’s largest oil reserves, according to OPEC.
Without always having been a paragon of democracy (far from it), it was in the process of building solid institutions.
Then came the election of former tank commander Hugo Chavez.
And later the appointment, followed by a bogus election, of his sorry, blood-thirsty clone, Nicolas Maduro.
Now watch as the dream becomes a nightmare. Watch as a mix of incompetence and stupidity brings everything crashing down, the country carved up by a grasping “Bolivarian” oligarchy beholden to a Cuba that has itself been bled dry and no longer believes in its own model. Watch as the tin-pot Liberator, pumping revenues from the national oil company to finance his clientelism and to top up opaque funds managed without oversight by the satraps of the regime, drops his country to the back of the pack of those headed for mass poverty, with a rate of inflation (to cite just one indicator) rivaling that of Zimbabwe or Weimar Germany.
One thinks of Candide’s return from his land of Cockaigne, where gold, the yellow oil, flowed freely.
One thinks of the myth of El Dorado (as recounted by Luis Sepulveda, Alejo Carpentier, and others)—which never ends well.
This particular El Dorado, once depleted and drained, will pay a heavy price.
Meanwhile, the sacking of the country goes on against the background of a wave of violence that has put it on the verge of civil war.
A hundred and twenty dead in the past few weeks.
Opposition figures persecuted, dismissed, kidnapped, imprisoned.
People tortured in police stations and jails.
And now, adding insult to injury, an electoral farce that has handed Maduro a deconstituent assembly with full powers to dismantle, if it so chooses, the country’s fragile institutional balance.
* * *
In the face of this disaster, two questions occur to me.
The first reflects my French perspective but applies, in one form or another, to other countries of the West.
How long will Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a contender in France’s spring 2017 presidential election who now aspires to lead the opposition in France as head of the left-wing populist party whose name translates roughly as rebellious France (La France Insoumise), continue to sing the praises of this murderous regime?
How many people will have to die before he calls a spade a spade and acknowledges that Maduro’s security forces are no different from those that not long ago spread terror in Chile and Argentina?
What has to happen before Mélenchon will speak his conscience—not his previous alliances or his previous words—and admit that he was wrong, admit that this brutal regime was never a proper “source of inspiration,” and acknowledge that the business about a Bolivarian alliance (written into article 62 of his unsuccessful presidential platform), which was supposed to move him (and France!) closer to the heirs of the dear, departed caudillos (Castro, Chavez …), was a really bad idea?
For the moment, he does not seem to be waiting for anything.
Like the Spaniards of Podemos and the Greeks of Syriza, like Jeremy Corbyn in Great Britain, Mélenchon and his “rebellious” followers seem to believe that their hero with the bloody hands is excused by the struggle against “imperialism.”
And, when they do stir, it is either to blame the victims, as when Djordje Kuzmanovic, a sinister spokesman for Mélenchon’s party, compared Venezuelans demonstrating peacefully for democracy and the rule of law to Pinochet’s putschists in 1970s Chile, or to denounce “disinformation,” as when Alexis Corbière, a newly elected far-left member of the National Assembly, layering shame over cowardice, managed to insult Venezuelans who died for democracy (young people from fancy neighborhoods, Corbière implied, who only got what they deserved) and stigmatizing the opposition that is the target of the government’s savage paramilitary militias (“sometimes people get burned”).
Have these self-styled rebels been subdued, or are they hostages?
Words like those of Mélenchon and his confederates are unworthy of a party that wishes to be viewed as the opposition in France.
* * *
The second question is addressed to the international community, which has at least two reasons to take an interest in Venezuela’s plight.
One of those reasons is the responsibility to protect, as spelled out in the United Nations charter, which calls for strong signals in this case: a clear condemnation from a courageous Security Council; gestures of support, such as official welcomes for opposition leaders who still enjoy freedom of movement in Paris, Madrid, and Washington; expressions of solidarity with the Venezuelan legislature, which Maduro’s coup by constituent assembly threatens to dissolve, from the diplomatic missions of France, Spain, the United States, and other nations; and, of course, economic and financial sanctions that go beyond toothless warnings from Mercosur and the timid saber-rattling of Donald Trump.
A less widely known reason why the events in Caracas should concern us is related to the fight against terrorism and the money-laundering that finances it. What is the purpose of the alliance—sorry, the “Bolivarian alliance”—that Chavez made with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former president of Iran? Where have the members of the Colombian FARC disappeared to? One of their leaders, Ivan Rios, told me just before his death in 2007 that FARC members had been sent “on a mission” to the country of “twenty-first century socialism.” How much credence should be given to certain leaders of the anti-Chavist opposition who are crying in the wilderness (at least for now) that there is more to know about Maduro’s links with North Korea, Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, and freelancing Hezbollah renegades?
These are only questions.
But they are questions that have to be asked.
Experience tells us that no act is too base for a desperate regime. The situation in Venezuela merits commissions of inquiry, a Russell Tribunal, and greater interest from the western press rather than the embarrassed silence that so far has met what is, in fact, a slow-motion coup d’état.
Translated from French by Steven B. Kennedy