Why Macshane and others on the left are wrong about Chavez

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ChavezBy Colin Burgon MP

“In the end”, said Martin Luther King, “we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” His words are relevant to every social struggle and are especially pertinent to the ongoing fight for social justice in Latin America, where media manipulation and forces hostile to the positive changes of the last decade conspire to return nations such as Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Honduras to an imposed neo-liberal economic model.

The survival of Hugo Chávez’ government in Venezuela, the popular elections of Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador and the campaign to restore Manuel Zelaya, the democratically-elected leader of Honduras, to power following a right-wing coup have all relied on solidarity at home and abroad and the courage to read between the lines of the disinformation pedalled by corporate media outlets.

The British labour movement has always played its part. From the Spanish Civil War, to the coup in Chile and the apartheid struggle in South Africa, and now the solidarity campaigns around Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela and Honduras, the British left has stood up for democracy and justice. This makes the present media manipulation around Venezuela even harder to stomach.

Against a background of increasing anti-Chávez propaganda an attack on the British left’s support of Venezuela’s revolution has emanated from Labour’s benches in the House of Commons. Denis MacShane’s critique in The Guardian must be challenged. The Rotherham MP began with a call for all “Hooray Hugos”, presumably including more than 50 Labour MPs and many national trade unions, to rethink their support for Venezuela’s leader.

According to MacShane:

“While the left in Spain, France, Italy and Latin America has always had doubts about the populist, demagogic style of Chavez, he has had a free run in Britain. Ken Livingstone organised meetings to worship him and got involved in a bizarre oil deal. The NUJ [National Union of Journalists] and Labour MPs have made pilgrimages to Caracas to buy the Chávez line.”

It was a risible attempt to belittle the work of the solidarity movement which arose in response to the CIA-backed coup against a democratically elected Venezuelan leader, who has made the alleviation of poverty a priority.

Denis MacShane’s attack was ostensibly in defence of free speech and independent journalists allegedly under threat because:

“Chávez has put before the Venezuelan parliament a proposed law that would impose prison sentences of up to four years for journalists whose writings might divulge information against ‘the stability of the institutions of the state’.”

Yet Hugo Chávez has not proposed any such law and no such law is in operation in Venezuela. As the AFP Spanish language news agency has reported, no such legislative proposal is being officially discussed in the Venezuelan parliament.

What actually happened was that, on 30th July, Venezuela’s Public Prosecutor suggested a number of proposals to the country’s MPs that she believed should become law. There is no broad agreement or consensus that they should become so. The proposals are no more than her own suggestions. The public prosecutor is not a legislator and cannot implement legislation.

Venezuela’s Parliament has certainly not agreed to the suggestions. Manuel Villalba, president of the Media Commission in the Parliament explained: “We want to reiterate that it is not true that in this House there is or was [such] a bill”. There was merely “the contributions of the Prosecutor”. He insisted there is no consensus. Further, senior representatives of the Chavez-led PSUV have said the party does not endorse the prosecutor’s suggestions.

As Washington academic Mark Weisbrot explained: Venezuela’s media “routinely broadcasts reporting and commentary that would not be allowed under FCC rules in the US. And the vast majority of the media in Venezuela is still controlled by the right-wing opposition”.

By any rational standards, the actions of elements of Venezuela’s media – such as its now fully exposed orchestration of a military coup – are outside the normal role of the press and should be subject to regulation. There is now an open discussion on how to do this. The interpretation of this offered by various corporate media sources, which has been amplified by the MP for Rotherham, has nothing to do with the labour movement’s tradition of informed and intelligent analysis.

What is more frustrating is that a Labour MP who purports to have an interest in Latin America and to speak up for journalists is silent on the murder and intimidation of journalists and trade unionists in Colombia. In the past decade, according to the International Federation of Journalists, “54 Colombian journalists have been murdered for their work”. And 606 trade unionists have been murdered since incumbent President Alvaro Uribe came to power.

And there is a currently a place in Latin America where basic rights are being rolled back. In Honduras, the military seized power in a coup on June 28. Since then peaceful protests have been violently repressed with killings and many wounded. The media has been censored, independent radio and TV stations have been shut down. Political organisers have been detained and intimidated and fundamental civil liberties have been suspended. These abuses have been documented and condemned by Amnesty International and other human rights bodies.

Yet Denis MacShane and others say nothing about this, choosing instead to aim their fire at Venezuela’s elected government.

As Foreign Office Minister during the military coup against Hugo Chavez in 2002, Denis MacShane described Chavez in The Times as a “ranting, populist demagogue”, comparing him to Mussolini, words from an international minister that can only have been received positively by the illegal military coup plotters. Not once in The Times nor in his Foreign Office statement during the coup did Denis MacShane call for elected President, Hugo Chávez, to be returned to power.

It can only be concluded – given the availability of credible information on Latin America – that this and other articles which misrepresent the situation in Venezuela are part of a politically motivated campaign with a broader, ideological agenda.

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