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Ideology blinds Jeremy Corbyn to Venezuela’s plight

You might think Jeremy Corbyn would have something to say about the unfolding tragedy in Venezuela. Britain's Labour leader and would-be prime minister is an internationalist - a self-described champion for the poor and oppressed everywhere. A committed socialist, he once saw Hugo Chávez's Venezuela as a model for parties of the left in the west. Now the country has fallen into poverty under Chavez's successor, Nicolás Maduro. The world has witnessed the descent into despotism of a nation holding some of the world's largest oil reserves. An estimated 3m Venezuelans have fled to neighbouring countries in the face of hyperinflation, shortages of food and medicines and the arbitrary arrest of regime opponents. Mr Corbyn has been all but silent. Scarcely a whisper of condemnation of the abuses documented by organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International; not a hint of solidarity with the protesters who have filled the streets of the Venezuelan capital demanding Mr Maduro's departure. Instead, the Labour leader has joined hands with Russia and China in condemning many of Venezuela's Latin American neighbours, several European governments and the US for recognising the opposition leader Juan Guaidó as interim president. "The future of Venezuela is a matter for Venezuelans", Mr Corbyn says. "We oppose outside interference in Venezuela, whether from the US or anywhere else."

This is of an ideological piece with a worldview indifferent to the behaviour of autocrats well beyond Latin America. When did Mr Corbyn last question the suppression of basic freedoms in Vladimir Putin's Russia? The murder of journalists and opposition politicians in Moscow goes unrebuked. Even when Russian assassins have tipped up on British soil carrying chemical weapons, Mr Corbyn has hesitated to condemn. Mention of Russia's march into Ukraine and annexation of Crimea invites a lengthy discourse on the sins of Nato. The same mindset casts Syria's Bashar al-Assad as victim as much as villain. Once or twice during the years of bloody civil war in Syria, Mr Corbyn has been sufficiently embarrassed by the slaughter of civilians to express a small measure of disquiet. The moment passes and he turns the conversation to the US-led invasion of Iraq. Mr Corbyn is a life-long supporter of the Palestinian claim to statehood. Politicians of all colours agree that peace in the Middle East would be best served by a two-state solution providing peace and security for both Israelis and Palestinians. 

But among Mr Corbyn's most fervent supporters legitimate criticism of Israeli policy has merged into something much nastier. The violence of extreme Palestinian groups is overlooked. Anti-Semitism now flourishes in Britain's main opposition party. One thread through all of this is a visceral anti-Americanism. Mr Corbyn's stance is shaped by the claim that American "imperialism" is at the root of all evil. If the US is on one side of an argument, the place of all good socialists must be on the other. Donald Trump's opposition to Mr Maduro - no matter that the US president is backing the Venezuelan people - is enough to put Mr Corbyn on the side of the regime. The same reflex draws a false moral equivalence between, say, the west opening its doors to the formerly communist states of eastern Europe and Mr Putin claiming suzerainty over Russia's neighbours; or between the bombing of civilians by Mr Assad's regime and American invasion of Iraq. It does not seem to occur to Mr Corbyn that he could condemn both. You do not have be a paid-up neoconservative to abhor tyranny in Russia, Venezuela and Syria, or to support Israel's right to security. 

Here, though, a second thread winds itself around the first. To put it bluntly, Mr Corbyn comes from a hard left ideological tradition that has never lent much weight to individual liberty. This brand of socialism counts tractor production figures ahead of what its supporters regard as bourgeois measures of personal freedom. Many of the Labour leader's close aides grew up as supporters of Soviet communism. As far as one can tell, they have not changed their minds since the end of the cold war. Seumas Milne, Mr Corbyn's head of strategy, gave clear expression to this some years ago when working as a journalist on The Guardian: "For all its brutalities and failures, communism in the Soviet Union, eastern Europe and elsewhere delivered rapid industrialisation, mass education, job security and huge advances in social and gender equality. It encompassed genuine idealism and commitment." No admission here that Russia imprisoned its neighbours.

Apply the criteria to today's Venezuela and the regime's suppression of freedom, corruption and squandering of the oil riches, and the detention and torture of political opponents, represent only one side of the balance sheet. We must recognise too the creation by the Chavez government of a public health service, greater income equality and the funding of a modern welfare system. This is where the far left of politics has always met the extreme right. The condition of the collective stands above the rights of the citizen, the state above the individual. Europe has been here before. What is extraordinary is that in 2019 a politician with such views has a plausible chance of becoming Britain's prime minister. 

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