Six Things We Should all Agree on About Venezuela

How is the attempt to use the ‘Egypt Method’ in Venezuela resounding on the rest of the continent? In neighboring Brazil, leftist parliamentary deputy Jean Wyllys writes that many of his colleagues are inclined to defend Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro uncritically, while much of the press falsely caricatures him as a dictator.

If the columns of newspapers have all turned into cheerleaders either for or (in most cases) against Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro, imagine how polarized the debate has gotten on the social networks. But the situation in Venezuela is too complex to be reduced to simple slogans like “Down with Maduro” or “Long Live Maduro.” Viewing events in Venezuela via the chants of the two sides is, in my opinion, a mistake.

So let us try to get beyond this unproductive polarization.

To deny the social advances made by Venezuela’s poorest people during the Hugo Chavez years is as wrong as denying the problems the country faces today, with inflation at 56 percent, shortages of essential products, one of the highest homicide rates in Latin America, and street violence and political polarization dividing the country in two.

To forget that the right-wing opposition tried to overthrown the Chavez government with a coup in 2002 is as wrong as dismissing every opponent of today’s government as a coup plotter, and dismissing every popular demonstration as mobilizing for a coup. Or as wrong as forgetting that leaders of the present opposition participated in the last two presidential elections, respecting the rules of the democratic process.

To say that Chavez- who won multiple elections with absolute transparency and the agreement of international observers-was a ‘dictator’ is to be as misguided as those who refuse to repudiate the authoritarianism of the [present]regime, the cult of personality so reminiscent of the 20th century totalitarian regimes, the militarization of society, the arming of ‘Bolivarian’ militias which answer to the [ruling]party, the authoritarian political logic that calls anyone who opposes the government an ‘enemy of the nation.’

To say that there is no freedom of the press in Venezuela, with its numerous opposition newspapers and television channels, is just as wrong as refusing to recognize that in the last week, this freedom was in fact threatened by President Maduro, who ordered the signal of Colombian news channel NT24 cut, and announced that he might expel CNN’s reporters from the country, and cancel the channel’s operating license there. Questioning the coverage of CNN, which has never been much of an example for journalistic ethics, is just as legitimate as questioning the work of Telesur, which functions as a mouthpiece for government propaganda and defends the dictatorships of Syria and Iran. But freedom of the press is not negotiable, and questioning coverage should never result in censorship.

As I have said, the situation is complex and difficult to summarize. However, I believe that there are some fundamental principles that everyone can agree on, regardless of our opinion of the Maduro government and the Venezuelan opposition.

1) Nicolas Maduro is the constitutional president of Venezuela, democratically elected by the people, whose victory was recognized by opposition candidate Henrique Capriles. Any attempt to overthrow him, as happened with Chavez in 2002, would be a coup and deserves our utter abhorrence. The defense of democracy is not negotiable.

2) Defending democracy does not however necessarily mean supporting those in power. In the face of any attempted coup in Brazil, I would defend the constitutional mandate of President Dilma Rousseff, though I am part of the opposition to her government. In other words if the [governing]PT / PMDB coalition is to be defeated, it must happen at the polls, by decision of the people. Likewise, the opposition should defend Maduro’s constitutional presidential mandate, if not how he rules.

3) Venezuelans who are dissatisfied with the situation in the country have the right to protest against the government. Protest does not imply an attempted coup, despite what some government supporters both here and in Venezuela suggest; rather it is the exercise of a fundamental civil right. This argument is heard from the most fanatical supporters of the PT [Workers’ Party] in Brazil, who see a coup in every popular demonstration. If thousands of people are in the streets to protest a government policy, the government must not dismiss it as merely evidence of a slipup; in the face of such an outburst, a government must reflect on what it is doing wrong to bring so many out onto the streets!

4) The violent crackdown on protests in Venezuela, with tanks in the street, tear gas, armed groups and slain demonstrators, is a violation of human rights and must be repudiated just as when it happens in Brazil, Chile, Syria or in any other country. Repression is no less reprehensible if the government doing the repression calls itself “socialist”. In fact in such cases, the left should make an effort to repudiate with particular force such cases.

5)We cannot have two different yardsticks, two different scales, for measuring such cases. If we call the people on the street in Brazil protesters and not thugs, then we must say the same of Venezuelans. If the repression by [Brazilian state governors] Sergio Cabral and Geraldo Alckmin is not ‘restoring order’ but ‘repression,’ then the same must go for Maduro. And I say the same for the right wing press, which happily defends the freedoms and rights of protestors in Venezuela, while calling protestors in Brazil vandals and rioters who should be repressed and arrested.

6) Freedom of the press is a fundamental right which admits no exceptions. If the Venezuelan government takes a news channel off the air and threatens to expel the correspondents and reporters of another, it deserves to be repudiated like any other government that does this, whether right or left. There is no democracy without freedom of the press-and no socialism without democracy.

In the last election in Venezuela, one of the main arguments, against opposition [conservative]candidate Henrique Capriles from the pro-government media, and some Chavista leaders was that he was a Jew and a homosexual. There are serious problems in this ‘Bolivarian revolution,’ and I sometimes worry about the way activists in my own party or in the PT and the governing coalition, people who call themselves leftists or progressives, shout ‘Viva Maduro’ and ‘Viva Chavez’ without questioning anything.

The twentieth century gave us a number of political lessons which we should study carefully to avoid making the same mistakes again.

Jean Wyllys