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Sunday 14 December 2014


What's good for Venezuelan goose isn't good for Irish gander

To Sinn Fein, people power and free speech are applauded only if exercised by the left

Despot: Hugo Chavez, the now deceased charasmatic President of Venezuela, who squandered the country’s oil revenues. Photo: Reuters

Sean Crowe, Sinn Fein's spokesperson for Foreign Affairs, was outraged in February by events in Venezuela. And indeed, there was plenty to be outraged about. Angry about an attempted rape on a university campus, there had been a student protest about the frightening levels of violence and crime that have escalated under the presidencies of Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro. The police response was vicious.

Fuelled by general distress about corruption, repression, high inflation (then 56pc) and food shortages, protests went national and calls for reform were supported by sit-ins and hunger strikes: some detainees were tortured.

While most protests were peaceful, a few small groups attacked public property. Human rights organisations reported police firing pellets and tear gas at protesters without warning and at close range.

The treatment of protesters wasn't what was worrying Deputy Crowe, however. In his statement on February 14, his sympathies were firmly with the government. "Since the victory of President Maduro in free, fair and transparent democratic elections in April 2013," he explained, "right-wing reactionary forces have tried to undermine Venezuela's democratic process and destabilise the country. This week these right-wing forces took to the streets to incite violence, encourage discontent, and bring down the democratically elected government."

Crowe was either malicious or extraordinarily ignorant. The political party most involved in the protests was the centre-left Voluntad Popular (Popular Will), which stands for pluralism, progress, democracy and justice and called for exclusively peaceful protests.

Its co-founder and leader, the remarkable Leopoldo Lopez, was so successful in his eight years as mayor of a Caracas district that he received international awards for transparency, honesty and efficiency and the support of democracy. Disqualified from holding public office on trumped-up allegations of corruption, he sued Venezuela in 2008 and was unanimously backed by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that exists to uphold basic freedoms in North and South America. Chavez's government rejected the ruling and Lopez was unable to stand in the 2012 presidential election.

Lopez was to the fore in the protests, calling for freedom of speech, better security and an end to shortages. Four days after Crowe's statement, to the consternation of human rights organisations, Lopez was arrested on charges of arson, terrorism, and homicide. Amnesty International said the charges were "a politically motivated attempt to silence dissent".

Sean Crowe was silent.

Unless Google is hiding something from me, he and Sinn Fein have been silent ever since, though Lopez is still in a military prison in solitary confinement. In a message smuggled to his supporters he said he was fine, urged them "not to give up" and warned them "to stay firm against violence, and to stay organised and disciplined." It is, he said "everyone's struggle". His trial has begun, but the defence have been banned from court.

Look, I understand why many people were enthusiastic about the charismatic Hugo Chavez. As Gerry Adams said on Chavez's death last year, he "dedicated himself to building a new and radical society" and "his progressive social and economic changes took millions out of poverty." Unfortunately the fellow was not just despotic: he was an economic illiterate who squandered Venezuela's oil revenues on short-term measures to alleviate poverty while doing nothing to tackle unemployment, corruption or waste. Under Moduro, everything is worse, oil prices are plunging and the country is in deep hock to China.

Sinn Fein won't face the truth about the Venezuelan economy, but you'd think they'd condemn brutal repression of a legitimate protest movement. But there has been no correction of Crowe's pious recommendation that the Venezuelan opposition needed "to respect the democratic outcome" of the presidential election, "rethink their strategy and the dangerous societal divisions they are sowing" and "listen to the sincere calls of President Maduro for dialogue". Yet, last Wednesday, they enthusiastically grabbed the leadership of the water protest by clever planning and busloads of supporters, banners and flags. There was no talk of the Government's mandate. "People power," declaimed Gerry Adams, "has forced this arrogant Government to make concessions on its water policy… people power ensured that they had no choice. If the Government was listening to the huge numbers who have taken to the streets… they would know that they are demanding that the water tax is scrapped, not capped."

Do I detect the whiff of double standards?

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards