Venezuela: where politics obscures our humanity

US and European supporters of Nicolás Maduro are a sad reminder of how ideology makes otherwise good people do bad things.

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

Opinion and analysis by guest writer: David Watson

This piece was originally published by Mr Watson at "Medium" Feb 1st

At the beginning of January this year something strange happened to my family. Unlooked for, a feeling alien and unsettling begun to creep into our hearts. At first, we didn’t recognise it, didn’t understand it, wouldn’t accept it for fear we’d be let down as has happened time and time again. But the feeling didn’t go away. Instead, throughout the month it only grew in its strength and in its boldness. That feeling, incredible though it still seems, was one of hope for the future of Venezuela.

By 23 January the hope was all-consuming. Venezuela had a new interim president in Juan Guaidó, leader of the only democratically-elected and internationally-recognised body left in the country: the National Assembly.

A lot has happened in the seven days since Guaidó’s swearing in, but also not much has happened at all; while Guaidó is widely-supported by democratic countries around the world and by most of the desperate and starving Venezuelan public, the majority of the armed forces is still propping up the Maduro regime. That Maduro maintains military support is unsurprising considering how military top-brass are intertwined with the regime in webs of corruption and drug-trafficking (Venezuelan politicians are alleged to lead the Cartel de los Soles cocaine gang, with even Maduro’s nephews attempting to smuggle 800kg of cocaine into the US).

With great hope comes great frustration

Whilst Venezuelans may feel hopeful for the first time in many years, many are frustrated by some of the coverage of the political crisis in Western nations which appears to cast Juan Guaidó as a US puppet.

At this crucial moment when it is so clear that Maduro’s regime is illegitimateautocratic and is starving its own people, why is it that politicians, journalists and academics from the UK, the US and others still think it a good idea to defend Maduro? Why do we see opinion articles in UK press casting the National Assembly as organisers of a “coup”? Why do we see open letters that seek to legitimise the dictatorship signed by Noam Chomsky in the US and by the second and third in command of our main opposition political party in the UK?

I have always been someone who growing up leaned politically to the left. Being left wing to me meant believing in human rights, ensuring housing, food and medicine for all and levelling inequalities through taxation. But it also meant using the unique ability of capitalism to raise billions out of poverty whilst providing strong regulation to curb capitalism’s worst excesses. But things seem to have changed. If the current leadership of the UK’s main left-wing party are “great friends” of the Venezuelan regime and refuse to condemn its actions (see Corbyn videos below), then maybe being left-wing these days means supporting dictators and the heinous acts they commit?

Explaining the unexplainable

So what is going on? The harder elements of the left wing in countries like the UK and US are doing one of two things: Either they know how repressive Maduro’s regime is and want to hide it from others because it doesn’t suit their narrative, or else they have deluded themselves into thinking the regime is somehow the victim. I’m happy to assume that hard leftists are not in general bad people, and that for the majority it is the latter explanation that applies. If the regime is being victimised (oppressed), there must be a perpetrator (oppressor). This is why hard leftists then evoke their bête noire as the oppressor: the United States of America.

The hard leftist sees that the transitional government is supported by Trump and that the existing regime describes itself as “socialist”, and this sets various neurones firing off inside their brain: “Alert! Alert! Trump is bad! Do the opposite to Trump! Alert! Alert! The regime is socialist, I am socialist — the transition must be a coup!” Before you know it, they’re signing open letters to major newspapers decrying US interference and for “negotiation” between the regime and the opposition, which of course is useless when the regime has long since abandoned any ideas of giving up power without a fight.

This lack of self-awareness may seem incredible considering the mountain of evidence against the regime, but that is what politics and ideology does to people — it erodes their ability to think critically. The famous physicist Stephen Weinberg once said:

"Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion."

Replacing “religion” with “political ideology”, I think this is as close as I will ever get to understanding why anyone would defend Maduro’s regime.

This problem isn’t limited to the left; the right is just as easily blinded by their beliefs as anyone else. That’s why you will hear otherwise normal right-wing people quite supportive of Brazil’s gay-hatin’, Amazon-burnin’ Bolsonaro.

As a doctor said in the fantastic Chavez documentary by Gustavo Tovar-Arroyo about the lack of medical supplies in Venezuela due to regime mismanagement (I’m paraphrasing): “I’ve never heard of right-wing cancer or left-wing cancer. We all suffer in the same way.”

Humans evolved to live in tribes. We experience a psychological response of indignation when we see others from our tribe being “wronged”. We’d all defend a friend in a fight even if we knew they were in the wrong. But this is the 21st century. We must look beyond our tribes, beyond our politics, beyond our beliefs. We must fight against our pyschological response, our implicit bias. The people of Venezuela deserve it.

David Watson is as Ecomodernist, clean energy advocate, humanist and writer. You can find more of his writings here 

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