What do you do if you are a tyrannical leader who has run your country’s economy into the ground, devalued its currency to the point where you can barely afford the paper that banknotes are printed on, and face fierce public and political opposition?
If you are President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, the answer is simple: you try to force snap elections to root out anyone who resists, and, to show you’re a forward-thinking leader, launch your own national cryptocurrency.
To understand what’s happened in Venezuela this week, here’s some context. Maduro has run the country since taking over from far-left poster boy Hugo Chavez in 2013, overseeing the nation’s sharp spiral from an oil-rich emerging economy to a textbook socialist dystopia.
Government policies have included: state control and seizure of private companies and assets (hamstringing enterprise and investment), price-fixing on staple goods (leading to mass shortages of everything from flour to toilet paper), excessive money printing (with the result that inflation is expected to hit 13,000 per cent this year), and capital controls that make importing prohibitively expensive (exacerbating shortages).
The tightening grip of the state over the economy has been matched by an equally draconian crackdown on political dissent.
Against a backdrop of violent protests, Maduro has attempted to extend his domination over any institution that might hold a democratic leader in check.
He’s handpicked judges for the Supreme Court who annulled the election of parliamentarians that could have allowed opponents to impeach him, arrested opposition leaders in midnight raids, and announced a brand new “constitutional assembly”, stacked with cronies (including his own wife) with the power to override the legislature.
This new assembly voted last month that a presidential election should be held at the end of April, giving Maduro the chance at another six years. The Supreme Court promptly ruled that the major opposition parties would not be permitted to field candidates.
All of which brings us to this week. On Wednesday, Maduro proposed expanding April’s presidential poll into a “mega-election” that would see legislative, state and municipal officials fighting for their seats.
Under the guise of “democratic renewal” – a downright Orwellian term for what is essentially a totalitarian purge – Maduro seeks to sweep out the opposition and give himself four to six years clear of political resistance.
And to divert attention from his dictatorial machinations, both domestically and on the world stage, Maduro has launched “petro”, a digital currency backed by the country’s oil reserves. The plan is to issue 100m petro coins (supposedly worth $6bn) that will enable Venezuela to get around US sanctions and raise hard currency.
Maduro is already claiming that the new currency, which went on presale this week, is a success. But even if the President has managed to tap into the crypto-fever that has been fuelling alternative currencies recently, it doesn’t change the fact that this is just a shiny new way of printing money. And we all know how that ends: hyperinflation, with the added risk of total collapse when the bubble bursts.
Flashy distractions are a hallmark of autocrats clinging to power. While there is little the Venezuelan people can do except watch their nascent democracy crumble, the rest of the world must not be fooled by this blatant attempt at misdirection.
Sadly, the British left has a habit of making excuses for Venezuela, regardless of the evidence.
From shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, to Jeremy Corbyn’s chief strategist Seumas Milne, to Guardian columnist Owen Jones, Labour’s top table is stacked with individuals who have fetishised and feted the Chavista regime, even as the country’s citizens starved.
Back in 2012, Jones went on a pilgrimage to the socialist holy land, and uncritically reported that “Venezuela is an inspiration to the world”. At that time, reports of food shortages were already well-known, and groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch had raised concerns about attacks on political freedom.
Long after the catastrophe had started making regular international headlines, in June 2015, Corbyn was still making speeches celebrating the “achievements” of Chavez and Maduro.
And last September, as the political crisis escalated to riots that claimed lives, Corbyn stayed resolutely silent, while his ally Ken Livingstone defended Maduro, and even mused that the President might consider executing his critics.
The Venezuelan tragedy tends to linger in the foreign news pages, and no one has yet made the Labour leader state his views on the situation. They should. Not just to score points, but because his answer will be revealing.
Venezuela is a socialist horror show, locked in a vicious circle where financial collapse and political oppression feed one another indefinitely. Those on the British far left need to unequivocally admit they were wrong and that the nation they once looked to for “lessons to anyone interested in social justice and new forms of socialist politics” (to quote Milne) is in democratic and economic tatters.
And the rest of us must look at Maduro’s authoritarian misrule and isolate those in British politics who cheered it on from the sidelines.