On March 8, the British Parliament held a debate on Venezuela, proposed by Labour MP for Elmet, Colin Burgon. In opening the debate Burgon said he was disappointed with the response he had gotten from Tony Blair to his question on Venezuela a few days before: “My desire to highlight the changes in Latin America and to seek a positive response recently motivated me to ask the Prime Minister for his perspective on events in Latin America, but my diplomatic response to his answer is that I found it somewhat disappointing. Indeed, some people in Latin America found it more than disappointing, and it created a minor political tsunami.” He also referred to “given what can only be described as the excruciatingly embarrassing remarks by a junior Foreign Office Minister in the columns of The Times on 13 April 2002. He welcomed the overthrow of Chavez in a coup but, unfortunately for him and fortunately for the people of Venezuela, the coup collapsed one day later, when Chavez was restored to his presidency thanks to popular support,” and went on to ask the question to the government as to “what efforts have been made since April 2002 to repair the damage that that comment would obviously have caused?”
Colin Burgon also pointed out that “a Labour Government's foreign policy should be driven not just by considerations of economic self-interest, but by a shared system of political values” and that in this respect “Venezuela was the first country in Latin America to begin the process of rejecting the domination of what we call neo-liberal ideas and the Washington consensus and to experiment with ideas of anti-globalisation.”
He also stressed the democratic nature of the government of Hugo Chavez: “Given Opposition and US claims about Chavez's democratic legitimacy, it is interesting to note that he had faced the electorate eight times in six years by the end of 2004—a record that has been matched nowhere else in Latin America”. Burgon explained the impact of the social programmes of the Venezuelan government in detail: “A series of social investment programmes called missions cover such matters as pre-school education, primary education and literacy, secondary education, vocational worker training, primary health care in the most deprived neighbourhoods and a food distribution programme that covers 60 per cent of the population. It is estimated that just over 1 million people have acquired literacy skills as a result of those programmes. The poorest in that country have access to medical assistance for the first time ever, thanks partly to the 17,000 medics provided by Cuba.” And he added that Venezuela “has even been able to fund regional social programmes such as mission miracle, which enables poor Latin Americans to receive free eye treatment in Venezuela and Cuba.”
But Burgon also warned that “Venezuela's increasingly active role has met with outright hostility on the part of the right-wing Republican Administration in Washington. As recently as 16 February, Condoleezza Rice called for an 'international united front' against Venezuela.” “There is great danger in the American attempt to isolate Venezuela,” Burgon explained.
Colin Burgon then went to the central point of the debate which he said was, “the question of who determines our foreign policy on that huge and changing continent. Can the Minister reassure me that our policy is not being subcontracted out to right-wing elements in the US, and will he show me evidence of how our policy is clearly different in this respect? Does he share my view and that of almost 100 of my parliamentary colleagues—I refer to early-day motion 1644—that all elected Governments in the region should be treated with equal respect and that the US right-wing fundamentalists should desist from efforts to destabilise the democratically elected Chavez Government?”
Next to speak in the debate was Daniel Kawczynski, a Conservative MP. Although he started by saying that Hugo Chavez had been democratically elected (he could hardly have contested that), and that “we should work with him”, the reason he said this became clear when he mentioned that “there are many British oil companies in Venezuela, and they generate a great deal of revenue for this country. I am talking about oil and gas production. I am sure that a company such as BP will be grateful that the debate has been secured and that we have an opportunity to discuss the issues. Venezuela is the third largest economy in Latin America, so it provides the United Kingdom with a tremendous opportunity for direct foreign investment.”
And then he added a poisonous subject to the debate when he said that “Venezuela has an important role to play in dealing with the narcotics trade across the Caribbean. I hope that we can work closely with the Venezuelan Government on narcotics issues to deal with the growing problem that they present”. The unfounded allegation that Venezuela is somehow “soft” on narcotics has been used repeatedly by Washington to try to justify its campaign against Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution.
The following Member of Parliament to participate in the debate was Jon Trickett from the Labour Party who said clearly that “there are extreme right-wing forces in the American Administration that will not tolerate the direction of travel of the Venezuelan Government and the international linkages that they are bringing about.” He also strongly denounced the Washington consensus as being one that “produces the most divided societies imaginable”. “In Latin America, the richest 10 per cent control 48 per cent of the income, and the poorest 10 per cent share 1.6 per cent of the income.”
It was then the turn of Conservative MP Mark Pritchard to launch an open attack on Chavez and his government. He accused Chavez of not doing enough to fight poverty, saying that Chavez was instead spending money “on mobilising 2 million civilians and training them in the basic techniques of how to handle an AK47” to fight against what he considered to be “some bogus threat”. Considering the US have been openly talking about the need for regime change in Venezuela and their past record of organising coups and invasions against governments they do not like in Latin America, the Bolivarian revolution is well advised to take defensive measures, including arming the population against the very real threat from imperialist intervention.
But what Pritchard was most worried about was obviously business. “Latin America needs leaders who send out clear signals to the investment community that their countries are safe, secure and stable and a good place in which to do business,” he said, though it is clear that what he meant is that Latin America needs leaders that allow the multinationals to exploit their natural resources. He went on to reveal what really worries the representatives of big business in Britain, that is the radicalisation of the Bolivarian revolution: “One of the unfortunate things about President Chavez is his rhetoric, which seems to be ratcheting up week by week. In the past week or so there have been comments about imperial enemies; there has been the so-called crusade against capitalism and there is the axis between Cuba, which has a terrible human rights record”.
Next one to speak in the debate was the Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington, in West London, and secretary of the left-wing Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs, John McDonnell. He started by saying that he “did not want to miss this debate because I am chair of the ‘Hands Off Venezuela’ campaign.” McDonnell centred his remarks on the impact of the Venezuelan revolution (“and it is a revolution” he stressed) on women.
“Since 1998, when Hugo Chavez was elected President, and especially since 2002 and 2003, the unarmed population of Venezuela have defeated first a coup and then a sabotage of the oil industry, both backed by the US Administration. Those major events launched a process of dramatic change in the country, which was supported by the Venezuelan people, particularly the women,” he explained.
Making the point that the debate was taking place on International Women’s Day, McDonnell stressed “that it is mostly women at the grass roots who have run the education and health missions …, the literacy, primary, secondary and university programmes, and the health committees that manage the 20,000 mainly Cuban doctors who live and work in the community. Those missions have transformed the country. Venezuela was declared free of illiteracy in 2005. More than a million more children are now attending school and getting three free meals a day. Everyone now has access to free health care.”
And he added: “It is women who formed land committees in both rural and urban areas, so that families who migrated from the countryside to the city after the oil boom of the 1960s, and who ended up on squatted land, now have the deeds to their homes. Idle land in the countryside is being distributed.”
John McDonnell who has been at the forefront of the campaign to build a movement of solidarity with the Venezuelan revolution made it clear that “the people of Venezuela believe that their oil and natural resources belong to the people themselves.” He explained how they are very aware of the dangers of imperialist intervention. “Today, women are marching to the US embassy in Caracas to deliver a petition demanding an end to the occupation of Iraq. They have also spoken out against intervention in Haiti by the US. They will not tolerate any intervention intent on depriving them of the wealth from the oil revenues of their own country.” And ended with a rallying cry: “The task of all democrats and progressives throughout the world is to support the revolution, and in particular the struggle of the Venezuelan women.”
The next Member of Parliament to speak has also been a strong supporter of Venezuela and has spoken on a number of occasions on a Hands Off Venezuela platform. Jeremy Corbyn, Labour MP for Islington North, went on to explain the root causes of poverty and inequality in the continent: “The Bolivarian revolution of the 1820s got independence from Spain, which was a tremendous achievement. Bolivar himself led independence throughout the continent. The problem is that he did not live long enough. After his death, the independence movement essentially fell into the hands of the landowning aristocracies in country after country.” Because of this, he explained, “The discovery of oil in Venezuela in the 1920s did not lead to a liberation of the livelihoods of the people of Venezuela, but to a decline in agriculture and a continuation of unfairness and fabulous wealth for a small proportion of the population as a result.”
The Bolivarian revolution led by Hugo Chavez “is righting the wrongs of the last two centuries,” he said.
Responding to the points made by Conservatives MPs about business interests, Corbyn argued “that many companies in the City of London have made a fantastic amount of money from Latin America during the past 200 years, one of them being the Vestey Corporation, which the hon. Gentleman should know plenty about, because it has funded the Conservative party over the past 100 years and assisted it in its endeavours.”
He also denounce the hypocrisy of those who talk about human rights in Cuba: “The United States seeks to lecture other countries on democracy and human rights, but there is one part of Cuba where there is a gross abuse of human rights: it is called Guantanamo Bay and it should be shut down.”
He explained how two members of his Constituency Labour Party, which is affiliated to the Hands Off Venezuela Campaign, attended the recent World Social Forum in Venezuela, and “brought back an interesting report on what they had observed about how the poor people had not just been helped by the revolution, but felt empowered by it.”
Another interesting point in the debate was when the Conservative MP Geoffrey Clifton-Brown mentioned the Vestey group, “which has had most of its land seized by the Chavez Government. That, of course, is not helping with inward investment into Venezuela; it does not create a good climate”, and was asked by Jeremy Corbyn to explain “how much of the land that was seized was lying idle at the time of its seizure?” to which Clifton-Brown replied that this “was complete propaganda put about by the Chavez Government.” Not surprisingly, Clifton-Brown declared that he was “closely related to the Vestey family”!
To close the debate the Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells) who obviously knew little about Latin America and particularly Venezuela, gave a diplomatic reply, which was not a reply at all, to the questions raised but concluded which such meaningless clichés like: “it is in the interests of the United Kingdom to remain engaged with the region”, “our policy remains to seek constructive engagement with Venezuela” and “we have much to gain from working together.”
The debate in Parliament was very important and it puts the Blair government under pressure. In the next period the solidarity movement must redouble its efforts and make sure Bush and Blair keep their hands off Venezuela.
See the House Of Commons website for a full transcript of the debate.