Why is a Greens senator promoting right-wing violence in Venezuela?

June 24, 2017
Peter Whish-Wilson (standing) in Parliament next to other Greens senators.

In a speech to parliament on June 21, Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson attacked the Venezuelan government and President Nicolas Maduro, while praising right-wing opposition protests in the country.

It is not clear whether Whish-Wilson’s position reflects the official policy of the Australian Greens or is merely a personal view. In either case, the Greens should reject this position that promotes violence and confrontation, rather than dialogue and respect for Venezuela’s democracy and sovereignty.

To understand the current turmoil in Venezuela, Whish-Wilson and the Greens would do well to look at statements made by former Greens leader Bob Brown.

Brown visited Venezuela in 2008 in an attempt to aid efforts undertaken by the Venezuelan government to secure the release of Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, taken hostage by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

In a statement to the Senate on May 14 that year, Brown said: “Venezuela is oil rich, with a highly educated elite and a strengthening democracy. Its President, Hugo Chavez, was one of few world leaders with the gumption to publicly contest the mistakes and exported violence” of then US president George W Bush.

“Due to the Chavez government’s popular — and that is what all the opinion polls show — concentration on helping the millions of poor people on the land and in Caracas’s huge barrios, or slums, the small but highly educated richer class are emigrating."

While Venezuela faces important challenges, it is clear that Venezuela’s government, first under Chavez and now Nicolas Maduro, continues to focus on helping the poor and has in many ways worked towards implementing policies in line with the Greens’ “Four Pillars”: ecological sustainability, grassroots democracy, social justice and peace and non-violence.

These policies include, among many others:

* a program that has seen Venezuela’s deforestation rate reduced by almost 60% and that this year alone is set to plant 1.6 million plants and trees;

* the promotion of community councils and communes as a way of directly involving citizens in decision making over how resources are spent in their communities;

* a dramatic expansion of the education and healthcare system — which is now free — and a massive housing program that has handed over 1.5 million homes to the poor, to ensure everyone has access to these basic rights; and

* strong opposition to wars abroad and support for neighbouring Colombia’s peace negotiations.

Because of this, the Venezuelan government has faced a sustained campaign of opposition from the richer class — the traditional base of support for the right-wing opposition — including coup attempts, economic sabotage, bosses’ lockouts and violent protests, such as the ones we see today.

It is from this class, which Brown identified back in 2008 as the main source of emigration, that much of the Venezuelan community in Australia is drawn.

But the government also continues to maintain support among the country’s poorer classes, even if their voices are generally silenced by the media, with recent pro-government protests drawing hundreds of thousands of people.

All of this is ignored by Whish-Wilson, who said: "The situation in Venezuela right now is a disaster ... some of this situation stems from a sudden drop in the oil price, but much of the trauma appears to come from an increasingly anti-democratic and corrupted government under President Nicolas Maduro".

Whish-Wilson provides no evidence for his claims of a “corrupted government”, nor does he explain why much of the fault of the current situation lies with Maduro. He ignores strong evidence of a sustained economic campaign being waged by Venezuela’s richer class to create chaos and destabilise the government.

Instead, he accuses the government of seeking to “cling onto power” by any means, including the use of “excessive force against protesters and political opponents — my understanding is that in 80 days of protest over 75 people have now been killed”.

Whish-Wilson goes on: “Despite losing a parliamentary election and despite attempts by the opposition to initiate recall of the president ... the president has used what is in effect his own supreme court to overrule these democratic actions.”

Not only are these claims false, they deliberately conceal the violent and anti-democratic nature of the right-wing opposition.

As of June 19, 84 deaths had occurred as a result of the recent wave of political violence. Yet of all these deaths, less that 20% (14 deaths) have been directly attributed to security forces or government supporters. In response almost 30 officers have been detained or have warrants out for their arrest — a stark contrast to Australia, where almost no police officer has been charged for the hundreds of deaths in custody that hagve occurred.

In contrast, 22 deaths have occurred as a result of the actions of right-wing opponents. This includes the targeted assassination — and in some cases mob lynching – of government supporters and deaths resulting from traffic accidents caused by road blockades set up by protesters.

The large bulk of deaths are still under investigation, but victims include security forces, protesters and government supporters.

Clearly, there is violence on both sides. So why does Whish-Wilson only condemn the government?

Moreover, Whish-Wilson seems to lack a basic understanding of Venezuela’s democratic system.

Unlike Australia, Venezuela has a presidential, not a parliamentary, system of government. The president is elected by the people — unlike prime ministers in Australia, who rely on backroom party deals to keep their position — and can only be removed by the vote of the people.

There is no provision in the constitution for the National Assembly to remove the president, something the opposition-controlled parliament attempted to do in January this year. This move was rebuked by the Supreme Court.

Rather than distance himself from undemocratic attempts to use a vote in parliament to overturn the vote of the people, Whish-Wilson attacks the Supreme Court for upholding the constitution.

He also incorrectly attacks the Supreme Court for the opposition’s failed attempt to convoke a recall referendum against Maduro. It is worth noting that while this legal right exists in “anti-democratic” Venezuela, it is denied to citizens in Australia.

It was the National Electoral Court that suspended the recall process, based on decisions made by regional electoral courts that found strong evidence of irregularities in the signature collection process.

Whish-Wilson not only makes a mistake akin to confusing the Australian Electoral Commission with the Federal Court, he provides no evidence to contradict the findings of fraud.

Far from clinging onto power, Maduro has announced elections on July 30 for a Constituent Assembly — which until recently was a demand of the opposition — for regional governors in December, and for president next year. Within a year, the opposition could control the presidency, state governments across the country and remake Venezuela’s constitution to its own liking.

Instead, the opposition has rejected these elections and stated it will do whatever it takes to remove Maduro.

Whish-Wilson not only presents an inaccurate picture of the political struggle underway in Venezuela; he clearly takes the side of the right-wing opposition while ignoring their violent and anti-democratic actions.

Rather than taking the side of the undemocratic opposition, Whish-Wilson and the Greens should be encouraging the Australian government to condemn violence on either side and support efforts that seek to promote dialogue in Venezuela while respecting its sovereignty.

[Jim McIlroy and Federico Fuentes are national co-coordinators of the Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network.]

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