As opposition voices are shut down and food prices spiral out of control in Venezuela, the "Venezuelan Solidarity Campaign" (VSC) met in London to show its continued support for President Nicolás Maduro's crippled and corrupt regime as it treads a steady path towards authoritarianism.
Held in Southwark's International Transport Workers Federation on Saturday the 9th of June, the conference – entitled "The Empire Strikes Back" – brought together Labour politicians and activists, among them MP Chris Williamson and the recently-expelled Ken Livingstone. The Campaign's strong supporters in the past have included Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott, who employs the national coordinator for VSC in her Commons office.
The conference addressed social progress in Latin America, citing Maduro's Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) as a "progressive government" under siege from violent right-wing reactionary forces. According to the VSC, these western-backed forces have brought human rights abuses all over the continent, from the unlawful detention of former president Lula da Silva in Brazil, to British spyware sales, to the repressive right-wing government in Honduras. Chris Williamson, for example, cited a report by Global Witness which warned that hundreds of Honduran activists have been threatened, attacked or imprisoned.
The obvious irony of denouncing other countries' human rights records while simultaneously ignoring the Venezuelan government's own crimes seemed to be lost on many. It would only have taken Williamson a second to find the numerous videos and reports from international human rights organisations documenting unlawful detentions and the repression of protesters in Venezuela. As the VSC builds closer links with UK trade unions, such as Unite and the Transport Workers Federation, the Venezuelan government continues to imprison its own union leaders.
Those at the meeting, however, saw the international coverage of Maduro's political repression as myths peddled by the "fake news media". The Economist was dismissed as a "central lying office", while BBC News and The Guardian were repeatedly berated as promoting "false narratives" that peddled "right-wing fakery".
These accusations came especially in response to the claim that the recent re-election of Maduro, who won on the 20th of May with 68 percent of the vote, was rigged. The VSC struck back with their own alternative narrative of the recent elections, portraying them as "free", "fair" and "fully transparent". Calvin Tucker, an international observer of the election from The Morning Star, gave a furiously precise account of the computer system that had made electoral fraud impossible.
However impressive the system may be, you don't need to trick the numbers if you’re intimidating your opponents. A journalist and academic living in Merida, in the west of the country – who wanted to stay anonymous in fear of the political consequences of speaking out – told me: "This election was a pantomime that changed nothing. It did not involve electoral fraud, but rather Maduro's strategy to intimidate and instil fear."
She explained: "Standing by the polling booths were government officials, who would ask for your 'Carnet la de Patria' after you voted, an ID card used by citizens to claim material benefits and social programmes. By tracking your voting patterns, the government could then decide on your access to these benefits and provisions." In a country plagued by shortages, and where the annual rate of inflation is nearing 14,000 percent, citizens depend on these food provisions to survive.
"Buying a litre of milk in the supermarket will one day cost you 1200 bolivars, but when you come back the next day, its price will be 1500. Maduro appealed to citizens' hungry stomachs to obtain votes," said the journalist.
Tucker also didn't mention turnout, which stagnated at a petty 46 percent as the main opposition boycotted the election. This is down from an enthusiastic 80 percent when Maduro succeeded Hugo Chávez in 2013.
Today, any remnants of the optimism of the deep social reforms of Maduro's revolutionary predecessor Hugo Chávez are long gone, replaced by a successor who turns to violence and coercion to keep his citizens in line. Emblematic of this is the perpetual imprisonment of Leopoldo López, an opposition leader who is currently under house arrest, and has been described by Amnesty International as "deprived of his freedom" in a "politically motivated attempt to silence dissent". At the meeting, Amnesty International was widely discarded as being funded by "neo-liberals", while the single mention of López dismissed him as an illegal provocateur "rightly convicted of fermenting street violence".
To explain the dismal economic performance, the VSC blamed US imperialism, while ignoring the role of Chavez's years of high borrowing and over-reliance on oil revenues. The Venezuelan economy had been contracting for four years before Trump imposed sanctions last year.
I spoke to with Marcos Garcia, a Venezuelan diplomat at the London embassy, who told me: "The embassy cut my salary six months ago, which makes me fight every day to support my family. But with Maduro we can still fight together with Cuba against the US imperialist order." A former Maoist guerrilla, he seemed to be running on moral incentives alone.
"There must be no more Pinochets in Latin America," warned Williamson when speaking about Trump's threat of using the "military option" in Venezuela – a reference to the 1973 US-backed coup in Chile that ushered in an era of disappearances and police brutality under Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. Williamson’s speech was met with calls from the audience for a "dictatorship of the proletariat" and, "Let’s bring the UK towards China's communist model."
Complacency over authoritarianism was widespread throughout the meeting. The resemblance of Maduro's rule in Venezuela to Pinochet’s strongman tactics was apparently lost on everyone.