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UK Political Leaders Still Defending the Indefensible in Venezuela

Both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn Have Questions to Answer

Venezuelan security forces use a water cannon to disperse an anti-government demonstration on the Francisco Fajardo Highway, Caracas, May 18, 2017. © 2017 Giovanna Mascetti

Events in Latin America rarely generate much political attention or debate in Britain. But new evidence of deepening repression in Venezuela should force Theresa May, the Conservative Prime Minister, and the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, to examine their different, but misguided policies towards Venezuela.

New research this week by Human Rights Watch and a Venezuelan group, Penal Forum, lifts the lid on the crackdown perpetrated by the Maduro government against opponents.

The report contains detailed testimony of how Venezuelan security forces brutally beat detainees and tortured them with electric shocks, asphyxiation, and sexual assault. In some cases, security forces detonated teargas canisters in small cells where detainees were being held, and denied them food or water. Sometimes they were forced to eat food that was deliberately tainted with excrement, cigarette ash or insects.

Security forces and armed pro-government groups, called “colectivos” in Venezuela, have caused dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries. In many cases, they have shot water cannons, teargas, and pellets at close range, in ways apparently intended to inflict painful injuries.

Against this backdrop, it is hard to understand why the May government is providing £160,000 to train some of the country’s police and security services. When this story first broke in August, the UK Foreign Office said the policy was, “kept under review.” But in a context of rapidly worsening repression in Venezuela, it is surely untenable for the British government to provide this kind of support while at the same time failing to speak out forcefully against rights violations and torture. The UK should be stepping up pressure on Maduro’s government, including through targeted sanctions.

Jeremy Corbyn’s recent positions on Venezuela have also been pusillanimous and wrong. In a September 30 media interview, Corbyn repeatedly refused to condemn the repressive policies of Maduro. This suggests his longstanding support for an avowedly anti-capitalist government in Caracas is blinding him to the reality of stepped-up and systematic repression there.

While this is not the first crackdown on dissent under Maduro, the scope and severity of this repression has reached levels unseen in Venezuela in recent memory. May’s weakness and complacency and Corbyn’s faux solidarity are equally misplaced and should both be jettisoned.

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