Why is New Zealand silent on Venezuela?

Some seem keen to ignore the chaos on Venezuela, not least because Donald Trump has taken a stance against the dictator Nicolo Maduro. But that's a mistake and New Zealand's silence only lines us up again alongside Putin's Russia

This month I have written two columns for Stuff on the catastrophe currently unfolding in Venezuela (here and here). The collectivisation of large parts of the economy has led, as it almost always does, to chronic shortages, man-made famine and political repression. In a land that is fertile and rich with natural resources, people have turned to eating zoo animals to quell their hunger.

That we have seen this all before takes away not one iota of its tragedy.

According to international media, things are reaching a boiling point. The capital of Caracas has been rocked by massive protests against the country’s socialist government. It appears that the police are joining in on the demonstrations. Things look to be at a tipping point.

Amid all of this, the Trump administration determined last week that it will no longer recognise Nicolo Maduro as president. The decision by the US and other countries is based on the country's constitution, which says that if a president is not legitimate, he or she is replaced by the president of the National Assembly.

Maduro, the handpicked successor of regime-founder Hugo Chavez, was dubiously re-elected last year. Instead, the United States and others have decided that the country’s legitimate head of state is Juan Guaidó, the leader of the Centre-Left Popular Will coalition and, yes, president of the National Assembly.

In response, Maduro ordered US diplomats out of the country. The United States did not acquiesce since, of course, they no longer recognise the man giving the orders. Maduro then backed down which, if nothing else, is a sign that his rule may be unravelling.

Trump’s actions will probably provide something of a rallying point for the apologists. In that regard, the US moves may be counterproductive. After all, if he can hitch the legitimacy of Maduro to hatred for Trump in the mind of Western liberals, Maduro will go a long way to undermining the protestors.

This would be a mistake. Trump has hardly been a leader here. Other countries determined not to recognise Maduro before the United States. Justin Trudeau’s Canada doesn't see the regime as legitimate. Australia doesn’t either. Add in France, Britain, Spain and Germany.

Within South America Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecudor, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay and Peru all consider Guaidó to be the legitimate president. The Organisation of American States has affirmed that it doesn’t consider Maduro the duly elected president. The EU has delivered an ultimatum.

Will New Zealand follow suit? It seems unlikely. Winston Peters, Jacinda Ardern’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, says the country will not wade into the debate. In substance, that’s tantamount to support for Maduro.

That’s par for the course, really.

The countries endorsing Maduro include Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, Cuba, Bolivia, Uruguay and Mexico.

Following publication of my last column, a Venezuelan man living here got in touch to thank me for drawing attention to the country’s plight. He related that he had tried to determine what (if anything) our government had said about the descent into chaos and deprivation. He was disappointed.

Certainly, there is no local pressure on the government to add its voice to those supporting the protestors. Green Party MPs, who so freely express comment on the shortcomings of the US, UK and Australia, have been predictably quiet about the whole thing. The media isn’t exactly pressing the matter either.

So events in that country pass largely without comment here. It is hard to suppress the feeling that Maduro’s ideology is an essential ingredient to all this. It’s much easier to stay focussed on the latest Trump outrage than to confront the failings of a system for which one has a measure of natural sympathy.

And an honest reckoning would be all the harder, one suspects, for those who expressed occasional or frequent solidarity with the regime on the basis of its anti-American, anti-capitalist bona fides. The devastation is written off as having low news value. One of the most frequent objections to my columns was that what happens in a random South American country is a distraction that has little to do with New Zealand.

This too, is a mistake.

Venezuela has, in years gone by, been an important trading partner for New Zealand. At various times, it has been one of our biggest milk powder buyers. When the government could still afford to buy foreign food, we did well out of the shortages there.

We really owe the people of Venezuela more of our attention. Perhaps we will be shamed into it at some point. Long after it would make any difference, probably.

In the meantime, the Ardern ministry finds itself more or less aligned with Putin’s Russia. Not for the first time, it bears noting.