Ken Livingstone: Venezuela crisis due to Chávez’s failure to kill oligarchs

Ex-London mayor says wealthy families using power over trade to undermine Hugo Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro

Ken Livingstone, a longtime supporter of Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro.
Ken Livingstone, a former mayor of London, has blamed the turmoil in Venezuela on the unwillingness of the former president, Hugo Chávez, to execute “oligarchs” after he came to power.

Livingstone, who is suspended from the Labour party, also blamed the economic crisis in the country on the government’s failure to take his advice on investment in infrastructure, which he said would have reduced the Latin American state’s dependence on oil.

The former mayor, a longtime supporter of the late president Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro, said the socialist leader’s enemies wanted to restore their power.

“One of the things that Chávez did when he came to power, he didn’t kill all the oligarchs. There was about 200 families who controlled about 80% of the wealth in Venezuela,” Livingstone told Talk Radio.

“He allowed them to live, to carry on. I suspect a lot of them are using their power and control over imports and exports to make it difficult and to undermine Maduro.” When pressed, Livingstone said he was “not in favour of killing anyone”.

Livingstone visited Venezuela during his time in office as mayor of London, striking a cut-price oil deal with Maduro to supply Transport for London. The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has also regularly expressed his admiration for Chávez, saying in 2013 he was “an inspiration to all of us fighting back against austerity and neoliberal economics in Europe”.

The country is in turmoil after the socialist government was granted sweeping powers to overhaul the political system in a disputed recent poll that was boycotted by the opposition.

The London-based company Smartmatic, which provides the technological platform for the country’s voting system, has said results had beenmanipulated by at least a million votes. Maduro has since said the company had been “pressured to the neck by the gringos and the Brits”.

Chávez with Livingstone
Chávez speaks at a news conference with Livingstone at City Hall, London, during his private visit to the capital in 2006. Photograph: Stephen Hird/Reuters

The new constitutional assembly elected via the disputed poll is a body made up entirely of the ruling Socialist party and its political allies, which will now have the ability to rewrite the constitution and dissolve state institutions.

The election came after months of violent protests, in which more than 120 people were killed, amid rising food and medicine prices as inflation soared after falling oil prices.

After his comments were criticised, Livingstone issued a statement saying his words had been distorted, blaming “deliberate misreporting”.

“I have not said that Hugo Chávez should have killed anyone and nor would I ever advocate it,” he said. “The point I was making is that contrary to some misrepresentations, Hugo Chávez didn’t repress the former ruling elite in Venezuela and many members of the former ruling elite have stayed in the country, seeking to overthrow elected presidents through unconstitutional and violent means, including the coup in 2002, ever since.”

Pressure has mounted on Corbyn to personally condemn the violence but it is understood the Labour leader is unlikely to intervene while he remains on holiday in Croatia. However, he is likely to face questions about whether he is still sympathetic to the country’s government after he resumes campaigning in the UK from Monday.

A spokesman for Corbyn said: “The Labour party’s statement on Monday made clear our position on the importance of the respect for the rule of law and human rights. We’re watching the situation and developments in Venezuela closely.”

Former cabinet minister Peter Hain said the public would expect a strong statement from Labour against the repression and violence in the country which he called “unacceptable”. The Labour peer, who has previously supported the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign, said it was clear Maduro’s government was sliding towards authoritarianism.

“Labour has historically been extremely strong on human rights, on ending apartheid, on Burma and supporting Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi,” he told the Guardian. “It now seems clear that whatever advances were made under Chávez, the regime is now locking up members of the opposition, targeting journalists and violent protests are ongoing which are unacceptable.

“Many people are now expecting Labour to act and speak out in line with our long traditional of defending human rights and civil liberties.”

Labour MP Barry Sheerman was among those expressing dismay at Livingstone’s comments. “Interested to see Socialist International has condemned the Venezuelan government. Saddened by another strange outburst by Ken Livingstone,” he tweeted.

The party said it would not comment given that Livingstone’s membership was currently suspended after a previous controversy where he suggested in multiple broadcast interviews that Adolf Hitler had been a supporter of Zionism.

During the past week, Conservative MPs have rounded on Corbyn, attacking him over his historic support for Maduro, who has called the Labour leader a friend of Venezuela. Greg Hands, a Conservative trade minister, tweeted a link to Corbyn calling Maduro on live television in 2014, adding: “Will Corbyn call him now, to ask him to end the killings?”

This week the shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, said Venezuela’s government had a duty to answer concerns about Maduro’s “increasingly authoritarian rule”.

“Our official statement on Monday called on the Venezuelan government to respect human rights and the rule of law, said the election must not be treated as a mandate for further repression and violence, and challenged President Maduro personally to answer the legitimate concerns of the international community about his increasingly authoritarian rule,” Thornberry’s spokesman said. “That remains the Labour party’s position today.”

Labour frontbencher Chris Williamson criticised the US during an interview with the BBC2’s Newsnight on Wednesday night, saying violent protests had “been aided and abetted by the United States of America, who have been funding opposition groups and have a very shady record, going back many decades, of interfering in Latin America”.

Williamson also said he was not an “apologist” for the Venezuelan government, adding: “Clearly they’ve made mistakes, they didn’t do enough to diversify the economy. But look, they’re under incredible pressure and there’s a very one-sided, one-eyed view of the situation there very often in the British media.”

He also questioned why there had not been criticism of the “rightwing opposition” or the US, adding: “Clearly it can’t be right, can it, that in a situation where there is a massive crisis in Venezuela at the moment to impose sanctions on the country.”


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