Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Not A Difficult Choice At All - Chávez and Venezuela deserve the support of all who believe in social justice and democracy by Ken Livingstone

President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela will today become the second head of state - after the Queen - to be welcomed to London's City Hall. When it comes to the social transformation taking place in Venezuela, the political qualifications often necessary in our imperfect world can be set aside. It is crystal clear on which side right and justice lies. For many years people have demanded that social progress and democracy go hand in hand, and that is exactly what is now taking place in Venezuela.

It therefore deserves the unequivocal support of not only every supporter of social progress but every genuine believer in democracy in the world. Venezuela is a state of huge oil wealth that was hitherto scarcely used to benefit the population. Now, for the first time in a country of over 25 million people, a functioning health service is being built. Seventeen million people have been given access to free healthcare for the first time in their lives. Illiteracy has been eliminated. Fifteen million people have been given access to food, medicines and other essential products at affordable prices. A quarter of a million eye operations have been financed to rescue people from blindness. These are extraordinary practical achievements.

Little wonder, then, that Chávez and his supporters have won 10 elections in eight years. These victories were achieved despite a private media largely controlled by opponents of the government. Yet Chávez's visit has been met with absurd claims from rightwing activists that he is some kind of dictator.

The opponents of democracy are those who orchestrated a coup against Chávez, captured on film in the extraordinary documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. It is a film that literally changes lives. By chance, a TV crew was in the presidential palace when the military coup of April 2002 against Chávez took place. It captured minute by minute the events that unfolded.

Anti-Chávez gunmen, in league with the coup organisers, opened fire on a pro-Chávez demonstration. As guns are commonplace in Venezuela, some in the crowd returned fire. US television stations manipulated these images by editing out the gunfire aimed at the pro- Chávez crowd to claim that anti-Chavez demonstrators had been attacked.

A million people took to the streets of Caracas to demand Chávez's release. The moment when the army deserted the coup leaders and went over to support the demonstrators is shown on film.

It is a sign of how little David Cameron's Conservative party has changed that London Tories are boycotting today's meeting with Chávez. This contrasts, of course, with the Tories' longstanding feting of the murdering torturer General Augusto Pinochet. To justify their position they ludicrously compare Chávez to Stalin. Sometimes it is necessary to choose the lesser of two evils. Britain fought with Stalin against Hitler. But with Chávez the choice is not difficult at all. He is both carrying out a progressive programme and doing so through the mandate of the ballot box.

George Bush's refusal to respect the choices of the Venezuelan people shows that his administration has no real interest in promoting democracy at all.

Not since the 1973 coup that brought Pinochet to power have people faced a clearer or more important international choice. In Venezuela millions are struggling to take their country out of poverty. They are doing so by means that are among the most democratic in the world. Both are inspiring.

Today Venezuela is being opposed largely on the basis of lies. We have to make sure Venezuelans have to face nothing worse. It is the duty of all people who support progress, justice and democracy to stand with Venezuela.

Ken Livingstone is the mayor of London