Venezuela is a failing socialist state. The economy is 40 per cent smaller than a few years ago. Nine in 10 households are unable to afford enough food. Infant mortality has risen 30 per cent. The opposition is being severely repressed, even murdered.
A decade ago Venezuela was the richest country in South America, with the largest known oil reserves on the planet. Today, the failed socialist state is brutally cracking down on democracy through violence against protesters and a constitutional rewrite.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson recently tweeted that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was “acting like a dictator of an evil regime and has destroyed Venezuelan economy, eroded human rights and imprisoned thousands”.
The US has imposed sanctions on Maduro, including freezing his personal assets and banning firms from doing business with him.
“The people are suffering and they are dying,” President Donald Trump said. In his typical hyperbolic style, Trump even refused to rule out a “military option”.
So, where does Australia stand? As a middle power, proud to “punch above our weight” in foreign affairs, we have surely taken a stand? Well, the Australian government has said — nothing. Despite the deteriorating situation — more than 120 people have been killed in protests since January, people are starving and children dying, and the corrupt regime is rewriting the constitution to solidify its power — our government has said zilch this year.
No emotional dispatches in parliament, no statement from Foreign Minister Julie Bishop or perfunctory tweet from Malcolm Turnbull. The Foreign Minister’s office did not even respond to a request for comment.
The only written government position is to “reconsider your need to travel” on Smart Traveller, and the outdated Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade fact page that notes Australia’s “cordial relations”, and claims Venezuela has a “democratically elected representative system”.
The only statement in parliament this year on the situation in Venezuela came from Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson. In June he spoke briefly about the “escalating human rights abuses and deteriorating political situation”.
Worryingly, it was reported in The Australian that Bishop sent a letter to Venezuela’s representative in Australia, distancing the government from criticism by Whish-Wilson of the regime. “I spoke to (Ms Bishop) and she sent me a letter saying (Whish-Wilson’s criticism) is not necessarily the position of Australia, which we understand. She’s right,” Venezuelan charge d’affaires in Australia Daniel Gasparri Rey said.
The Australian government is also rejecting temporary visa applications — from students, and parents coming to visit their children who live here — because of the volatile situation.
Perversely, we are turning people away at the precise time we should be letting them in. And that’s just visas for people who aren’t seeking to live here.
Even Britain’s socialist Opposition Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, a previous supporter of the regime, has feebly condemned the violence “on both sides”.
We live in globally challenging times, facing threats to our values and way of life, both internal and external.
The old saying, often attributed to Edmund Burke, that all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing, could not be more fitting.
Australian foreign policy, if it is to have any meaning and purpose, must be driven by our values as a nation.
If we believe in freedom, democracy and the rule of law, we should advocate for these values abroad as well as at home.
There’s no such thing as centrism in foreign policy — you stand for something or you have no relevance.
Venezuela is, admittedly, of limited strategic importance. As its economy contracted, Australia’s trade with Venezuela has halved in the past year. Last year, our exports to Venezuela were worth just $15 million; imports were worth about $1m. Nor is Venezuela a powerful foreign operator.
But that’s just the point. If there is no good strategic logic to remain silent it should be even easier to say something meaningful.
This situation presents an opportunity to clearly position ourselves in world affairs, and express our solidarity with the Venezuelan people and the thousands of Venezuelans in Australia.
Most important, it is an opportunity to stand up for our values.
(Image: The Australian 2017, AP)