Thornberry: it is wrong to recognise Guaidó as interim Venezuela president

Shadow foreign secretary also rebukes Maduro’s record in speech on Labour policy

The shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, has broken with the consensus among Europe’s major powers by saying it is wrong to recognise Juan Guaidó as the interim president of Venezuela, saying she did not wish to “strike a pose”, but to help Venezuela by doing something realistic and practical to secure fresh elections.

She was answering questions at the end of a major speech in which she promised a hallmark of a Labour-run Foreign Office would be a consistent preparedness to criticise human rights abuses by British allies including Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt.

She also used the speech to criticise the leadership of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, saying indirectly that he called himself socialist but had betrayed every socialist value.

But she sided with a minority of EU countries, notably Italy, in rejecting Guaidó’s call to be recognised as the interim president of Venezuela. Britain, France, Spain and Germany have all recognised Guaidó.

Thornberry said: “I do not think you can make demands without knowing what you are going to do next. It’s about not striking a pose, but doing things that are realistic and practical.”

She added: “Regional voices are very important and I think we should be led by them more than we are, rather than unilaterally, or almost unilaterally, deciding this must happen by this time. I think there should be dialogue facilitated by regional powers. I think it is a question of approaching this with a little more humility.”

She said more time needed to be allowed for the country to try to resolve the situation. “We need to give them time, and that offer has been made internally and externally. We need to ensure that happens – that is the best way to proceed, rather to suddenly say: ‘That’s it, we had enough. We recognise X. We do not recognise Y any more.’ It’s not the way to treat another country, even a country in as desperate a situation as Venezuela.”

During an interview in Venezuela’s legislative palace in Caracas on Tuesday, Juan Andrés Mejía, a close Guaidó ally from the Voluntad Popular party, said he was troubled there were those in Britain who “still don’t understand the struggle here in Venezuela, especially some people in the Labour party [including] Jeremy Corbyn and others”.

Mejía said: “This is not an ideological struggle in Venezuela. This is not left against right ... In the opposition you have parties from across the political spectrum. Our basic demand here is elections. We are not trying to set up a government that will stay there forever and control all of the branches of power.

“We are only trying to have freedom for elections – and that is not what happened here last year. I would ask Corbyn what would happen if his party and himself were banned from running, if millions of voters were forbidden from voting because they were living abroad … Would he or anyone else in the UK accept those rules? Probably not.”

Thornberry said she favoured targeted international sanctions in principle, but did not say if she specifically supported them in the case of Venezuela.

Political career

Nicolás Maduro has ruled Venezuela without two of the greatest assets possessed by his mentor and predecessor, Hugo Chávez. He has not been lucky. And he has no charisma.

Chávez enjoyed an oil bounty and sublime political talents that secured his power at home and reputation abroad.

Maduro, in contrast, inherited a wobbling economy addicted to high oil prices and a system of authoritarian populism dependent on showmanship and patronage. Oil prices tumbled and Maduro proved to be a fumbling showman, exposing the financial ineptitude and ideological hollowness of the “Bolivarian revolution”.

This could have doomed his presidency, which began in 2013 after Chávez died, but the former bus driver, a hulking bear of a man who rose up trade union ranks, turned out to be tenacious and ruthless.

Born into a working class family in Caracas in 1962, he left school without graduating and drove buses for the Caracas metro. He became a union organiser and early supporter of Chávez, who, after leading a failed coup, led a leftwing coalition to an electoral landslide in 1998.

Maduro was the speaker of the assembly before serving as Chávez’s foreign minister from 2006 to 2013, a visible if largely silent presence as the comandante held court on the world stage. Chávez anointed Maduro as his heir before succumbing to cancer.

The story of his rule – and Venezuela’s agony – is a determination to keep power amid economic collapse, humanitarian disaster and international condemnation. Since January 2019 his presidency has been disputed, with Juan Guaidó being sworn in as interim president, and recognised as Venezuela’s ruler by some international powers.

Crisis after crisis has buffeted his government – hyperinflation, food and medicine shortages, power blackouts, mass protests, drone attacks, defections, US-led sanctions – and Maduro has remained standing, resolute, implacable.

It is a remarkable position for a man who, in a 2014 Guardian interview, described himself as a bit of a hippy and a fan of Led Zeppelin and John Lennon.

“I never aspired to be president,” he said. “I always honour something that commander Chávez told us: that while we were in these posts we must be clothed in humility and understand that we are here to protect the man and woman of the streets.”

Rory Carroll

The bulk of her speech suggested a Labour Foreign Office would retilt the policy balance towards values, rather than interests, promising consistent support for human rights, while at the same time engaging frankly with regimes with which Labour disagreed.

She said recent years “had seen a perceptible shift to make the promotion of trade, business links and the financial bottom line not just the top priority of Foreign Office staff based here and overseas, but one allowed to override all others, most notably the protection of human rights”.

She accused Theresa May of “an instinctive panicked reaction to Brexit, which says this is not the time to lose friends elsewhere, no matter who those friends are or whether they behave as friends should”.

She added: “How else do we explain the craven indulgence of the human rights abuses committed by President Sisi in Egypt or President Erdoğan in Turkey, and the frankly shameful blind eye being turned to the crimes of Crown Prince Bin Salman?

“For too long, and this was as true of the past Labour government as it is true of this Conservative one, there has been a grave tendency to patronise and punish those nations with whom our trade links and strategic alliances are less important – because their human rights abuses are safe to criticise and their breaches of international law are easy to support UN resolutions against – while the stronger countries have had their own abuses and crimes ignored and indulged.”

She accused the Foreign Office of losing its sense of purpose and becoming afflicted by short-term thinking, muddied goals, shrunken budgets and “a dangerous indulgence of authoritarian regimes”.

At the same time she said Labour in office could not afford to live in a parallel universe, saying: “We must deal with the world as it is now, not as we wish it could be, and be ready to do whatever we can, and deal with whoever it takes, to achieve our goals.”

Offering what she agreed might be seen as Robin Cook’s ethical foreign policy laced with realism, she conceded critics would say if her stance “means dealing with the likes of Iran or Russia on one side, or Saudi Arabia or Turkey on the other – that we will, right from the outset, be compromising the values that we claim will guide Labour’s foreign policy”.

She added: “I fundamentally disagree. If we are true to our values, and the objectives that flow from those values, we must accept that, in the world as it is now, that will inevitably mean negotiating and working with people with whom we don’t agree.”

In specific proposals Thornberry said she supported the Blair government’s intervention in Kosovo without explicit UN backing, defended limited arms sales to Israel and promised an end to arms sales to Saudi Arabia for use in the war in Yemen. She promised a root and branch review of arms export control systems, and to doggedly pursue a two-state solution in Israel.

She said she was not interested in merging the Department for International Development back into the Foreign Office.


Patrick Wintour and Tom Phillips in Caracas

The GuardianTramp

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