Students at the University of Michigan have staged a rare protest against the brutal dictatorship of Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro. According to The Michigan Daily, more than 100 people joined a rally less than 24 hours after two students created an “SOS Venezuela” Facebook event.
“I think the event created a lot of awareness, not just for the University students, but in general,” The Daily quoted a sophomore as saying. “I think these voices that were heard today are going to keep carrying on; people are going to keep talking about this for a while.”
Go Blue, for raising awareness of the worst humanitarian disaster to befall the Western Hemisphere in decades. Just one problem: The protest took place four years ago.
Scour the Web and you’ll find a handful of reports of anti-Maduro protests or teach-ins at universities in recent years, usually organized by Venezuelans living in the U.S. And most politically informed people are more-or-less aware of Venezuela’s political and economic disorders. No doubt they don’t like what they see, and no doubt they wish it were otherwise.
They just don’t seem to care that much.
Every generation of campus activists embraces a worthy foreign-policy cause: Ending apartheid in South Africa; stopping ethnic cleansing in the Balkans; rescuing Darfur from starvation and genocide. And then there’s the perennial – and perennially unworthy – cause of “freeing” Palestine, for which there never is a shortage of credulous campus zealots.
Then there are the humanitarian causes young activists generally don’t embrace, at least not in a big way. Cuba’s political prisoners. Islamic violence against Christians in the Middle East. The vast and terrifying concentration camp that is North Korea. Where are the campus protests over any of that?
The case of Venezuela ought to be an especially worthy one for college students. It is urgent. It is close by. Its victims are fighting for democracy, for human rights, for the ability to feed their children.
Nor is the outrage in any way obscure. The Times’ Nicholas Casey has for years provided an unforgettable chronicle of human tragedy in the form of Venezuelan parents burying their starving children, of hospital patients dying for lack of basics such as antibiotics or oxygen tanks, of yet another generation of boat people risking their lives on the high seas to flee their socialist paradise. Nearly 3 million Venezuelans – one-tenth of the total population – have now fled the country, according to The Wall Street Journal, creating a refugee crisis comparable to that of the Rohingya in Myanmar.
So why the relative silence? Part of the reason is that campus activism is a left-wing phenomenon, making it awkward to target left-wing villains.
A larger reason is that, until a few years ago, the Venezuelan regime was a cause of the left, cheered by people like Naomi Klein, Sean Penn and Danny Glover. Left-wing publications such as Glenn Greenwald’s The Intercept have gone out of their way to make excuses for the regime and treat its critics as Washington stooges. Jeremy Corbyn, who could yet be Britain’s next prime minister, memorialized the late dictator Hugo Chávez in 2013 for his “massive contributions to Venezuela & a very wide world.”
Even today, the criticism is amazingly muted. If Klein has seriously come to terms with Maduro’s tyranny or Venezuela’s catastrophe, she has not done it in The Nation, The Guardian, or anywhere indexed by LexisNexis or Factiva. Corbyn’s response to Maduro’s repression has been to voice his condemnation of “the violence that’s been done by any side, by all sides” – a piece of obfuscatory equivalence worthy of Donald Trump’s Charlottesville remark. Penn and Glover seem to have moved on to other causes, like bashing Trump. Such courage.
That leaves the cause of Venezuela’s deliverance from evil in the hands of … Mike Pence. The vice president may not be the ideal spokesman for the rights of a Latin American country, at least in the eyes of the typical undergraduate political activist. And some of the Trump administration’s policy prescriptions, such as broad sanctions on the Venezuelan economy, may do more to tighten Maduro’s grip than to crush it. (More effective are U.S. sanctions on Venezuelan government officials, which target the guilty and spare the innocent.)
Still, it says something about the moral dereliction of too many liberals that Pence has been a clarion voice of attention and outrage at the unfolding catastrophe, while they mostly remain silent. When you’ve ceded the moral high ground to the Trump administration, you’ve ceded a piece of your soul.
It would be nice to suppose that Venezuela’s agonies will soon be at an end, on the theory that it can’t go on like this much longer. People said that about Syria several years ago, too. How many more Venezuelans have to starve or drown before Western liberals do something more than merely shake their heads?