On Thursday evening, the largest blackout in Venezuela’s recent history began, and it continues to leave the vast majority of the country in the dark. This serves as the latest punctuating event in a long-term humanitarian crisis that has recently included the detainment of American journalist Jorge Ramos when he tried to show notoriously-glutted President Nicolás Maduro a video of Venezuelans picking through garbage for food, the failure of international humanitarian aid to enter the country due to blockage by the military and National Assembly President Juan Guaidó’s declaration of himself as the legitimate president.
The true victims of this government-denied crisis are the Venezuelan people. And yet, in a U.S. context, discussion of this crisis has had a collateral casualty: history. On both the left and right of the political spectrum, actors have misrepresented the past to further their present aims.
On the left, a prime example comes from one of my fellow columnists, who last month described why the U.S. has no reason to be involved in Venezuela, citing the U.S.’s own flaws as a democracy and its history of intervention in Latin America. On these points, I do not fundamentally disagree. U.S. democracy has conservatively-biased, fundamentally-flawed cogs. When they rust due to the influence of money in politics, partisan gerrymandering and geographic sorting, the machine breaks down, explaining the author’s cited disconnect between the citizenry’s viewpoints and those of their representatives.
As a dual-citizen of the U.S. and Brazil, I am all too aware of the ugly side of U.S. talking points on freedom and democracy. This is especially true nowadays, as I watch President Trump, the secretary of state and former ambassador to the U.N. congratulate a president whose monstrous rhetoric makes me fearful of traveling back to the country where my dad was born. And yet, claiming that the U.S.’s democratic flaws are in any way comparable to Venezuela’s is an astounding distortion of politics there since Hugo Chavez’s election in 1998. He and his successor have taken actions against the press that exceed Trump’s bombastic fervor with restrictive action. Chavez and Maduro both manipulated elections, including the most recent one, and when Maduro didn’t like the results of the National Assembly election in 2015, he stripped the body of its power. Often this election manipulation has involved the infliction of violence upon opposition supporters and leaders, a practice not confined to campaign season. This is to say nothing of the fact that Hugo Chavez’s involvement in politics started with his own extra-judicial coup in 1992, a fact which simply can’t be explained away by pointing to a flaw in U.S. democracy.
Manipulation of history in response to the situation in Venezuela is even more extreme on the right. Immediately before invoking the South American nation, Vice President Mike Pence claimed in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference that it “was freedom, not socialism,” which was to account for America’s prosperous economy, the ending of slavery and winning of two world wars, “moving beyond” prejudice and high quality of life. These are all lies. America’s economy was built on exploited labor that restricted the freedom of disenfranchised groups. As described by another Sun columnist, the South’s economy was built on the backs of African American laborers, during and after slavery. The nation’s railroads were built by Asian immigrants, whose entry into the country was shortly thereafter restricted. Many Mexican immigrants who came to the U.S. to work were eventually “repatriated” after their contributions were made. Furthermore, the U.S. victories “for democracy” in World Wars I and II were contradicted by the continued segregation of the forces doing the fighting and the internment of Japanese-American citizens during the latter of those two conflicts.
Most morally bankrupt and shockingly dishonest of all is the implication that it is some sort of freedom which is ending prejudice. Mike Pence is a man, who, when governor of Indiana, had such a skewed conception of freedom, that he tried to enshrine the freedom to discriminate in statute. No matter how much he guffaws, he specifically is somebody who can make no claim to the moral authority of ending prejudice. The fact that he would even make such an implication is despicable.
Beyond being a distortion in an academic sense, such sanitization of history also has consequences for situations like Venezuela. It not only gives my fellow columnist an excuse to engage in whataboutism on the behalf of undemocratic governments, but gives those governments license to do so themselves. Throughout, and even before, the Cold War, the Soviet Union used segregation as a chance to question the U.S.’s moral authority. Exemplifications of the persistence of racial inequality such as the protests in Ferguson continue to be rhetorical fodder for not just Russia, but other undemocratic states such as Egypt, Iran and North Korea.
Pointing out U.S. historical hypocrisy should not excuse current injustices abroad. We hold the U.S. to a high standard so that citizens of other nations can demand the same of their governments, not so those governments can absolve themselves of responsibility when they fail to meet or even to reach for those standards. That doesn’t mean we excuse the U.S. when it doesn’t fulfill its own promises, as it so often hasn’t. But it does mean that in a case like Venezuela, we debate how to help others reach higher, instead of whether or not we should.
Giancarlo Valdetaro is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Setting the Temperature runs every other Tuesday this semester.