It is a great honour to share a platform today with two fellow brothers in the fight for freedom and against the growing forces of authoritarian populism across the globe. Seated next to me today are Miguel Pizarro and Jose Manuel Olivares, both members of the Venezuelan Parliament, who represent Venezuela’s main opposition party, Primero Justicia, or Justice First.
Ahead of their visit to South Africa to raise awareness about the devastating social, political, and economic crisis unfolding in their native Venezuela, Miguel and Jose reached out to the Democratic Alliance (DA) as they recognise our party as a defender of liberal democracy, and a champion of the advancement of freedom and human rights.
Jose Manuel Olivares is working on securing humanitarian aid to counteract the terrible human consequences of the shortage of medicines in Venezuela. However, for the last three months he has been in exile in Colombia after his family received threats unless he quit politics.
Miguel Pizarro has defended families and loved ones of political detainees who have been arrested and incarcerated. His fight is fuelled by his own sister’s struggle. She was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2012 and has not been able to receive adequate medication or treatment as imports of life saving drugs have stopped. Pizarro and his family had to make the difficult decision to send her to a different country, so she could get access to the medication.
We are proud to be able to stand with them in their struggles, as the Democratic Alliance and Primero Justicia have much in common. Much like the DA, Primero Justicia is a centrist, liberal party with a large diversity of supporters who are bound together by shared values, and a commitment to the basic tenets of liberal democracy: a market economy that values enterprise, the rule of law, individual rights guaranteed by a constitution which limits and checks power, private property and free speech. This is the best way to defeat poverty and maximise the true freedom of all citizens.
Primero Justicia was founded in 1992, first as a civil society association of university students seeking reform of Venezuela's legal system. They officially registered as a political party in 2000 – the very same year the DA was formed.
Primero Justicia is the main opposition party in Venezuela. They currently hold 33 seats of the National Assembly’s 167. However, the National Assembly has effectively been denuded of its powers in a clearly illegal and unconstitutional power grab by the authoritarian regime. The governing party - United Socialist Party of Venezuela has 55 seats, but exercises near total power.
Earlier this morning, the DA’s delegation met with Miguel and Jose who gave us a first-hand account of the dire situation in Venezuela. It is important that South Africans hear the real story of the situation in Venezuela, as there are some in our country – including in the ANC – who venerate and celebrate what has happened in Venezuela as a model of “radical transformation”. These powerful lobbies in the ANC, and their fellow travellers in other parties, are proposing and adopting policies that threaten to take South Africa down a destructive path.
In their words, this comes down to three interrelated policies enforced by the governing party in Venezuela: Expropriation of land without compensation, the nationalisation of banks, mines and other industries, and institutionalised corruption through nepotism and cadre deployment.
Venezuela’s collapse began with the election of Hugo Chávez as President in 1998, a radical populist who preached state control and ownership of the country and its resources as the answer. A year later, in 1999, the Constitution was amended to declare that ‘the predominance of large idle estates (latifundios) was contrary to the interests of society’. In other words, similar to the direction the ANC government is headed, the Venezuelan constitution was changed to allow the government to expropriate land without compensation.
In practice, however, it was not only ‘idle’ land that was taken. The government implicitly encouraged land invasions, which often reduced productivity to the point where farms became ‘idle’ enough to qualify for expropriation. Land was also allocated according to political criteria, with those who supported the government first in line to receive land.
In 2003, the government escalated its assault on the economy by introducing price controls. Over the coming years, rapid economic decline followed. Agricultural production dropped sharply between 2007 and 2011: maize by 40%, rice by 39%, sorghum by 83%, sugar cane by 37%, coffee by 47%, potatoes by 64%, tomatoes by 34%, and onions by 25%.
Large quantities of fertile land fell out of production, while food imports continued to rise. This led to people having to queue for five to six hours a day in the hope of buying food and other much-needed items.
Rather than admit these policies were a failure, and start over, in 2014 the government tightened the price controls further. Both farmers and food producers were forced to sell at prices below production costs, which cut supply even further. The manipulation of the economy by the government resulted in investment flight, and between 2013 and 2017, Venezuela’s economy contracted by 39%.
The very people the populists claimed to care for are the ones suffering the most. Extreme poverty grew from 24% of the population in 2014 to 61% in 2017. The infant mortality rate increased a hundredfold during the period of 2012 to 2015, and is now higher than in war-torn Syria. The minimum wage has actually fallen by 75%. Inflation has reached 1 million percent.
Today, Venezuela is a humanitarian tragedy, and it is only getting worse. The country has all but been destroyed - 80% of the population lives in poverty, and three quarters of the population are under-nourished or hungry. The inability to import sufficient food and medicine means the crisis is fast spiralling.
While the majority of Venezuelans are poor, hungry, and hopeless, the politically connected elite are rich and untouchable.
Now that South Africa will hold a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for the term 2019 – 2020, we challenge President Ramaphosa to use our position on the UNSC to try to resolve the crisis in Venezuela and return the country to open democracy. South Africa must use its position on UNSC to advance liberal democracy and stand up for justice, freedom and human rights across the globe. The ANC government needs to stop siding with dictators, and thug-governments.
The Venezuelan story is a warning of the dangers of radical populism in South Africa. We must not be arrogant enough to think that it cannot be related here, when many of the same social and political signs that existed in Venezuela in 1999 also exist in South Africa today. We must see the signs and call them out: the divisive language, pitting South Africans against each other, the dangerous violent language, the incitement, the talk of genocide, the use of race to provide cover for the abuse of power, and the destructive socialist policies which only guarantee more poverty and suffering. We must see these things clearly for what they are, and stop them now.
It is vital we do a 180 degree turn from the path we are on under the policies of the ANC and the EFF. Both the ANC and the EFF agree with and champion the same ideas that have brought Venezuela to its knees: An assault on property rights through expropriation of land without compensation; the nationalisation of banks and key industries, creeping state authoritarianism and the abuse of power, and corrupt government filled with deployed cadres.
While in Venezuela it began with land, we must not view land expropriation in isolation. It is the deadly concoction of land expropriation, nationalisation, centralisation of power, corruption and populism that leads to collapse. As was the case in Zimbabwe and Venezuela, this comes with entitlement, envy, division, hatred of others, and more often than not, violence. These things are the antithesis of our vision of building One South Africa For All. The DA is the only party in South Africa still actively working to build a united South Africa that achieves shared prosperity. While others may pay lip service to this ideal, their words are honoured more in the breach than in the observance.
Today, both parties have officially signed a pledge to work together in advancing freedom and democracy, and towards the following goals:
- Mobilizing the international community to pressure the Venezuelan government to abandon its programme of state repression;
- Fight for the opening up a channel to allow humanitarian aid to the people of Venezuela, in order for much needed food and medicine to be supplied;
- To ensure fair elections in Venezuela;
- Return power to the de jure National Assembly;
- The end of political repression of opposition parties in Venezuela; and
- The release of all political prisoners in Venezuela.
The DA, like Primero Justicia, fundamentally believes in giving more power to individuals, and less to the government.
Together, we believe in the rule of law and supremacy of the Constitution.
We believe in universal freedoms and human rights.
We believe in an open, market-based economy that is supported by an enabling environment for job creation and prosperity.
We believe in enhancing trade in a rapidly growing and technologically advancing global community.
We believe in the protection and promotion of private property rights.
We believe in the complete separation of party and state.
And we believe in the total eradication of corruption.
In the words of Russian historian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn “Unlimited power in the hands of limited people always leads to cruelty.” It is this cruelty that is the inevitable outcome of nationalisation, expropriation, and corruption.
Together, we will continue to partner with Primero Justicia, and fellow brothers and sisters from across the globe to defeat the forces of illiberalism, and ensure people are free from the coercion and manipulation of corrupt governments.