Last September, Independent-Socialist-turned-Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders got a bit pissy when supporters of Hillary Clinton tied him to Hugo Chavez, the late supreme leader of Venezuela. They "tried to link me to a dead communist dictator" his campaign complained of a super PAC mailing that pointed to Sanders working with Chavez in 2005 to bring oil subsidized by the Venezuelan government to Vermont as part of a mutual publicity ploy.
The harsh distancing may have been a step too far for lefty fans of the late Venezuelan strongman and his American comrade. A press release on the same incident preserved at BernieSanders.com refers instead to "the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez."
Apparently all is forgiven. Last month Nicolas Maduro, Chavez's hand-picked successor, praised Sanders as "an emerging candidate with a renovating and revolutionary message."
And why not? In addition to oil deals, Sanders and the Bolivarian regime in Caracas have much in common. Venezuela has people waiting for hours to buy strictly rationed quantities of basic foodstuffs, and the Vermont senator loves him some bread lines.
"Sometimes American journalists talk about how bad a country is because people are lining up for food. That's a good thing," Sanders told interviewers in 1985. "In other countries people don't line up for food; the rich get the food and the poor starve to death."
Actually, it's a bit odd that Sanders would care what American journalists talk about, given the "democratic" socialist also tends to share the Venezuelan government's disdain for independent voices. Long before Chavez gained power in Caracas, Sanders expressed support for the suppression of dissent and censorship of the press implemented in his long-favored models of socialist Shangri-La: Cuba and Nicaragua. The Sandinista regime's restrictions on the independent newspaper La Prensa "makes sense to me" he commented at the time, even as he sparred with Vermont's Burlington Free Press over his Castro fanboy-ism.
For its part, Venezuela is rated "Not Free" by Freedom House, which points to concerns about the forced inclusion of pro-government messages in private media broadcasts, and a law that "bans content that could 'incite or promote hatred,' 'foment citizens' anxiety or alter public order,' 'disrespect authorities,' 'encourage assassinations,' or 'constitute war propaganda.'" Violators face heavy fines and closure, and the government works behind the scenes to force the sale of outlets to pro-government interests.
So, to hell with those journalists pointing to hours-long bread lines!
Or lines for anything else, for that matter. Like beer. Empresas Polar SA, Venezuela's largest brewer, is on the verge of closing its doors, since it can no longer gain access to necessary raw materials. Not that you could keep the stuff cold with electricity cut four hours every day in the oil-producing country.
One place that lines may be getting shorter is at the hospital—but not for good reasons. With a collapsing economy and worthless currency, the country can no longer afford to import the radioactive materials needed for many cancer treatments—which could possibly unify Venezuelans of all classes in the socialist solidarity of the grave. They'll have plenty of company, since medicine of all sorts is in short supply in the country.
Not that there are many people left to administer the medicine. The country guarantees a constitutional "right" to healthcare, but the system is crumbling. Over the past decade, an estimated 13,000 physicians fled the country in search of greener pastures. Cuba dispatched some of its own physicians to fill the gap, only to see them defect in turn. That's no shock, considering that the physician father of a Venezuelan friend of mine has been reduced to accepting payment in cooking oil and other groceries.
Seventeen years of Bolivarian socialism have arrived at the same point that state-directed economies always seem to arrive: severe shortages of goods, producers closing their doors (or peddling only to black market dealers) as mandated prices fail to cover costs, and growing state takeovers of industries as reality fails to keep pace with grandiose promises—or even to match the not-so-bad-in-retrospect conditions that prevailed before the socialists came to power.
Almost inevitably, the Venezuelan government has tried to close the gap with capital controls, "official" exchange rates that bear no resemblance to reality, and funny money that has become almost worthless. The International Monetary Fund expects inflation "to rise to 720 percent this year, from a world-high inflation of about 275 percent in 2015."
Probably the only thing holding the country together is the vestige of the free market, primarily in its illegal, black market form. Simply standing in the country's endless lines for an opportunity to make a purchase, for a fee, has become a business opportunity. Away from those lines, something to trade, or a handful of hard currency, can produce the coveted medicine, diapers, and food that the state's socialist policies have chased out of the normal market.
Maybe, just maybe, the black market can keep the country alive until the new opposition majority in Venezuela's Congress can wrest a measure of power from the president and his allies.
But is it fair to hold Sanders to his past approval of totalitarian socialist regimes and link him to the failures of the current crop of such governments? After all, the new favorite model for the "democratic socialist" is the Scandinavian welfare state, which requires a very elastic use of the word "socialist" or an awareness of current events that stops short at 1978. Scandinavians experimented with actual socialism decades ago, but realized that they liked to eat and keep the lights on. As Johan Norberg recently wrote for Reason, "Being more like modern Sweden actually means deregulation, free trade, a national school voucher system, partially privatized pensions, no property tax, no inheritance tax, and much lower corporate taxes." Yes, they have generous welfare states compared to the American version, but those rely on free economies to function—and they're shrinking under the pressure of economic reality.
If that's what Sanders really means today—assuming he fully understands the implications of what he's proposing—it sounds a lot better than what he's traditionally peddled.
But Sanders doesn't really seem to have given up his infatuation with authoritarian socialism. Even as Cuban officials prepared lists of dissidents to arrest in preparation for President Obama's visit, the Vermont senator hemmed and hawed at a Miami debate over whether the Castro regime's literacy program and healthcare system (those same doctors defecting through Venezuela) were offset by the lack of dissenting publications to read, long lines for sub-standard care, or the country's status as a tropical Alcatraz.
The Ladies in White group, consisting of the wives of political prisoners, were rounded up just before the president's plane landed—although they are regular involuntary guests of the state, as anybody keeping an eye on Cuba's political situation should know.
That may not have troubled Sanders very much, to be honest. Why would the arrest of a few embittered dissidents bother a politician who has a history of endorsing press censorship, and who sees long lines to purchase a few crumbs to eat as a sign of policy success?