Socialism: The View from Venezuela
Protests over starvation and the deteriorating economic and political conditions reveal the end-game in any socialist project.
Protests against the long national nightmare of socialism continue in Venezuela, as the death toll over the last month has risen to 37 and over the weekend demonstrators tore down a statue of Hugo Chavez, the former president who ushered in the era of chavismo, his Latin American flavor of socialism, or "Bolivarian socialism"—the protests represent the inevitable end to any socialist experiment.
In his heyday, Chavez was heralded by a number of leftists in the West as a model of democratic socialism. After Chavez's 2013 death, filmmaker Michael Moore gushed over Chavez's nationalization of the oil industry. "He used the oil $ 2 eliminate 75% of extreme poverty, provide free health & education 4 all," Moore tweeted. U.K. Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn said Chavez showed the world that "the poor matter and wealth can be shared" and that he made massive contributions to Venezuela" and the world.
Chavez was succeeded by his vice president, Nicolas Maduro, who continued Chavez's policies sans the kind of charisma that blinded some to the incompetence of Chavez and the incoherence of Bolivarian socialism, and eventually without the high oil prices to subsidize profligate government spending either. Left to its own devices, the centralized planning of socialism has failed spectacularly in Venezuela.
America's favorite homegrown socialist, Bernie Sanders, once pointed to Venezuela as a model too.
"These days, the American dream is more apt to be realized in South America, in places such as Ecuador, Venezuela and Argentina, where incomes are actually more equal today than they are in the land of Horatio Alger," Sanders wrote in a 2011 op-ed. "Who's the banana republic now?"
Last year, the average Venezuelan living in extreme poverty lost 19 pounds amid mass food shortages largely created and then exacerbated by government price controls—60 percent of Venezuelans said they had to skip at least one meal a day. Maduro joked that the "Maduro diet," as the government-induced starvation has been called, was leading to better sex, to the applause of government workers and party loyalists but few others. There have been shortages of food as well as goods like toilet paper, deodorants, condoms, and even beer.
Some hardline socialists have been more critical of Chavez, criticizing the Western left's infatuation with Chavez, who the Socialist Party of Great Britain complained did not really understand socialism. Their argument boiled down to the fact that, to paraphrase Rick & Morty, Chavez should be trying socialism with extra steps. The Socialist Worker condemned Maduro's slide to authoritarianism earlier this month, even though the authoritarianism started soon after Chavez first came to power. The idea that socialism can ever effectively exclude cronyists when it accumulates the kind of power to which cronyists are attracted is preposterous.
Sanders, when he ran for president last year, no longer brought up the Venezuelan example of socialism. Instead he leaned on Americans' misinformed view of Scandinavian countries as socialist paradises. But Scandinavian countries like Sweden have "deregulation, free trade, a national school voucher system, partially privatized pensions, no property tax, no inheritance tax, and much lower corporate taxes," as Johan Norberg wrote last year.
Western leftists should not be allowed to distance themselves from the spoiled fruits of socialism in Venezuela, which they embraced only a few years ago. Countries across South America welcomed different versions of socialism over the last two decades, often to praise in the West, and, as The Economist noted in its latest Democracy Index, South American voters have tired of this left-wing populism and are slowly returning to more sensible, right-of-center free market policies.
Free market policies also happen to be the best antidotes to the currently ascendant populism and economic authoritarianism, as they have the power to best mitigate the kind of economically poor conditions in which populism thrives in the first place.
Maduro, and diehard supporters, blame the United States for Venezuela's woes, an increasingly unbelievable assertion in the face of evidence to the contrary. Even ThinkProgress, in a piece on the catastrophe in Venezuela that manages to avoid mentioning socialism (or chavismo or Bolivarianism for that matter) a single time, dismisses Maduro's fever dreams of U.S. responsibility for Venezuela's self-inflicted economic and political wounds.
The opposition in Venezuela won control of the legislature in elections in 2015, which was followed by the Maduro government working diligently to consolidate power even further. Protesters in Venezuela have demanded early elections, while Maduro has proposed a new constitution protesters call a coup.
The imprisoned opposition leader Leopold Lopez has called for the protests to continue.