Socialism Killed My Father

Venezuela's failed collectivist experiment brought death and despair to a once-prosperous country.


I was working in Silicon Valley when my mother called me from back home in Caracas with some alarming news: My father had experienced sudden kidney failure. I immediately flew from San Francisco to Miami, where I had to wait two days until I could get one of the few flights left to Caracas. Since the election of Hugo Chávez in 1998 ushered in successive waves of nationalization, inflation, and recession, international airlines—American, Delta, United Airlines, even carriers from next-door Colombia and Brazil—had been steadily reducing, canceling, and eventually abandoning all routes to my once-prosperous country. I slept in the Miami International Airport with many other desperate Venezuelans. Finally I was able to purchase a ticket for an exorbitant sum from Santa Barbara Airlines, a Venezuelan carrier that has since gone bankrupt.

Fortunately, my father was still alive when I arrived in Caracas, but he required continuous dialysis. Even in the best of the few remaining private clinics, there was a chronic lack of basic supplies and equipment. Dialyzers had to be constantly reused, and there were not enough medicines for patients. In several parts of the country, electricity and water were also rationed, including in hospitals. Given the precarious economic situation, and thanks to our comparatively advantageous financial situation, we decided the best course of action would be to leave Venezuela and fly to my father's native Madrid, where he could get the treatment he needed.

But because of the decimated air travel situation, we had to wait three weeks for the next available flight to Spain. The few airline companies still operating in Venezuela had reduced their flights dramatically because of Venezuelan government controls. Sadly, the Caracas dialysis couldn't hold out that long. Just two days before he was scheduled to leave his adopted country, my father died because of its disastrous policies. I still remember it vividly. I cannot forget.

That was August 26, 2013, a few months after Nicolás Maduro had assumed control of the country in the wake of Hugo Chávez's death. Things have gotten much worse since then. I can't imagine how hospitals attempt to function in the murder capital of the world with no medicine, no electricity, and sometimes even no water, while able-bodied doctors bolt the country at the first available opportunity. My family's story is heartbreaking and infuriating. But think of the millions of Venezuelans in worse financial straits who face the terrible choice of either wasting away in their homeland or taking up the perilous journey to whatever nearby country will accept them.

The growing number of people in the West who say they prefer socialism—or even, God help us, the pernicious Cuban and Venezuelan variants that might more properly be known as communism—often cite the provision of universal health care in their case for collectivism. That is why it's so important for me to tell my father's story. An entire nation is being hollowed out because some people refuse to accept that one of history's most deadly political ideas has produced corpses everywhere it's been tried.

From Spain to Venezuela

My parents were born in Spain during the 1930s; my Asturian-Galician father in Madrid, my mother in a small village in Segovia. They were small children during the horrific 1936–39 Spanish Civil War, when according to some experts up to 2 million people, or about one-tenth of the population, died during the struggle between and among leftist/communist/anarchist Republicans and Falangist/monarchist/conservative/Catholic Nationalists.

General Francisco Franco, a friend to and collaborator with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, emerged victorious after the bloodshed, and post–World War II Spain found itself increasingly isolated and miserable. Franco imprisoned and executed many people who had supported the Republicans; in fact, my grandfather in Segovia was jailed and almost killed for having had contacts with some Communist supporters.

My parents met in Madrid in the late 1940s. By the late 1950s, they had decided to emigrate. At that time, Venezuela was a comparatively prosperous country, a nation that gladly received millions of immigrants from Southern Europe (mostly Spain, Italy, and Portugal) and South America (mainly Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru). This was true all the way to the early 1990s.

Courtesy José Cordeiro
(Courtesy José Cordeiro)

During my childhood in the '60s and '70s, Venezuela enjoyed extraordinary economic growth—often above 10 percent a year. It was a land of opportunity, with relatively free markets, low inflation, little foreign debt, and something close to full employment. The local currency, the bolivar, was considered one of the strongest and most stable in the world. It was even revalued against the U.S. dollar in the 1930s, increasing its international value. As kids we used to say that our hometown of Caracas was "the capital of Heaven."

With increasing oil revenues, Venezuela became the wealthiest country in all of Latin America, overtaking once-dominant Argentina and Cuba. By the mid-1970s, the country's gross domestic product (GDP) was very close to that of Texas, which had comparable oil reserves and population numbers. Some pundits even foresaw the Venezuelan economy eclipsing the Lone Star State's by the 1980s.

Until, that is, the Socialist government of Carlos Andrés Pérez began nationalizing the economy in the late 1970s. All foreign oil companies (Shell, Mobil, Exxon, etc.), as well as the smaller Venezuelan producers, were taken over by the government in 1976 under a single conglomerate called PDVSA. Pérez also nationalized the telecom industry, the mining sector, and even the central bank, which had been partially owned by several private financial institutions. The country's GDP peaked in 1978 due to previous oil booms. Then it began a steady, two-decade decline that set the stage for something even worse.

Black Book, Red Terror

I still vividly remember when I first read The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. It was 20 years ago. By then I had studied in America, France, and Japan; developed interests in oil production, monetary policy, and futurism; and witnessed the slow-motion failure of socialism in my own country. Still, nothing prepared me for the shock of Black Book's truths, which clearly described how communism failed, killing millions of people, wherever it was tried.

The international bestseller was published in French in 1997 by a group of European academics, then translated into Spanish the following year and into English the year after that. It sifted through the wreckage of both Soviet communism and Chinese Maoism and found staggering body counts wherever government owned the means of production. Communist regimes, the book famously argued, were responsible for more deaths than fascism, Nazism, or any other political system of the 20th century. Nearly 100 million perished from communism worldwide—65 million in the People's Republic of China, 20 million in the former Soviet Union, 2 million in Cambodia, 2 million in North Korea, 1.7 million in Ethiopia, 1.5 million in Afghanistan, 1 million in Vietnam, and several million more in various "experiments" across Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

The actual number of people killed under communist regimes will never be truly known, since totalitarian governments actively manipulate, hide, and control official figures. But the costs were so evidently brutal that new terminology was necessary to describe the horror. For instance, the political scientist R.J. Rummel in his 1997 book Power Kills coined the term democide to indicate murder by government, as in the Stalinist purges or Mao's Cultural Revolution.

In 2008, I went to visit the site of one of modern history's worst democides: Pol Pot's murder of almost 2 million Cambodians, about one-fourth of the population, in 1975–79. Phnom Penh's Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, on the site of a secondary school that Pol Pot's vicious Khmer Rouge regime transformed into a murder camp, is a hauntingly unforgettable experience, with piles upon piles of skulls from the infamous "killing fields" of the grossly misnamed Democratic Kampuchea.

At the "Red Terror" Martyrs Memorial Museum in Addis Ababa in 2016, I saw similar displays of skeletons, bloody clothes, and photographs of some of the hundreds of thousands of people massacred by the Ethiopian government in 1976–77. "We are doing what Lenin did," the ruling Derg movement bragged back then about its pogroms against other Marxist-Leninist groups in the country. "You cannot build socialism without Red Terror."

Even before these museums opened, you could see some of these totalitarian states for yourself, as I did in the 1980s in East Germany and Burma, and then in the Stalinist holdouts of Cuba and North Korea during the 2010s. The overall impression is overwhelming, as is the resulting conviction: I can't wait to see the fall of these criminal communist regimes, and I yearn for the day that we no longer have to build even museums to remember the atrocities they inflicted upon humankind.

The Chavism Body Count

And yet even as the world was belatedly waking up to the evils of collectivization and centralization, my own socialist country was being lulled asleep by its supposed charms. The ideology might have taken another name—Chavism—but the means were the same. So were the deadly results.

In 1992, Hugo Chávez, a military leader, was imprisoned after a failed coup d'état in which his forces killed several civilians and soldiers. Even though he was a convicted criminal who had tried to topple a democratic government, Chávez was pardoned and allowed to enter politics, where he engineered an overthrow from within. The former coup leader used the last free, transparent election in Venezuela to come to power in December 1998, dubiously billing himself as a "democrat." He soon revealed himself to be a devotee of Marx, Lenin, and Mao.

Chávez called his personal ideology "Bolivarianism," misusing the name of 19th century Latin American anti-imperialist liberator Simón Bolívar. Later he rebranded his collectivism as the "Socialism of the 21st Century," an important qualifier given that almost all the 20th century models had by that time imploded. The U.S.-Argentinean journalist Andrés Oppenheimer has called Chávez a "narcissist-Leninist" dictator, and the description fits.

The aggressive policies that Chávez implemented led Venezuela from socialist slide into communist plunge. That fall only accelerated after his death, announced following months of secrecy about cancer treatments in communist Cuba, and after the hurried, fraudulent election of his designated successor, Maduro. The new president, a former bus driver who admires the Cuban revolution, is now driving society into all-out collapse.

Economic historians say what Venezuela is experiencing now is worse than any economic crisis in a peacetime country since World War II. The U.S. during the Great Depression, Zimbabwe during its 2008–09 bout of hyperinflation, Russia and Cuba in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union—nothing has come close. There is escalating starvation, disease, crime, and mortality. GDP in 2019 has been whittled down to 1950s levels. And then there is the inflation.

Since the election of Chávez in 1998, the government has removed eight zeros from the constantly inflating currency and twice changed its name. It is expected that in 2020 there will be still another currency with even more zeros lopped off—with one new currency unit equaling hundreds of billions of old bolívars since Chavism started. The International Monetary Fund has indicated that inflation could be anywhere between 1 million and 10 million percent by the end of 2019, but it's hard to know for sure since the government has stopped bothering to publish many basic economic indicators.

Venezuela now has the lowest average minimum salary in the world: just $2 a month, one-tenth the figure for impoverished Cuba. There are general shortages of almost everything, including gasoline, despite the fact that Venezuela has the largest petroleum reserves in the world. The water and electric systems are collapsing: Major national blackouts started in early 2019, with some parts of the country going dark for weeks. Telephone and internet services fail constantly, due to the electrical disruptions and a lack of system updates. Most patients who require cancer treatments or dialysis are just dying. Our former "capital of Heaven" now has no gas, no light, no food, no water, no jobs, no money, no medicine, and no hope.

It's no wonder people are leaving. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that more than 4.3 million people, or around 14 percent of the population, have fled Venezuela, and the total could pass 5 million by 2020. This kind of massive refugee crisis is a first in the Americas, and it's creating serious regional problems. The number of murders has grown from 5,000 a year before Chávez to around 25,000 today, though the government has stopped publishing those figures, too. That's about a half-million murders—a whole city dead—since the advent of Chavism.

Amid the lawlessness, deprivation, and international isolation, Venezuela has opened its doors not to Western Europeans seeking a better life but to terrorists, from Colombian FARC guerrillas to jihadist groups from the Middle East. Maduro has openly supported the repressive regimes of Iran and Syria, and he just opened an embassy in Pyongyang. Thus, Venezuela has willingly joined what was once called the "Axis of Evil."

I can no longer return to Caracas. My Venezuelan passport expired, and the Chavista government has refused to renew it. I cannot use my Spanish passport to go there either, since an anachronistic law requires native-born Venezuelans to enter and exit only with a valid Venezuelan passport. I wonder how many more tens and hundreds of thousands will die needlessly before I can again freely visit the country of my birth.

Socialism kills in Venezuela, like everywhere else it has been implemented. It kills regardless of local flavoring or whatever branding the individual dictator employs. It is beyond reason that this ideology, which has led to the deaths of more people than any other during modern history, which was thoroughly and tragically discredited in the 20th century, is still racking up body counts in 2019. May we finally learn this tragic lesson.

Rest in peace: Pedro Cordeiro Castillo.