Pick up a newspaper these days and it seems obvious that Venezuela's catastrophic experiment with socialism is at an end. With people standing in line for hours just to buy soap, annual inflation in the high triple figures (with percentages heading into four digits), and soldiers rustling goats because they're not getting fed in their barracks, Venezuela reads like a textbook example of the socialist endgame: social implosion driven by economic collapse, caused by shockingly self-destructive policy making.
Surely, by the time local governors start saying things like "We are capable of eating a stick, or instead of frying two eggs, fry two rocks, and we will eat fried rocks" on the radio, things can't go on like this much longer, can they?
Maybe they can. Considering its galloping economic dysfunction, Venezuela's government remains relatively popular. A recent poll found 31 percent of Venezuelans think President Nicolás Maduro is doing a good job. Other polls have him a smidgen lower. (While the country is slipping ever faster into repression, reputable polling continues to be carried out and, if anything, tends to undercount the government's supporters.)
The numbers Maduro is pulling are nobody's idea of good approval ratings, granted, but he remains more popular than plenty of other Latin American leaders whose economies are doing much, much better than Venezuela's: Chile's Michelle Bachelet is at 26 percent approval, Peru's Ollanta Humala is at 15 percent, and just ahead of her ouster earlier this month, Brazil's Dilma Roussef was at 9 percent. That's the kind of number that gets you thrown out of office in South America, not 31 percent.
How can Maduro possibly have retained the support of a third of the country? The best answer is that chavismo, the political movement Hugo Chávez created and handed off to Maduro after his death in 2013, isn't really a political movement. It's closer to a kind of religious cult, with Chávez himself—whom his supporters now refer to as El Comandante Eterno—at the center of the pantheon.
La Guerra Económica
Like all good cults, chavismo has built an impregnable firewall around itself against the intrusion of inconvenient facts. Like all good cults, it has made itself central to the lives and identities of its followers. Like all good cults, it won't give up its grip easily.
Take the economic catastrophe now engulfing the country. Chavismo can't exactly deny the fact that you can't find sugar at the store—or milk, or rice, or soap, or diapers, or just about anything. As stand-up comedian Emilio Lovera puts it, Venezuela must be the only country in the world where it's considered normal for you to walk into a bread shop and ask, "Do you have any bread?" But why exactly is it that there's nothing to buy?
For chavismo, the answer is simple: la guerra económica. An unending stream of propaganda pours out of the government's sprawling media empire, beating the drums about "economic warfare": a conspiracy between local capitalists and the American CIA to discredit the socialist revolution by hoarding goods and causing financial chaos.
"Corporate media outlets throughout the world have worked diligently to portray Venezuela as a country in the midst of an economic crisis," explains teleSUR, a news network sponsored by left-wing Latin American governments, including the one in Caracas. "These outlets point to the shortages of basic goods in stores and the lines that sometimes occur for some products as evidence of this so-called crisis. Yet, these shortages appear to be part of a concerted action by members of the opposition to remove the democratically-elected government from power."
The television station goes on to announce that Maduro has helpfully explained that there is "a plot by opposition figures to take advantage of the lines to sow chaos and violence in the country." Maduro has a recording, the report claims, in which a retired general, Jose de Jesus Gamez Bustamente, reveals a plan to "bring supporters to the lines outside supermarkets and have them break windows in order to provoke looting by those waiting to enter.…This would result in repression by the Venezuelan National Guard against working-class people, the political base of the Bolivarian revolution." In keeping with standard operating procedure, no actual evidence of any sort is presented to back these kinds of grave accusations, but the impact for those on the receiving end can be deadly serious.
This is straight out of the playbook of the failed socialist states of the 20th century, the kind of thing George Orwell made a career of denouncing.
The claims are utter gobbledygook. In effect, the government doesn't have an economic theory—it has a conspiracy theory. An enormous one. The explanation for shortages and inflation amounts to alleging there's a cartel not in one product market but in every product market, an enormous, sprawling perfect scheme where tens of thousands of businesspeople coordinate seamlessly, every single one of them passing up the enormous windfall profits that would accrue to him from defection.
The point is that la guerra económica isn't really an economic argument at all: It's a spiritual one, part of a broader eschatology of socialist struggle and redemption where all the bad things that happen must, by definition, be the fault of evil conspirators, run out of Langley, bent on the oppression of the proletariat.
That price controls would cause shortages is one of the least surprising results in economics. The reason why is right there in the opening chapters of every undergraduate introduction to economics textbook anywhere in the world. Respected Venezuelan economists like Pedro Palma, the former president of Venezuela's National Academy of Economic Sciences, and Carlos Machado Allison, the country's most noted agricultural economist, sounded the alert again and again.
But chavismo long ago perfected that enormously infuriating rhetorical strategy of repurposing evidence of its own failure into a defense of its worldview. The warnings weren't just ignored; they were jujitsued by official propaganda into proof of just how sprawling the conspiracy against the government really is. And what does the government need to counter this kind of conspiracy? Why, more powers, of course! Powers Maduro has recently awarded himself, unilaterally, through an "economic emergency" decree that suspends key constitutional rights.
It's a perfect circle.
Armed and Delusional
Most Venezuelans don't buy the blather about "economic war." A recent poll by Datanalisis, a well-respected local pollster, found that 68 percent reject the argument. As the joke recently in vogue in Caracas puts it, Nicolás Maduro is so incompetent, he can't even win the wars he makes up.
The problem is that stubborn third of the population that still buys into chavismo's cult-like narrative. It's not just that Maduro defenders are recalcitrant and almost completely beyond the reach of reasoned argument—it's that they're armed. Heavily armed. Chávez himself made sure of that.
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