The ugly face of Venezuela’s authoritarian socialism finally took a beating at the polls on December 6—a beating that has been long overdue. I am personally overjoyed not only because I always appreciate a rebuke of the idiocy and cruelty of tyrants but also because I and my colleagues in the George W. Bush administration worked for years to support the young people that make up the bulk of the democratic opposition.
My colleagues at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) continued to support Venezuela’s democratic opposition during the Obama years even though this White House has been less interested in upsetting dictators. But whatever help the West has offered, this win for self-governance is due to the tenacity of young Venezuelans who for years have refused despite murderous attacks, imprisonment, torture, and economic deprivation to give in to dictators.
In legislative elections last week, the opposition’s years of grueling effort to stay united and organized paid off handsomely. They not only took control of the National Assembly but also achieved a supermajority that gives them the ability to vote amnesty for the many political prisoners who have been held in horrible conditions for years.
The power to free them is the most significant event that can come from this victory. If the first act in the re-democratization of Venezuela after 16 years of dictatorship, misrule, and economic foolishness was the legislative victory, the second act is freeing all political prisoners. Their unjust imprisonment and torture symbolized all that the late Hugo Chavez and his regime did to stifle democracy; their release would symbolize that tyrants can be thwarted.
How Venezuela Lost Self-Government
Chavez, a former army colonel who spent time in prison for launching a failed coup in 1992, finally won the presidency in 1998 in free and fair elections. I met him on Capitol Hill right after his election, when he was in the “I want to get along” phase of his first year in office.
He was a pretty good salesman then and suckered a number of U.S. officials, but that phase lasted but a few months. How could it last? The man was a failed revolutionary, anti-United States, a devotee of iron-fisted socialism, and had threatened during his campaign to boil his opponents’ heads in oil. Soon enough, he was launching his program of “Bolivarian” democracy and socialism. The great Simon Bolivar, liberator of almost half of Latin America from Spanish rule, did not deserve to have his name blemished with what was nothing more than an authoritarian regime bent on a milder form of Leninist politics and a chaotic form of socialism.
True, the old regime in Venezuela had ruled for the sake of the elites and ignored the needs of the bulk of the population; in losing power fair and square they got what they deserved. As the years would prove, however, Chavismo was not a sustainable solution for Venezuela’s problems. It created its own elite, and the moderate success it produced at alleviating hunger and fulfilling basic needs was temporary and possible only with high oil prices.
Upon winning, Chavez immediately began to secure his position by making changes to the constitution and electoral laws so he could succeed himself indefinitely. He appointed cronies to political and administrative offices and intimidated his opponents so he could control the legislature, security apparatus, and military. Within a few years, every position and agency and all branches of government were under his complete control.
Of course he used the state-owned media to advance his cause and made that easier by intimidating the independent media out of business. He had the public’s help in this because in the early years of largesse with high oil prices he and his party continued to win elections by spending heavily on social projects, often employing the military in this work.
As many of us pointed out, winning elections is fine, but how you win them and whether you respect the rule of law and the right of the opposition to exist matters equally. The eventual reward for the public was to find their democratic institutions eviscerated and their judiciary a lap dog of the regime. In the end, even the sanctity of the vote came into question as the regime used the electoral machinery to economically punish those who did not vote for Chavez and his party.
To further ensconce himself, Chavez nationalized the oil sector and promptly began to ruin it with incompetent appointments and projects while treating the revenues as an ATM for his regime and party. (Many of us in the United States have been boycotting Citgo stations for years, as it is the retail arm of the Venezuelan oil industry.)
No surprise that corruption reached mammoth proportions, foreign investment dried up, other sectors of the economy were controlled or taken over outright, and high-ranking regime officials have been involved in drug trafficking. All problems were blamed on the bitter elites and the “bourgeoisie” who would not accept defeat—though they had no power.
Venezuela Displays the Cruel Ineptitude of Socialism
So as socialism failed, like it always does. The people suffered with joblessness, shortages, shoddy products, and long lines at the grocery store. The incompetent government has even made Venezuela a net importer of gasoline—an oil-producing country with some of the largest reserves in the world,
The regime’s desire to secure power was not just about making Chavez a king in one country, for he had other, grander plans: humiliating the United States. He set about this project by buying friends near and far with oil giveaways, making allies of any U.S. enemy he could (including Iran and terrorist groups), and trying to build and lead an alliance of like-minded Latin American leaders like his clones in Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Bolivia.
He fomented conflict with neighboring Colombia by supporting its rebel groups and threatened the territorial integrity of Guyana. Of course, he took Cuba’s Fidel Castro for a mentor and rewarded him lavishly with oil subsidies. In exchange, he got the notoriety he wanted as the new thorn in the United States’s side in the Caribbean, as well as medical treatment for the cancer that nevertheless killed him in 2012.
Along the way he shamed his country in international fora: he called George W. Bush “the devil” from the rostrum of the United Nations General Assembly and was so obstreperous at a meeting of the heads of state of the former Spanish colonies that King Juan Carlos himself had to publicly tell him to shut up. He made a joke of his country’s dignity as thoroughly as he made a failure of it.
Venezuela’s civic society has been in bad shape for years. It has almost overtaken Honduras as the murder capital of the world, and social conflict has increased because Chavismo is all about rich versus poor, elites versus the people. So Bolivarian socialism is an abject failure, but with the added curse of civil strife, crime, corruption, intimidation of the opposition, and international tensions.
Speaking of intimidating the opposition, as socialism began to fail and especially when global oil prices began to plummet, Chavez’s regime moved to more Stalinist tactics to neutralize opponents, and his successors continued in this vein in a desperate attempt to keep the disillusioned public from having a choice. Democratically elected mayors have been imprisoned as has, indeed, anyone who represents a credible challenge. They have been tortured and abused and held in inhumane conditions (you can learn so much from a mentor like Castro).
One of the most egregious things the regime has done is to turn its guns and mobs on the youth of Venezuela. Like university students in Iran and elsewhere, these brave souls have gone into the streets repeatedly over the years to protect their elected party and civic leaders and to protest the lack of freedom.
Some have been gunned down and many arrested and held without trial or with a show trial for the simple act of speaking out against the government. Young elected leaders with huge followings have been arrested on trumped-up charges, like the mayor of Chacao, Leopoldo Lopez, and the former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, who almost beat Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, in 2012. These leaders were suppressed simply because they represented a threat to the tired, failed, and less-attractive regime.
Chavez had benefited early on by casting himself opposite the tired old regime that had failed and had ignored the people. But in the last six years the public has been moving toward the new, young, and successful leaders of the democratic opposition.
How Venezuelan Self-Government Is Making a Comeback
But the democratic opposition did not shrink away. They endured the bullets, the imprisonment, and the constant state crackdowns and after several years of division they have finally unified. As Chavismo failed year after year, they stayed strong and on message: Venezuelans deserve clean elections, the rule of law, and an end to corruption. The public rallied to the opposition last week and now it has the authority to right many of the wrongs.
The democratic opposition had help from abroad. Throughout all these years as Venezuela slipped toward failed state status, the United States has been doing important work in supporting the democratic opposition, and it has paid off. USAID programs have helped thousands of Venezuelans, especially the younger generation, gain access to free and independent media and trained them in political organizing, civil society dialogues, and defense of their human rights. Citizen activists have learned political skills in exchanges with their peers in other Latin American countries. The International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, and Freedom House have been important partners in this work, among many others.
The youth of Venezuela, like the youth in many countries, know what democracy is, and they know it is not the wretched concoction of Leninism and socialism the regime calls “Bolivarian Socialism.” They know they have a right to govern themselves and to save their nation. They have been helped over the years by a United States that seeks to thwart a tyrannical and aggressive regime in this hemisphere by supporting a home-grown democracy movement working to throw off a common enemy.
What the Obama Administration Should Do Now
The coming weeks and months will not be easy. Maduro and the regime will not take losing the legislature easily, and they still control the rest of government. The opposition must stay united because only with its supermajority can it try to change the constitution to restore democratic institutions, re-privatize the economy, and end the price controls that are hurting the poor by causing scarcity.
As to foreign policy, the opposition does not have much direct control of it. We can expect the regime to continue to cozy up to Iran and continue to trouble its neighbors, but perhaps the free oil program for rogue regimes might be in jeopardy.
The Obama administration needs to speak out clearly and consistently in favor of the legislature’s efforts to return Venezuela to democracy. This does not mean the administration has to condone every move, but all actions the National Assembly takes to undo what Chavez and his allies have done over the last 16 years should be supported.
The region is watching. The clones of Chavez in several other countries in the hemisphere need to see what happens to tyrants when the people rise up, and they should hear the United States cheering them on.
While comfortable and pampered Western youth pitch fits on our elite college campuses for “safe spaces,” attack journalists, and call for the heads of any faculty or administrators that dare to disagree with them, the youth of Venezuela, who know what real hardship is, have shown themselves to be heroes.
December 6, 2015 was a good day for freedom not just in Venezuela, but for the world.