Venezuela’s self-destruction has embarrassed more celebrities than has National Enquirer. Our glitterati’s favorite socialist paradise has, like so many similar experiments, become a murderous den of oppression and privation, and none will speak on its behalf. However, Venezuela’s collapse has dashed fantasies far older and more sincere than Sean Penn’s.
Hugo Chávez’s election in Venezuela realized a dream that festered in left-wing hearts for decades: a revolutionary socialist regime, with the sovereignty and resources to fulfill decades’ worth of pledges from left-wing populist leaders in Latin America. During the Cold War, dictators who gained and maintained power through coup d’état and state terror, often abetted by the U.S. government, frequently thwarted such movements. The depth of evil these dictators reached and the misery they created are not to be understated. They undermined the case for capitalism and American power as positive forces in the world, giving defenders of socialism the world over something to point at and say, “But what about…?”
Men like Chávez were cast as the antidote. His triumph was a rebuke not only of Venezuela’s own ancien régime, but also of Pinochet, Rios Montt, and the rest of the Latin American tinpot rogues’ gallery. He was to avenge the sufferings of Oscar Romero and Rigoberta Menchú, fulfill the stolen potential of Jacobo Árbenz and Salvador Allende, and improve on the flawed, illiberal experiments of Fidel Castro and the Sandinistas. The constraints on civil liberties that undergirded his power were necessary evils to ward off the authoritarian specter.
We were told Central and South American nations would never choose to adopt free markets to the same extent as their individualistic northern counterpart. With communitarian traditions rooted in its Catholicism and indigenous heritage, Latin America would embrace democratic socialism. I remember sitting in college classes and learning about how Chávez and similar, though less violent populists such as Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, and Brazil’s Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff were forging hope by harnessing popular energy into governments that would direct economies toward social justice.
It Wasn’t Supposed to Turn Out This Way
Fissures are forming for each of these regimes. Morales, in defiance of the constitution and a popular referendum, is moving to abrogate term limits for his office; Correa’s successors are locked in a battle over corruption that has left the government in chaos; da Silva is entering his sixth corruption trial; and Rousseff has been impeached. But it is Venezuela, the nation Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro have led into fire and ruin, which fully captures just how fatal are the conceits of democratic socialism in Latin America.
The terror and repression Chavismo swore to deposit in the dustbin of history have reemerged in its defense, with hit squads intimidating and massacring dissidents while Maduro swats down checks on his power. The equality it promised exists only in the cruelest of terms: equality of want, equality of desperation, equality of misery. A country endowed with bountiful resources has spent and collectivized its way into such abject poverty that it cannot provide its people with food and toilet paper.
Chávez’s personal legacy retains some of its man-of-the-people sheen in some circles, since his Bolivarian regime reached its tipping point under his less inspiring successor and his erstwhile defenders are still ready to make idiots of themselves for him. Nevertheless, his country’s collapse is the fruit of the state-led development path he set out on.
Endowed with massive oil reserves, Venezuela had periodically suffered from Dutch disease since it nationalized petroleum production in the 1970s, with its state-run enterprises engaging in corruption on a massive scale and becoming symbols of injustice as other sectors crumbled around them. Chávez promised to direct these companies’ profits toward social and political revolution, funding public works and alleviating poverty. He would be the anti-Pinochet, ending Venezuela’s existence as a fount of resources for the West and directing its economy toward the common good.
It Seems Power Does Corrupt After All
Hugo Chávez, however, proved himself far less interested in the collective than in Hugo Chávez. His management of the oil industry quickly became geared toward preserving his power, as he dismissed vital and experienced workers for political reasons and diverted resources away from innovation to fund image-burnishing social programs. At the height of oil price spikes in the mid-to-late 2000s, this worked for Chávez, and even as his governing style became more and more oppressive his sympathizers saw him as a hero. The curtain started pulling back when oil prices fell, and now bureaucratic mismanagement has run the Venezuelan oil industry into the ground, and the dependence they fostered has brought the entire economy down with it.
Today, the government that swore to empower its people tortures artists and activists. Quality of life evaporates as mortality rates rise, jobs disappear, and basic utilities like power and water become unavailable. Initiatives to provide everyday necessities for poor neighbors get people jailed for hoarding. Basic governance becomes impossible as a carousel of suspected rivals—most recently attorney general Luisa Ortega, who was removed last weekend—are purged, leaving Maduro a gaggle of sycophants for him to fiddle with as the country burns.
For advocates of freer markets and smaller governments, this failure was predictable: even an economic culture with communitarian impulses is more likely to flourish within a framework of liberty, and there is no man or group of men smart enough to build a healthy economy on the management of a single resource. Despite this, Venezuela’s death spiral has blindsided the Left and, tragically, its own people, who were sold one of the oldest lies in history: hand awesome power to one man and he will in turn empower all.
A funny thing about that man Pinochet: while his terroristic rule earned him a much-deserved reputation as a monster, the free-market policies he implemented became the undoing of his tyranny. Chile became wealthy enough for its people to organize a political opposition that ousted him, and it has since become a stable, functioning democracy.
Capitalism helped Chile go from a poor dictatorship to a prosperous democracy; socialism has turned Venezuela from a prosperous democracy to a poor dictatorship. Democratic socialism in Venezuela, and throughout Latin America, promised to bring an end to oppression and poverty, but now the falseness of that promise has been laid bare for the world to see.