“Come this way, honored Odysseus…and stay your ship, so that you can listen here to our singing; for no one else has ever sailed past this place…until he has listened to the honey-sweet voice that issues from our lips; then goes on, well-pleased, knowing more than ever he did; for we know everything.” — “The Odyssey,” 12:184-196
The beautiful siren women sang to tempt Greek mariners into their destruction. We can easily apply Homer’s allegorical warning to the temptation of socialism. Democratic socialist House candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, perhaps no less beautiful than the sirens who called to Odysseus, invites America to chart a course towards a socialist mirage that barely obscures so many wrecks of nations that have heeded the same call. Her platform tempts the compassionate ear: Health care for all, free higher education, and a federal jobs guarantee.
Like the siren song, the words are not original and the shipwrecks are plain warnings to all. It’s possible to travel into Ocasio-Cortez’s promised future by travelling into the Venezuelan present. History reminds us that the shipwreck of Venezuela started with the same alluring promises now on Ocasio-Cortez’s lips.
In the 1970s, the Venezuelan army stationed communications cfficer Hugo Chávez in Barinas, Venezuela to participate in counter-insurgency against communist rebels. Chávez stumbled upon a cache of communist literature and began reading to pass the time. This son of school teachers read Mao Zedong and Karl Marx and wondered whether he could make Venezuela a better place by redistributing its vast oil wealth to the poor and needy.
Fast-forward to 1998: Chávez wins a presidential election running on promises that could have come from Ocasio-Cortez today. The next year, he passed a new constitution of Venezuela. On paper, Venezuelans have a right to free education (including higher education), a guaranteed job, and free health care. President Chávez’s constitution guaranteed freedom of expression, assembly, and political participation.
The Venezuelan socialist utopia seemed to come to pass in the early years, and some writers touted Venezuela’s socialist “miracle,” although even in good times Chávez had already begun to “intimidate, censor, and prosecute critics.” So much for the rights of freedom of expression, assembly, and political participation. Chávez also found that helping the poor created an excellent opportunity to help himself. The great populist socialist Chávez amassed a personal fortune of $1 billion.
One by one, the promises of the Chávez revolution turned to nightmares of oppression and want. Today, three million of the eight million school-age children in Venezuela miss class so they can forage for food or beg on the street. Those who can attend have difficulty concentrating because of persistent hunger.
Venezuela’s “free” university system is near collapse as faculty members from the universities flee the socialist paradise. Venezuela’s health care system is also on the verge of collapse as hospitals lack basic supplies, electricity, and even doctors. The murder rate has increased 10-fold since 1998, making Venezuela one of the most unsafe places in the world.
Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher once quipped, “The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.” Venezuela sits on the world’s largest oil reserves. Yet this appears to help its people’s situation none. The Washington Post observed, “Venezuela has more oil than Saudi Arabia and more poverty than Columbia.” It should be one of the richest countries in the Americas (per capita). Instead, it cannot feed or educate its own people.
The Venezuelan government attempted to address declining economic conditions with price controls. Those caused a collapse in the availability of basic food and groceries. Hyper-inflation has since raged. It takes a fifth of a monthly salary of a worker earning Venezuelan minimum wage to buy one cup of coffee.
As in other socialist paradises before Venezuela, political oppression became a necessary tool to keep the revolution going. According to Human Rights Watch, Venezuela has more than 600 political prisoners. It tortures political opponents. It has stripped the National Assembly of power.
Venezuela also fails to provide basic nutrition and health care. America should look closely at the example of its southern neighbor. Human Rights Watch notes that the Venezuelan government uses vaguely criminal laws such as one against “instigating hatred,” which has been used to punish shouting and insulting police officers. The crime is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
Should any of this surprise an informed historian? Hunger and political oppression are the calling cards of socialist revolutions from Russia to China, Cuba, and Nicaragua. No revolution ever promised hunger, hyper-inflation, and loss of civil liberties. But these are the fruits of a system that bans economic freedom in pursuit of social justice.
Some have suggested that Ocasio-Cortez could benefit from some free education herself, in the form of a free trip to Venezuela. Once there, she can visit the future of her promised utopia and ask Venezuelans about their “rights” to free health care, free education, and a guaranteed job.