He told his supporters during one presidential campaign that this nation’s wealth “was stolen from its citizens by the evil capitalists and the evil corporations.” He assured them that once he was elected, he would end corruption in the current political system, eradicate poverty, strengthen democracy, and return the power back to the people.
His name was Hugo Chavez, and those were his campaign promises in 1998. He became president of Venezuela in 1999 and remained in power until 2013, when he lost his battle to cancer and died in office.
Why bring up Chavez now? The more I listen to Sen. Bernie Sanders’s talks and analyze his policies, the more he reminds me of Chavez. Chavez was charismatic, and “had an organic and intuitive connection with the poor and working-class citizens he came to champion.” Sanders’s impassioned way of explicating the struggle of the working class has enabled him to out-raise his Democratic rivals through small, grassroots donations. He even earned admirers who do not necessarily like the cost of his socialist policies but are trying hard to make a case for Sanders’s presidential run based on his “socialist ethics.”
Neither Chavez nor Sanders has ever worked a day in a private business. They have never created any products nor provided a service the public needs or desires. Yet both offered fierce condemnation of the rich, the capitalists, and private businesses. According to Chavez, “Capitalism is the road to hell.”
Now, however, Venezuelans do indeed feel like they are living in hell, after Chavez and his successor Nicolas Maduro’s socialist policies ruined what was once the richest country in Latin America. When Chavez said, “being rich is inhuman,” he apparently forgot or simply excluded his daughter Maria Gabriela Chavez, arguably the richest person in Venezuela with more than $4 billion in estimated assets, from his condemnation.
Similarly, when Sanders first ran for a U.S. Senate seat in 1971, he claimed it was “immoral” that half the members of the Senate were millionaires. Now, as a millionaire who owns three mansions and is running for president, Sanders could no longer point the pistol at himself, so now he “doesn’t think billionaires should exist.”
Sanders Calls Himself a Democratic Socialist
Chavez and Sanders are cut from the same ideological cloth. They are both socialists, and both tried very hard to differentiate their versions of socialism from that of Karl Marx by using a different name.
Marx defined socialism as an economic system in which the government controls the majority of the means of production: capital, labor, and resources. A very limited private ownership would still be allowed in a socialist society, but a central authority would determine what is produced, distributed, and consumed. Marx believed socialism was a transitional stage between capitalism and communism, although he often used communism and socialism interchangeably.
Chavez didn’t call himself a socialist, nor did he adduce Marxism when running for president of Venezuela for the first time in 1998. Chavez was the leader of the Fifth Republic Movement, a “democratic socialist” party founded in 1997. On campaign trails, when asked about plans to nationalize industries, Chavez replied, “absolutely nothing.” He further clarified he was not running to lead a socialist revolution but a Bolivarian revolution, so the country’s poor and working class would have a voice and representation.
Once he came into power, however, Chavez nationalized a number of key industries, including oil, electricity, steel, agriculture, banking, and telecom. On national television, he said, “All that was privatized, let it be nationalized. Expropriate it!” Going back to Marx’s definition of socialism — the government controlling the majority of the means of production — it is impossible to describe what Chavez did as anything but socialism.
All socialist countries, from the Soviet Union to China, have nationalized their key industries until they realize such moves fail to improve either efficiency or productivity and end up ruining the economy. Venezuela experienced the same trajectory. Its economy started to decline right after Chavez began his relentless nationalization campaign. Today’s Venezuelan economy is in such a deep crisis that President Nicolas Maduro is considering privatizing its state-owned oil industry.
Sanders, on the other hand, has never shied away from calling himself a socialist, but he has always added the qualifier that he is a democratic socialist, which he says differentiates his version of socialism from the authoritarian communist and socialist regimes we’ve known. Yet Sanders has been advocating for nationalizing a majority of industries in this country ever since he entered America’s political scene in the 1970s.
During his modern-day campaigning, he avoids using the word “nationalization” in fear of turning away his young supporters. However, he has made extensive campaign promises to the American people on his website and in speeches: Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, housing for all, free child care and pre-k for all, internet for all, and many more. It is impossible for him even to attempt all these without nationalization.
Socialist Ethics Create Socialist Policies
One reason Chavez nationalized key industries was to use the resources from these now-state-owned companies to fund his so-called Bolivarian missions, a series of social welfare programs focusing on anti-poverty, education, health care, and social justice laws. Chavez initiated these programs, and Maduro maintains — or at least tries to maintain — many of them to this day.
Education, at every level, is free to all Venezuelans, and anyone who wants a university degree can get one regardless of his or her prior educational experience or qualifications. Health care was written into the Venezuelan Constitution as a social right and ratified in 1999, upon Chavez’s assumption of the presidency. All Venezuelans have access to free comprehensive health care through a government program called Barrio Adentro. Government subsidies also keep energy and food prices artificially low.
It is fair to say most of Sanders’s campaign promises have already been implemented in Venezuela in one way or another. Not surprisingly, Sanders became such a fan of Chavez, he said the American dream “is more apt to be realized” in Venezuela than in the United States. Chavez’s social welfare programs had some early successes in 2007 and 2008, such as an increased literacy rate and decreased poverty rate, but as Margaret Thatcher so clearly reminded us, “The trouble with socialism is that eventually, you run out of other people’s money.” That’s exactly what happened in Venezuela.
Despite early accomplishments, Chavez paid for his social welfare programs through unsustainable funding sources. Take the oil industry as an example. The Venezuelan government’s revenue from the oil industry started taking a dive in 2008, even when the oil price was at a peak. Oil production from state-owned companies declined because Chavez took the money they needed for maintenance and improvement to fund his various social programs. With oil accounting for 50 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, and roughly 90 percent of all national exports, decreased production meant less money to keep social welfare programs afloat.
Today, Venezuelans still have access to free health care, except they don’t receive much care. The country suffers an 85 percent shortage of medicine and a 90 percent deficit of medical supplies. Infant mortality and maternal mortality rates are higher than those in war-torn countries such as Syria. The list prices of basic food items at government-run stores are cheap, although Venezuelans can’t get them because most shelves are empty. Electricity is still affordable, except blackouts occur several times a week.
Chavez’s defenders continue to say the economic collapse in that country was not his fault. His heart was in the right place, and his intentions were good. In other words, his socialist ethics were much better than his socialist policies — except Chavez’s socialist ethics, if there is such a thing, drove him to implement those socialist policies. The ethics and policies are inseparable.
Sanders’s Ideas Lead to Venezuela No Matter What He Says
That applies to Sanders as well. Nowadays, he barely mentions Venezuela. Instead, he tells us he wants to make the United States more like Sweden, and uses Sweden to justify his democratic socialism in a highly selective and intellectually dishonest way.
He wants us to focus solely on Sweden’s social welfare programs but neglects to mention that to pay for those programs, Sweden makes sure everyone, including the poor and the middle class, pay. Both the rich and the poor pay the same value-added tax at 25 percent. Sweden’s top marginal tax rate of 56.9 percent applies to all incomes over 1.5 times the average income in Sweden, not just the mega-rich.
While keeping personal tax rates high, Sweden also keeps its corporate tax at a stable 23.5 percent — much lower than the U.S. rate of 35 percent before Trump’s tax cut. Sweden also keeps the “capitalists” happy through eliminating property taxes and inheritance taxes and reducing regulations. These and other pro-market policies keep Sweden’s social welfare programs afloat, preventing it from becoming Venezuela.
Yet Sweden still has serious budget problems looming. Some Swedes have begun to question if their social welfare programs are sustainable with the new influx of migrants. Yet every time Sanders talks about Sweden, he never bothers to mention Sweden’s pro-capitalist policies. In fact, Sanders’s economic policy proposals are nothing like what Sweden has, but almost exactly in line with what Chavez implemented.
Sanders’s policies aren’t a better version of socialism; they are the same as those of socialism past and socialism present. Don’t give him the leeway to become socialism future. Remember Venezuela when you head to the polls this November.