Six Takeaways from Venezuela’s Dystopia

Commentary, Economy, Fergus Hodgson

No matter how far Venezuela sinks, there remain loyalists who deflect and deny, including plenty in Canada. These dogmatic adherents of authoritarian central planning foretell more Venezuelas to come. Bolivia under Evo Morales and Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega look to be next in the Americas.

Hugo Chávez (1954-2013) prevailed electorally in 1998 under false pretenses and then hijacked the nation for his socialist coalition. The results—hyperinflation, a war zone, and 3.4 million exiles—speak for themselves.

Foresight is better than hindsight, however, so let us convert the latter into the former.

  • Give no leeway to terrorists.

Chávez apologists decry regime change but ignore that the late president led two Cuba-backed coups d’état in 1992, which killed about 200 people. Although he failed and was convicted, Chávez received a pardon from President Rafael Caldera in 1994.

This lack of justice allowed Chávez to stand as a candidate in 1998, so Fidel Castro got his wish of a sugar daddy in Venezuela. Chávez even used his name recognition and media spotlight from the coups to his favor. Take note Colombia.

  • Nip socialism in the bud.

Hugo Chávez did not run as an overt socialist at first. His reforms only gained pace once he garnered political patrons and weakened the private sector. Marginal reforms—such as a higher minimum wage, tightened labour relations, and political appointees in business—discouraged investment and were a stepping stone.

In 2006, Chávez formed the United Socialist Party for “21st-century socialism,” allied with the region’s fellow travelers. This is when property confiscations and industry nationalizations gained pace and destroyed the productive economy: everything from cement and steel to an airline and food processing.

  • Free speech goes beyond censorship.

There is a tendency to see only direct censorship as a violation of free speech. From blocked websites and bans on certain topics to persecuted outlets and journalists (many now in exile), the Chavistas have that. During my first visit in 2014, for example, every radio station on the dial was broadcasting a Nicolás Maduro speech. His broadcast took priority over local TV stations too, including during a popular baseball match.

However, the propaganda war goes much further. It includes countless banners celebrating the revolution, along with Chávez’s eyes painted on walls and all manner of public broadcasting. Chávez used intimidation and violence, and he understood how to use state resources to buy off critics—a rising problem in Canada. He also made sure limited newsprint went to regime-friendly outlets while others ceased circulation.

  • A diversified economy is a safeguard.

Venezuela is a painful case of the resource curse, amplified by the nationalization of petroleum reserves. The industry established initially by foreigners allowed Chávez to give off a façade of success to the world, until prices tumbled.

Oil constitutes 90 percent of the nation’s plummeting exports, and this centralized revenue flow has fostered a tsunami of corruption, clientelism, and control. It has also infected the mentality of the people, accustomed to the illusion of free provisions.

A healthier economy, less reliant on a single resource, would have a private sector able to resist the ever-expanding state. When the state is the chief buyer in the economy, few are willing to fall into disfavor.

  • Maintain separation of powers, rule of law.

After taking office, Chávez immediately convened a constitutional assembly for new entitlements and expanded powers. The new constitution became his tool for dominating almost the entire political system, including the judiciary, from the executive branch.

The National Assembly is the last vestige of democracy. However, it failed to push back against Chavismo and has been largely decorational since the regime imposed a new Constituent Assembly with more than 90 percent socialist representatives.

Given complete regime domination of the judiciary, the National Assembly has convened a Supreme Court in Exile. It adjudicates cases for when the rule of law might be restored.

  • Confront aspirant dictators before the crisis.

The failure of Venezuela is having enormous consequences for her neighbours, with the influx overwhelming Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, and Peru. We cannot ignore the problem and expect it to go away.

Maduro’s latest term in the illegitimate presidency was not a definitive moment. The imposition of the Constituent Assembly in 2017, for example, was as problematic, as was the imprisonment of opposition leader Leopoldo López in 2014. The Trump administration’s latest actions—with the support of democratic allies, including Canada—are having an impact, but they would have been more effective if carried out a decade or more earlier.

Venezuela is now in a stalemate that gives two bad options: another Cuba, with poverty and tyranny for generations, or a military intervention akin to Panama in 1989-1990. The latter would be a difficult undertaking, given the presence of Cuban, Russian, and Chinese agents, along with major organized-crime syndicates and terrorist organizations.

This need not happen again and could have been avoided with the right attention, both from Venezuelans and international forums such as the Organization of American States. The Chavistas have exemplified the truism that you can vote yourself into socialism, but you will have to shoot your way out.