The Venezuelan economy is buckling under the weight of its severe socialist policies, and even as its president admits to a nationwide economic emergency, the government continues to affirm the drivers behind the collapse, blaming low oil prices and global capitalism instead.
This was supposed to be the dawn of “21st-century socialism,” as the late President Hugo Chavez proclaimed over 10 years ago, complete with the right tweaks and upgrades to its materialistic, mechanistic approach to the human person. “We have assumed the commitment to direct the Bolivarian Revolution towards socialism,” he said, “and to contribute to the socialist path, with a new socialism…which is based in solidarity, in fraternity, in love, in justice, in liberty, and in equality.”
Alas, with a shrinking economy, booming inflation, violent outbreaks, and empty food shelves, “21st-century socialism” is feeling mighty nostalgic in all the wrong ways.
In the years before Chavez, the country was in better shape than much of the continent. Now, thanks to the temptations of centralized power, the arrogance of centralized planners, and a series of faux upgrades to age-old bad ideas, the nation is crumbling. The oil prices simply served as the messenger.
Over at The Atlantic, Moisés Naím and Francisco Toro offer a striking summary of the situation, including a range of stirring stories and reflections. For them, this is far more than a mere blip in market fluctuation:
Developing countries, like teenagers, are prone to accidents. One pretty much expects them to suffer an economic crash, a political crisis, or both, with some regularity. The news coming from Venezuela—including shortages as well as, most recently, riots over blackouts; the imposition of a two-day workweek for government employees, supposedly aimed at saving electricity; and an accelerating drive to recall the president—is dire, but also easy to dismiss as representing just one more of these recurrent episodes.
That would be a mistake. What our country is going through is monstrously unique: It’s nothing less than the collapse of a large, wealthy, seemingly modern, seemingly democratic nation just a few hours’ flight from the United States.
As for why all of this has happened, the reasons are varied and complex. But as Naím and Toro explain, the core problems are primarily a result of top-down control and mismanagement:
It’s not that the country lacked money. Sitting atop the world’s largest reserves of oil at the tail end of a frenzied oil boom, the government led first by Chavez and, since 2013, by Maduro, received over a trillion dollars in oil revenues over the last 17 years. It faced virtually no institutional constraints on how to spend that unprecedented bonanza. It’s true that oil prices have since fallen—a risk many people foresaw, and one that the government made no provision for—but that can hardly explain what’s happened: Venezuela’s garish implosion began well before the price of oil plummeted. Back in 2014, when oil was still trading north of $100 per barrel, Venezuelans were already facing acute shortages of basic things like bread or toiletries.
A case in point is the price controls, which have expanded to apply to more and more goods: food and vital medicines, yes, but also car batteries, essential medical services, deodorant, diapers, and, of course, toilet paper. The ostensible goal was to check inflation and keep goods affordable for the poor, but anyone with a basic grasp of economics could have foreseen the consequences: When prices are set below production costs, sellers can’t afford to keep the shelves stocked. Official prices are low, but it’s a mirage: The products have disappeared.
From here, we are led to the tangible heartbreak, including stories ranging from widespread hunger to poor healthcare to the surprisingly serious problem of toilet-paper theft. We should pray for Venezuela: not only that they would find immediate relief, but that this grand, failing social experiment would cease.
So what might we learn from such a situation?
Although the problems we face in the United States are distinct in their scope and scale, given the current crop of presidential candidates and the popularity they’ve enjoyed thus far, we would do well to pause and exude some caution toward “upgrades” such as these.
Bernie Sanders is at the top of this hill, of course, what with his full and shameless embrace of so-called “democratic socialism” (sound familiar, Hugo?). Regardless of its peculiar and ill-fitted definition, we see an appetite to accelerate those same drivers of the Venezuelan collapse: trigger-happy price fixing, massive social programs, manipulations to currency, nationalization of corporations and industries, and the rest.
The logical conclusions of all of this have colored recent history with big, dark strokes, filling plenty of gulags and graveyards in the process. But for those not paying attention, it’s now on display once again.
Will Bernie’s league of converts pay attention?
The hard lessons of communism and socialism were learned long ago, but as we remember their brutal byproducts, let’s also resist these attempts to add “21-century” frosting to base authoritarianism, wherever and however it sprouts.