Did Socialism really destroy Venezuela?

Published by The i paper (28th January, 2019)

When I visited Venezuela three decades ago, it was the envy of Latin America with its stable democracy and oil-based prosperity, despite rampant corruption. I loved visiting this jewel of a country with its spectacular coastline, idyllic islands, lush jungles, strange flat-topped mountains and fast-paced capital. At New Year, emerging from a few nights in the Amazon, I found myself in a small city on the Colombian border and was invited into people’s homes for family parties, then taken on to packed clubs playing cumbia and merengue that opened at dawn.

Now look at that sad country, locked into a cycle of despair and suddenly at the centre of an international tussle over its legitimate government. The grim data of decay almost defies comprehension as hyper-inflation bites hard, hunger spreads, citizens shrivel, health services collapse, infant mortality surges, diseases spread, crime soars, oil production plummets and millions flee. Those bustling border areas I once visited are filled now with families escaping chaos and women selling their hair to help children survive.

This catastrophic collapse is matched only by Zimbabwe in recent years. And like Zimbabwe, this was an avoidable and self-induced crisis inflicting misery on millions to protect a few unspeakably greedy individuals in power. Once again, it underlines the penetrating accuracy of George Orwell’s allegorical masterpiece Animal Farm as people preaching revolution turn into the most callous characters that crush the dreams of their fellow insurgents. Whatever their apologists may claim, almost all blame for this epic disintegration lies at the feet of the posturing Hugo Chavez and his repulsive presidential successor Nicolas Maduro.

But is the ruination of a nation once the richest on its continent proof that socialism must fail? Certainly the right and centrists have delighted in this disaster, making jibes at Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his closest allies over their earlier fanboy support for a dismal regime that served as symbol for their alternative world order. ‘How did Venezuela find itself in the mess it’s in today? One word: socialism,’ wrote former Tory former Cabinet minister Priti Patel. The New York Times ran a column branding this ‘a socialist catastrophe’, while ‘Venezuela shows Corbyn’s socialism in action’ according to Tony Blair’s former speechwriter in The Times.

There is no doubt socialism played a central role in the depressing drama to cheers from the global left – and the legacy was a nation sitting on the world’s biggest oil reserves begging citizens not to use hairdryers to save energy. In just one decade state spending as share of gross domestic product rose 12 per cent under Chavez as he poured money into pet projects and food subsidies. He seized more than 1,150 companies, stuffing them with allies and driving out entrepreneurs, while his successor tried the trick of price and exchange controls to tame markets. Inevitably, the economy shrank drastically as oil prices slumped.

Yet before blaming socialism alone, look at neighbouring nations. Chavez launched a “Pink Tide” that washed across the region and has since largely receded. In some countries it was scarred by grotesque corruption and incompetence, but it can also claim successes in tackling poverty in places such as Peru and Uruguay. And then there is Bolivia, led since 2006 by another self-styled revolutionary who looks to Cuba for inspiration. Yet former coca farmer Evo Morales has overseen the fastest-growing economy in Latin America despite nationalising energy firms, doubling the state-owned share of the economy and driving through wealth redistribution. He has also halved extreme poverty.

The difference is twofold. First, Morales struts on the political stage like a militant yet has been more conservative in management of resources and manipulation of markets. For example, he left space for entrepreneurs and nationalised only a small fraction of the number of firms compared with his comrades in Caracas. Second, Bolivia remains a functioning democracy despite authoritarian traits such as jettisoning term limits, hostility to human rights activists and attacks on journalists – unlike Venezuela, which reversed so speedily into autocracy and repression.

Here lies the key cause of Venezuela’s shattering crisis: the way a bunch of thugs preached socialism often for the benefit of their pals while wrecking the economy as they disrupted free expression, corrupted courts, cracked down on opponents and dismantled checks on their abusive power. This allowed Chavez to turn his economy into a Ponzi scheme reliant on high oil prices and a hub for organised crime, then for Maduro to plunge the country into total devastation while rigging elections. The result was a humanitarian crisis in the deluded left’s model state.

This reflects badly on those who praised this regime – but not because Venezuela proves the abject failure of socialism. Instead it shows again how tribal loyalties lead decent people into endorsement of terrible deeds. This is Corbyn’s real crime here: that his loathing of the United States and love of Seventies-style radical chic stopped him from seeing the cruelty and criminality of those sharing his stance, silencing him from criticism of the Chavistas as they wrecked their country. These are the same core issues seen in Labour’s corrosive anti-Semitism row.

We see the flip side of these same failings on the right, of course, with defence of atrocities by countries such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and Syria. Yet at a time of intense fragility for democracy and liberal values, it is vital that Western politicians remove ideological blinkers and defend human rights – whoever is committing the abuses. If you doubt this, just look again at the tragedy that has befallen such a beautiful Latin nation – and listen to the stark silence from those that backed the tormenters of 32 million people.

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