Conspicuous by its relative absence in much of the mainstream news coverage of Venezuela's political crisis is the word "socialism." Every sensible observer agrees that Latin America's once-richest country, sitting atop the world's largest proven oil reserves, is an economic basket case, a humanitarian disaster and a dictatorship whose demise cannot come soon enough.
But . . . socialist? Perish the thought.
Or so goes a line of argument that insists socialism's good name shouldn't be tarred by the results of experience. On Venezuela, what you're likelier to read is that the crisis is the product of corruption, cronyism, populism, authoritarianism, resource-dependency, U.S. sanctions and trickery, even the residues of capitalism itself. Just don't mention the S-word because, you know, it's working really well in Denmark.
Curiously, that's not how the Venezuelan regime's admirers used to speak of "21st-century socialism," as it was dubbed by Hugo Chavez. The late Venezuelan president, said Britain's Jeremy Corbyn, "showed us there is a different and a better way of doing things. It's called socialism, it's called social justice, and it's something that Venezuela has made a big step toward."
Noam Chomsky was similarly enthusiastic when he praised Chavez in 2009. "What's so exciting about at last visiting Venezuela," the linguist said, is that "I can see how a better world is being created and can speak to the person who's inspired it."
Nor were many of Chavez's admirers overly worried about his regime's darker sides. Chomsky walked back some of his praise as Venezuela became more overtly dictatorial, but others on the left weren't as squeamish. In a lengthy obituary in The Nation, New York University professor Greg Grandin opined, "the biggest problem Venezuela faced during his rule was not that Chavez was authoritarian but that he wasn't authoritarian enough."
At least Grandin could implicitly concede that socialism ultimately requires coercion to achieve its political aims; otherwise, it's human nature for people to find loopholes and workarounds to keep as much of their property as they can.
That's more than can be said for some of Chavez's erstwhile defenders, who would prefer to forget just how closely Venezuela followed the orthodox socialist script. Government spending on social programs? Check: From 2000 to 2013, spending rose to 40 percent of GDP, from 28 percent. Raising the minimum wage? Check. Nicolas Maduro, the current president, raised it no fewer than six times last year (though it makes no difference in the face of hyperinflation). An economy based on co-ops, not corporations? Check again. As Naomi Klein wrote in her fawning 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, "Chavez has made the co-ops a top political priority . . . By 2006, there were roughly 100,000 cooperatives in the country, employing more than 700,000 workers."
And, lest we forget, all this was done as Chavez won one election after another during the oil-boom years. One of the chief selling points of the Chavismo to its Western fans wasn't just that it was an example of socialism, but of democratic socialism.
If the policy prescriptions were familiar, the consequences were predictable.
Government over-spending created catastrophic deficits when oil prices plummeted. Worker co-ops wound up in the hands of incompetent and corrupt political cronies. The government responded to its budgetary problems by printing money, leading to inflation. Inflation led to price controls, leading to shortages. Shortages led to protests, leading to repression and the destruction of democracy. Thence to widespread starvation, critical medical shortages, an explosion in crime and a refugee crisis to rival Syria's.
All of this used to be obvious enough, but in the age of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez it has to be explained all over again. Why does socialism never work? Because, as Margaret Thatcher explained, "Eventually you run out of other people's money."
What now? The Trump administration took exactly the right step in recognizing National Assembly leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela's constitutionally legitimate president. It can bolster his personal security by warning Venezuela's generals that harm will come to them if harm comes to him. It can enhance his political standing by providing access to funds that can help him establish an alternative government and entice wavering figures in the Maduro camp to switch sides. It can put Venezuela on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, and warn Cuba that it will be returned to the list if it continues to aid Caracas' intelligence apparatus.
And it can help arrange legal immunity and a plane for Maduro, his family, and other leading members of the regime if they will agree to resign now. Surely there's a compound in Havana where that gang can live out their days without tyrannizing a nation.
In the meantime, the larger lesson of Venezuela's catastrophe should be learned. Twenty years of socialism, cheered by Corbyn, Klein, Chomsky and Co., led to the ruin of a nation. They may not be much embarrassed, much less personally harmed, by what they helped do. It's for the rest of us to take care that it never be done to us.
Bret Stephens is a New York Times columnist.
Editorial on 02/01/2019
Print Headline: A socialist catastrophe