I’ve written enough stories about Venezuela and Hugo Chavez’ slow march towards totalitarianism. I’d been hoping to just let the issue rest for a while and focus on more pleasant parts of the world. Most people seem to have made up their minds about Chavez, either against him or for him despite all the evidence, so they probably aren’t listening anyway. But when I start getting news digests from the services I subscribe to and they fill my email with story after story of things going sour in Venezuela, I can’t ignore it because no matter how predictable or inevitable, it’s news and deserves to at least be noted.
It’s already old news that when tens of thousands of student protesters took to the streets of Caracas, Chavez had the army attack them and ultimately had masked chavista thugs gun down 8 students on the university campus in the grand Latin American death squad tradition. This was all because of Chavez’ campaign to change the Venezuelan constitution to allow more complete autocratic control. Voters are being urged to approve 69 revisions to a constitution which is already weak and provides too little protection for the Venezuelan people. In addition to a highly publicized provision to allow Chavez to rule indefinitely, changes include authority to shut down all media outlets solely on presidential authority and to arrest citizens and hold them indefinitely without charges.
As part of that campaign in a speech this week Chavez declared that anyone who votes against his proposed constitutional changes in the December 2nd election is a traitor who is “against me, against the revolution and against the people.” Clearly implied is the fact that under Chavez’ rule those he considers traitors are going to face serious consequences for their betrayal.
Chavez’ attempt to threaten his own people seems to have had the opposite of the desired effect as the most recent poll shows likely voters split 49% to 39% against Chavez’ proposed constitutional revisions. That might still be enough for a win if Chavez’ followers use the same intimidation tactics which have kept opposition voters away from the polls in past elections, but it certainly makes Chavez look bad.
Earlier this month another Chavez speech didn’t go so well when the oil princes of OPEC gave a cold and bewildered response to his attempts to exhort them to use oil as a weapon in a grand crusade against imperialism. With comments which sounded like they thought that what Chavez called imperialism was a pretty good thing representatives from the major middle eastern oil producers dismissed Chavez’ cry for unity against the US and voted against proposals supported by Chavez and his political allies in Ecuador and Iran. Abdalla el-Badri, OPEC’s Secretary General dashed Chavez’ hopes when he summarized the view of OPEC’s ruling oligarchs: “we are not using the oil we sell to the world as a political weapon.”
Yet in many ways the worst news coming out of Venezuela is about economic and social decline the country is going through as a result of the Chavez regime. Draconian policies which may seem well intentioned are leading to problems throughout society, while efforts to reduce poverty seem to have utterly failed. All of the country’s vast petrochemical wealth which Chavez promised to use to alleviate the suffering of the pot is instead going into the pockets of a new class of corrupt officials and favored businesses in a system which looks a lot more like fascism than Bolivarian socialism.
The combination of land redistribution and price controls has totally disrupted Venezuela’s economy with effects which are particularly bad for the rural and urban poor. Being given land seized from agro-businesses may seem great for small farmers, but it doesn’t do much good if the government sets artificially low prices for basic produce which are so low that you cannot sell staples like milk and eggs without taking a loss. And other farm products aren’t worth growing either because importers with government connections can bring those products in from outside the country and undercut the price you’d have to charge. The result is that the shelves of markets in Venezuela are filled with imported luxury goods which the average citizen cannot afford and they don’t have basic staples like milk or eggs or other locally produced goods because farmers can’t afford to sell them. So the poor go without, the farmers don’t farm, once productive land lies fallow and importers grow fat off of government policies.
Despite all of Chavez’ claims of reform and wealth redistribution the sad reality is that Venezuela’s GINI rating which represents the gap between rich and poor has gotten worse, not better, from .44 to .48 under Chavez’ rule. Wealth has been redistributed, just not to the poor. It’s been taken from the old bourgeoisie and redistributed to a new ultra-wealthy class referred to as ‘Boligarchs‘ or the ‘boliburguesía‘. Venezuela’s new rich make their money off of government contracts, trade monopolies and pure corruption from within the government. Corruption is widespread, with Venezuela ranked as the second most corrupt nation in the Americas right behind Haiti, and as the 17th most corrupt nation in the entire world. Nothing gets done without a bribe and government officials and their relatives grow fat off of petrodollars and criminal graft.
In this atmosphere of corruption, it’s hardly surprising that Venezuela is turning into the organized crime center of the region. Criminal gangs increasingly rule the streets, granted impunity because of their informal alliance with the Chavez regime which needs their strong-arm manpower. Criminal organizations from nearby countries like Colombian drug cartels, gun runners, blood diamond merchants, terrorist groups, white slavers, prostitution rings and kidnap extortionists have all begun to move to Venezuela because it’s so easy to buy off the authorities, the ports and borders are wide open, and no one seems to care what you do so long as you bring money into the country and line the right pockets. Since Chavez has been in power the amount of cocaine shipped through Venezuela has increased from 75 tons a year to 276 tons a year. The whole criminal world seems to be flocking there. If you need an Iranian missile, a Chinese AK-47, an illegal African diamond, a Philipina slavegirl for your harem or a kilo of Colombian cocaine, Venezuela is the place to shop for it. In the last 4 years the Chavez government has shown virtually no interest in controlling internal crime or international criminal traffic through the country and turning a blind eye has made many officials hugely wealthy.
Through all of this, Chavez sails on as a popular demagogue, posturing, making speeches, raising his fist and using threats and hollow promises to bind the people to him as he gradually closes the fist of tyranny on every aspect of life in Venezuela.
Now I expect the usual outraged responses from the usual apologists for tyranny, but as usual they won’t be able to refute any of the facts and will just sputter dogma and ad hominems. So I won’t even bother to condemn socialism. It can work just fine. But like any form of government, it cannot work effectively when it is run by an autocrat driven primarily by his own ego whose populist promises are just a sop to the international left to cover consolidation of personal power and the plundering of the nation’s wealth for himself and his cronies.