One of the most important reasons for studying history is that virtually every stupid idea that is in vogue today has been tried before and proved disastrous before, time and again. — Thomas Sowell
The Berlin Wall was demolished by joyful Europeans throwing off the chains of collectivism nearly a quarter century ago. The Soviet Union, its fraudulent promise of a “workers’ paradise” long since proved a bitter delusion, fell soon after. But the idea that government control over the economy can improve the lives of ordinary people, particularly the poor, does not die.
Hugo Chávez clawed his way to total power the way other demagogues and thugs — from Lenin to Perón to Castro to Correa — have done, by promising to redistribute the nation’s wealth (Lenin and Castro also used guns). Like them, Chávez maintained power by crippling the democratic institutions of his nation.
With its huge supply of oil and an educated and urbanized middle class, Venezuela ought to be among the wealthiest countries in the world. Yet since Chávez took power 14 years ago, Venezuela’s economy has been ravaged. Even with the world’s largest oil reserves, Venezuela’s growth has lagged behind that of other Latin American nations. Because Chávez nationalized, expropriated, or destroyed other industries, Venezuela’s exports now consist almost entirely of oil, whereas pre-Chávez, oil accounted for 77 percent of exports.
Chávez spent many millions on programs for the poor. Yet his assault on the private economy hurt the poor most of all. The currency has been devalued five times in the past ten years and has lost 66 percent of its value since 2008. Inflation has been running at more than 23 percent annually, robbing the poor, along with everyone else, of purchasing power.
The government’s response to food shortages has been twofold — forcing producers to meet quotas and placing price controls on more than 400 items. Like Stalin before him, Chávez resorted to his own version of the “saboteur” accusation against businessmen attempting to survive in his tightly regulated world. Forty butchers were arrested in 2010 for charging more than the permitted price for beef. Here’s AP: “The government says butchers can charge 17 bolivars — about $4 — for a kilogram of beef. Butchers say they have to pay 14 bolivars — about $3 — for the meat, leaving them no margin to cover the other costs of their business.” In addition to meat shortages, there are chronic shortages of eggs, flour, oil, sugar, and gasoline.
Since the nationalization of the electrical-power industry in 2007, Venezuela has been plagued by blackouts. Every region of the country is affected several times a week.
And then there is crime. Venezuela had a high crime rate before Chávez, but the murder rate has more than tripled since he took power, making Caracas the most dangerous city on earth. Venezuela now suffers more murders than the United States and the European Union combined, though its population is only 1/28th as large. Most often victimized? The poor. Chávez has opened Venezuela’s doors to drug traffickers and tolerates corruption among the police. The U.S. State Department warns travelers of the danger of robbery and kidnapping as soon as they arrive at the airport. “Individuals wearing what appear to be official uniforms or other credentials are involved in facilitating or perpetrating these crimes.”
The Chávez legacy is a quintupled national debt; crumbling infrastructure (including hospitals); shortages of food, clean water, electrical power, and gasoline; high inflation; and devastating crime. And that doesn’t include the wreckage that Chavismo has made of Venezuela’s political culture.
The poor have done much better in free-market countries like Chile, Peru, and Brazil. But those on the left, including Chávez’s American admirers, will never learn — or perhaps just don’t care.
— Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist. © 2013 Creators Syndicate, Inc.