The protesters in Venezuela do not seek anything extraordinary: They demand to be secure in their homes and their persons, they demand an end to current shortages of staple foods and other goods in the country, and they demand the right to free speech. That these things should be considered a challenge to the Maduro regime is what is extraordinary, along with the regime’s brutal response to the protests — both speak to the character of the current Venezuelan government. If honoring such basic human decencies requires a regime change in Caracas, that is more a reflection on the current government of Venezuela than on those who, laboring miserably under it, demand a civilized life.
President Nicolás Maduro, in an apparent bid to out-redshirt Hugo Chávez, has reverted to classical form, shouting “Yankee go home!” from the dais — he claims that the protests are an American plot to destabilize his government, as though the Obama administration were that deft — and arresting the opposition leader, Leopoldo López, on charges of terrorism and conspiracy. Protesters have been killed.
The economic reduction of Venezuela has been a breathtaking thing to watch. Blessed (and cursed) with enormous wealth in the form of oil, Venezuela seemed to thrive for a time, boasting (possibly with some exaggeration) at one point that its workers were the highest-paid in Latin America. The government spent lavishly on social programs and patronage, and, like many a misgoverned country before, saw its economy ravaged by inflation — 30 percent and more in the late 1980s, 100 percent in the late 1990s, 30 percent a year or two ago, and more than 50 percent today. The Chávez regime attempted to manhandle economic reality with police powers, imposing controls on foreign exchange, prices, and trade. The result was what it has always and everywhere been: shortages of basic goods as economic activity and trade are driven underground.
President Reagan used to joke that if government planners were put in charge of the Sahara Desert there’d be a shortage of sand in three years. The current state of Venezuela looks like a half-baked Cold War joke that Reagan might have rejected as over the top: The government has gone so far as to order the armed occupation of a toilet-paper factory, that commodity being in acute shortage, along with such essentials as milk, flour, and cooking oil. The key difference is that Reagan’s jokes were funny. The situation in Venezuela is not.
The world cries, and rightly so, that the demands of those marching in Kiev be heard today, and sanctions against the Ukrainian government already are being enacted. But there is an awkward silence on the subject of those who are on the march in Caracas. Perhaps that has something to do with the Western intelligentsia’s shameful embrace of Chávez and Chávezism and their subsequent ambivalence about the immediate and entirely foreseeable legacy of that embrace. Who can forget the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s praying at Chávez’s graveside as Sean Penn and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad looked on? Or Representative Chaka Fattah and other Democratic grandees eagerly accepting gifts of discounted Venezuelan heating oil on behalf of their constituents? Representative José Serrano’s paean to the dictator as a man committed to “empowering the powerless”? Oliver Stone’s praise of the “great hero”? The lionizing of the authoritarian regime by Harry Belafonte and Danny Glover? Barack Obama’s physically clinging to the man who would later denounce him as a “clown”? The descent of Venezuela into autocracy and misery has been enabled in no small part by American elites and by elected members of the Democratic party specifically. There should be a reckoning for that fact.
The Obama administration has urged the Maduro regime to release the political prisoners it is holding and to address the “legitimate grievances” of the Venezuelan people. It should be prepared to do more, including placing an embargo on Venezuelan oil. (Which would be a much lower-cost proposition if there were, say, an expanded pipeline system connecting U.S. refiners to Canadian oil producers.) For years, the dominant voice in Caracas has been that of the Castro regime in Cuba. If we have learned anything from the feckless foreign policy of the Obama administration it is that if the United States does not lead, someone will.