It is difficult to fathom the level of economic and social degradation occurring today in Venezuela under chavismo, the movement founded by the late leftist firebrand Hugo Chávez, who died of cancer three years ago. What began as a war against the “squalid” oligarchy in order to build what he called “21st-century socialism” — cheered on as he was by many leftists from abroad — has collapsed into an unprecedented heap of misery and conflict.
Unsurprisingly, Chávez was incapable of reinventing socialism as anything other than a prescription for abject failure. Ultimately, all he wound up bequeathing to his people is this century’s longest national train wreck.
The latest Venezuela horror story appeared this past Sunday, courtesy of the New York Times, which published a chilling exposé on the spiraling public-health emergency there due to shortages of medicine, doctors, and, among other things, electricity to keep hospitals and medical equipment functioning.
The examples cited by the Times are dramatic: babies dying in maternity wards, lack of water to wash blood from operating tables, surgeons forced to wash their hands with bottles of seltzer water. “It is like something from the 19th century,” one doctor told the Times. Another: “There are people dying for lack of medicine, children dying of malnutrition and others dying because there are no medical personnel.”
The easily preventable deaths of innocents is tragic, but it is only one more ghastly layer atop Venezuelans’ increasingly brutish quality of life. Added to this are levels of street crime among the world’s highest; shortages of the most basic goods, leading to hours-long queues and looting; triple-digit inflation, which has resulted in more than 70 percent of the population’s living in poverty; and the collapse of government services exacerbated by the two-day work week, ordered by Chávez’s hapless successor, Nicolás Maduro, to save energy.
This explains why, for three years running, Venezuela has maintained the distinction of being ranked No. 1 in the world in the Cato Institute’s annual Misery Index. All this in a country with the largest oil reserves in the world.
How could it all have come to this?
It may be true that international oil prices have dropped to less than half of what they were at the height of Chávez’s power, but anyone who has been watching Venezuela closely knows that the downward glide path predated by years the oil-market collapse. It also doesn’t explain how other countries heavily dependent on energy exports have weathered the storm without such catastrophic consequences.
No, what has brought on Venezuela’s nightmare is the systematic destruction of economic freedom through politicized rule of law, the wanton confiscations of private property, and an orgy of price and currency controls, which have led to rampant distortions and dislocations.
Still, it wasn’t so long ago that legions of leftist admirers of Venezuela were falling all over themselves singing the praises of Chávez’s vaunted socialist project.
In 2012, a particularly ardent cheerleader, Mark Weisbrot, wrote in the same New York Times:
Since the Chávez government got control over the national oil industry, poverty has been cut in half, and extreme poverty by 70 percent. College enrollment has more than doubled, millions of people have access to health care for the first time and the number of people eligible for public pensions has quadrupled.
“As shown by some of the most significant indicators, Chávez racked up an economic record that a legacy-obsessed American president could only dream of achieving,” we read in a Salon article titled “Hugo Chávez’s Economic Miracle” (2013).
But perhaps the most shameless of the chavista apologists was the hardy perennial Oliver Stone, who, unable to limit himself to one hagiographic documentary on Chávez, felt compelled to make two. On Chávez’s death in 2013, Stone issued this statement: “I mourn a great hero to the majority of his people and those who struggle throughout the world for a place. Hated by the entrenched classes, Hugo Chavez will live forever in history.”
But it’s not enough to simply point out the enduring folly of socialism’s apologists. We will always have Useful Idiots. The point is to prevent another generation of Americans from being led astray by the siren song of socialism.
In other words, those Millennials currently enamored by the quixotic campaign of “democratic socialist” Senator Bernie Sanders (D., Vt.) for the U.S. presidency. They seem to have an idea of socialism as a sort of imaginary Scandinavian bliss rather than as a pernicious deal with the devil whereby you relinquish more of your rights to government on the faulty promise of improving your security and well-being. All you are left with is poverty, less dignity, and no hope.
Every new generation must understand that ideas have consequences. And, if you have any doubts, a visit to Venezuela, a few hours’ flight time from Miami, will likely convince you of that essential fact.
—José R. Cárdenas served in senior foreign-policy positions at the State Department, the National Security Council, and the U.S. Agency for International Development during the George W. Bush administration, focusing on Latin America and the Caribbean. You can follow him on Twitter @JoseCardenasUSA.