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A Blistering Portrait of Venezuela… With One Factor Not Quite In Focus

From the Tuesday edition of the Morning Jolt:

A Blistering Portrait of Venezuela… With One Factor Not Quite In Focus

This weekend brought a classic, detailed, in-depth New York Times investigation that both fans and critics of the paper will say defines their modern work: an extensive look at how Venezuelan “doctors are seeing record numbers of children with severe malnutrition”… that can never quite bring itself to connect the dots between the appalling humanitarian crisis and the economic system that Venezuela once proudly exemplified.

The writing is heartbreaking, the portrait devastating, and the legwork must have been enormous and probably dangerous, considering the thuggish ways of the Venezuelan government. And yet… there’s a piece of the puzzle, right in the middle, that’s strangely missing.

The five “W”s of journalism are who, what, when, where, and why. (Sometimes, there’s a sixth ‘H’, “how.”) It’s in the “why” that the paper’s description gets… a little fuzzy.

Venezuela has been shuddering since its economy began to collapse in 2014. Riots and protests over the lack of affordable food, excruciating long lines for basic provisions, soldiers posted outside bakeries and angry crowds ransacking grocery stores have rattled cities, providing a telling, public display of the depths of the crisis…

…doctors were even seeing the kind of extreme malnutrition often found in refugee camps — cases that were highly unusual in oil-rich Venezuela before its economy fell to pieces.

Okay, but… what made the economy collapse? Lots of countries endure economic troubles, but most of them rebound within three years, and few have food shortages and widespread child malnutrition.

Credit the Times for scoffing a bit at the Venezuelan government’s explanation for why the economy has collapsed…

President Nicolás Maduro has acknowledged that people are hungry in Venezuela, but he has refused to accept international aid, often saying that Venezuela’s economic problems are caused by foreign adversaries like the United States, which he says is waging an economic war against his country.

Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world. But many economists contend tha years of economic mismanagement set the stage for the current disaster. The damage was masked when oil prices were high, giving the government large resources. But when oil prices began a steep fall at the end of 2014, scarcities became common and food prices skyrocketed. Inflation could reach 2,300 percent next year, the International Monetary Fund warned in October.

Except… Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich countries aren’t having the same problems. Falling oil prices may be a factor, but they can’t be the factor.

Two economists with the Venezuela Freedom Movement attempted to summarize the country’s economic history and noted that while Venezuela’s embrace of socialism more or less began in the 1950s, but really accelerated in the new millennium.

Over time, the destruction of economic freedom led to more and more impoverishment and crisis. This in turn set the stage for the rise of a political outsider with a populist message. This, of course, was Hugo Chávez. He was elected in 1998 and promised to replace our light socialism with more radical socialism. This only accelerated the problems we had been facing for decades. Nevertheless, he was able to pass through an even more anti-private-property constitution. Since Chávez’s death in 2013, the attacks on private property have continued, and Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, promises only more of the same. Except now, the government is turning toward outright authoritarian socialism, and Maduro is seeking a new constitution in which private property is almost totally abolished, and Maduro will be allowed to remain in power for life.

In short, in any system where you aren’t allowed to own or keep the fruit of your labor, production eventually collapses as more and more effort is expended in hiding what you have instead of maximizing what you can do.

The Times article is, in many ways, a blisteringly critical portrait of the Venezuelan government…

The Venezuelan government has tried to cover up the extent of the crisis by enforcing a near-total blackout of health statistics, and by creating a culture in which doctors are often afraid to register cases and deaths that may be associated with the government’s failures.

For almost two years, the government did not publish a single epidemiological bulletin tracking statistics like infant mortality. Then in April of this year, a link suddenly appeared on the Health Ministry’s official website, leading to the unpublished bulletins.

They showed that 11,446 children under the age of 1 had died in 2016 — a 30 percent increase in one year — as the economic crisis accelerated.

The new findings made national and international headlines before the government declared that the website had been hacked, and the reports were swiftly removed. The health minister was fired and the military was put in charge of monitoring the bulletins. No reports have been released since.

But you can probably already tell what’s missing: the s-word, “socialism.”

There are two references to Venezuela’s ruling Socialist Party in the roughly 5,000-word article… at the very end of the piece:

The Venezuelan government has used food to keep the Socialists in power, critics say. Before recent elections, people living in government housing projects said they were visited by representatives of their local Socialist community councils — the government-aligned groups that organize the delivery of boxes of cheap food — and threatened with being cut off if they did not vote for the government.

As Jonah notes, “A Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation poll last November found that 42 percent of young people support capitalism, but 44 percent prefer socialism for a socioeconomic system.” Kids wear Che t-shirts, not Hayek ones. Bernie Sanders embraces the label. The fact that yet another of the world’s icons of socialism cannot feed its people – even when it has the world’s largest oil reserves! — is the sort of thing that ought to be thrown in the faces of every naïve-to-malevolent advocate for that unfeasible, cruel system.

Kudos to the New York Times for concluding that the littlest victims of the epic man-made crisis in Venezuela deserved in-depth coverage. But there’s this nagging feeling that they hesitated to dare name socialism as the key factor in what turned an economic slump into mass starvation and the collapse of public order. In an era where many Times readers flipped out at a profile of a white nationalist that they found insufficiently denunciatory, perhaps the paper worried that readers might feel attacked if the paper reported their preferred economic ideal was killing children.

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