Magazine | December 17, 2018, Issue

My Stepfather’s M16

A soldier walks past a portrait of Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chavez in Porlamar, Venezuela, September 15, 2016. (Marco Bello/REUTERS)
A family view of Venezuela’s socialist catastrophe

On April 11, 2002, my stepfather unleashed a barrage of machine-gun fire at a secret-police helicopter. It promptly flew away.

Let me give you a bit of context.

On that day, the streets of Caracas roared with the sounds of protests against President Hugo Chávez. Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans from all across the socioeconomic spectrum had assembled to express opposition to Chávez’s creeping authoritarianism. They were marching toward the Palace of Miraflores — the Venezuelan equivalent of the White House, where President Chávez lived. In response, Chávez mobilized thousands of his civilian supporters, armed them with deadly weaponry, and gathered them near the palace to serve as a sort of protective bulwark. They defended the president with enthusiasm.

My stepfather reports that my little four-year-old self was present at the beginning of the march; unfortunately, I recall nothing. When it became clear that there would be a violent clash between the pro- and anti-Chávez factions, my step­father decided to take me home. The situation had become too dangerous. Despite this act of precaution, my family would still participate in — one might say “cause” — some of that day’s violence. At some point in the early evening, one of Chávez’s helicopters tried to land on the golf course that our apartment overlooked. My stepfather prevented it from doing so. Upon seeing the forces of Chavismo near our home, he took out his M16, stood at the window, and fired several shots to scare it off. Thankfully, it worked.

Meanwhile, anti-Chávez protests continued elsewhere in the city. The president was afraid that he would be overthrown and that the “progress” his revolution had made would be reversed. He ordered the army to come out from the barracks, unleash the tanks, and crush the marchers. His generals were appalled. They knew — and Chávez knew — that using the military for crowd control would lead to the deaths of thousands. So in the name of the Venezuelan constitution they mutinied, arresting Chávez and replacing him with an interim government. Many of Venezuela’s civic associations initially supported the coup, including the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, the largest labor union, and the main business confederation. They were all glad that Chávez had been removed by constitutionalist officers.

The interim government that came into power was supposed to act as a caretaker while elections were planned. Instead, a group of reactionary elites led by businessman Pedro Carmona hijacked the coup. Carmona dismissed the legislature and abolished the constitution — institutions that at the time enjoyed massive popular support. These measures alienated the labor unions, the military, and vast swathes of the population. Hours after Carmona announced the dissolution of the legislature, people all throughout the country hit the streets and demanded that Chávez be returned to the presidency. The military acquiesced, retrieving Chávez from where he was being held and promptly putting him back in power. The next time he vacated the presidency, it was because cancer had killed him.

In advanced democracies such as the United States, it is not typical for civilians to shoot at their government’s helicopters. Nor is it typical for presidents to order the massacre of their own citizens.

Of course, Venezuela is not an advanced democracy and never has been. Yet its people had never been as polarized as they became under Chávez; its government had never been as corrupt and inefficient as it became under him. In the 1970s, Venezuela was a model for Latin American governance. Certainly it had its problems, but its standard of living competed with that of some Western European countries. The Venezuela of the 1970s was, moreover, a relatively functioning democracy in a region plagued by grotesque military dictatorships. Today’s Venezuela is a filthy autocracy ruled by thieves and incompetents.

What happened?

Innumerable gallons of ink have been spilled attempting to answer that question, but one thing should be beyond dispute: State socialism played a key role in getting Venezuela into its current mess. This point has been so obfuscated in the press recently that it deserves to be forcefully made.

Socialism was an essential component of the theory and practice of Chavismo. Consider, first, how Chávez ideologically justified his far-reaching programs. He launched his 1998 presidential campaign on a promise to destroy “savage neoliberal capitalism” and “Yankee imperialism.” By 2006 he had declared that the world had to choose between “socialism or death.” Almost every week of his rule, he denounced “oligarchs,” “fascists,” “hoarders,” and “speculators” — the “corrupt bourgeoisie,” in a phrase. His policies, he claimed, would “uplift the poor,” “empower the marginalized,” “save slum-dwellers from penury.”

This rhetoric was accompanied by predictable changes in policy. Chávez took direct control of Venezuela’s national oil company, funneling its profits into massive social programs. Enormous subsidies were channeled to public-housing projects, health care, and education. Gasoline and basic food products were subsidized or subjected to price controls. Onerous labor regulations were implemented. The government’s payroll dramatically expanded. Worker cooperatives proliferated under state leadership. Protections of private property were systematically eroded: Peasants, for instance, were told to occupy large farms, displacing their owners in the process. Key firms that produced steel, glass, electricity, food, and paper were nationalized or their property expropriated; so too were the telecommunications and transportation industries.

Whatever else Chavismo may have stood for and represented, socialism was undoubtedly part of it.

My family moved to America around 2006, when I was nine years old. We settled in Cuban-majority Miami, though, so the culture shock was never particularly pronounced. It did not take me long to learn English or assimilate, especially since I was always encouraged to do those things by my stepfather.

Since I easily became part of Miami’s cultural mainstream, it took my moving to New York City for college to realize just how vast are the cultural differences between Americans and Venezuelans. I could go on at length about the peculiarities of Venezuelan culture, but I’ll mention just one. Venezuelans have an astonishing capacity for understatement. Many Venezuelans I know can tell horror stories from back home: being robbed at gunpoint at a red light, hearing from people who’ve seen family members be murdered or raped, being held for ransom, witnessing mendicants dig through dumpsters in search of food, and so forth. (Indeed, two of my own family members, a first cousin and a great-uncle, have been murdered in the past 15 years. Venezuela is exceptionally unsafe.) What’s curious is that all such stories are told in a quite normal tone of voice, without emotion or deep inflection, without any serious acknowledgment of the magnitude of the tragedy.

Translations are inevitably imperfect, but allow me to try to convey the feeling of the thing. Imagine you’re in an everyday conversation when the person across you says, “Yeah, the other day this guy I knew from middle school got killed at the bakery. A couple of bikers came by, shot him in the head, then took his wallet. And his bread. I guess the bread must’ve been good.” Then follows more regular conversation. Not a beat missed.

Perhaps the understatement is how Venezuelans cope with the disasters in their country. At any rate, it comes with everything you’d expect: an impressive gallows humor, a dark sarcasm, and an utter indifference to minor problems and minor offenses. If the concept of a microaggression were ever introduced to Venezuela, millions would die — of laughter.

New acquaintances often ask whether my Venezuelan background influenced my politics or caused my aversion to the far Left. For a long time my answer was no. My opposition to authoritarian radicalism did not come from what I knew about Hugo Chávez; rather, it stemmed from my disgust with the Bolshevik Revolution and my annoyance with loose talk of perfect societies. But recently I have started to reconsider.

A certain type of conservative disposition probably was imparted to me by how I was raised. Given the thick skin that my stepfather’s parenting style forced me to grow, there was never any chance that I would be taken by, say, politically correct objections to manifestly inoffensive language. My upbringing also showed me that the stability of the nuclear family is crucial to personal development.

Yet, over time, what has most made a mark on me is that I have a personal point of comparison, unavailable to most Americans, between a thriving country and a disintegrating one. Even though I did not live in Venezuela long enough to suffer its privations, I have enough personal contact with those who endure them every day to get a small sense of what it is like.

Knowledge of Venezuelan history has also turned me into a vigorous opponent of politicians who would annihilate, in the name of a mere policy agenda, the precious institutions that sustain liberal democracy. Indeed, it is important not to forget that Chávez’s assault on Venezuela’s liberal institutions was committed on behalf of the poor — and often with their sanction. With the backing of the masses, Chávez dismantled Venezuela’s rule of law, replacing competent police officers and judges with functionaries of a Chavista persuasion. He converted the judiciary and the legislature from acting as checks on presidential authority to serving as rubber stamps for his diktats. All this was done ostensibly so he could centralize power to mobilize resources and help the underprivileged. And yet Chávez failed precisely because he succeeded: Power was centralized, and the economic policies that resulted were disastrous. The poor were left with little to show for the demise of Venezuelan democracy.

The demolition of liberal institutions wreaked concomitant damage on Venezuela’s social fabric. Hugo Chávez nurtured a nasty and vicious polarization that drove Venezuelans apart. Those who opposed him were deemed fascists and reactionaries; those who supported him, patriots and heroes. No country can long cohere if half of its inhabitants consider the other half so wicked as to pose an existential threat to national survival. The lamentable truth about Venezuela today is that, in the absence of a grand national compromise, total social dissolution is preventable only through dictatorship — a reality that President Maduro, for all his ineptitude, is seemingly able to grasp. Milton Friedman once wrote that the “delicate threads that hold society together” are difficult to knit but easy to shred. In Venezuela, those threads are no more.

Before writing this essay, I had to ask my stepfather for permission to use the helicopter story: There was a chance, I thought, that he would be reluctant to have his exploits recorded in print. As it turns out, he did not care; he told me I could say whatever I wanted.

There was something delightfully insouciant about that response. If he had any regrets about his anti-Chávez activities, he betrayed no sign.

My stepfather sometimes says he no longer cares about what happens in Venezuela. For him there is no hope. The education system is in shambles; the military supports the dictatorship; the capital has fled; the middle class has been hollowed out.

But I don’t believe him when he says he is indifferent to Venezuela’s suffering. He keeps up with the news from Venezuela much more closely than I do, presumably not something he would do if the indifference were real. I suspect that he is just trying to distance himself emotionally from the fact that the place where he spent his youth and young adulthood no longer exists. Conscious of our luck and privilege though he is, he probably just wants to enjoy his life in a free and prosperous society without having to think too long about the shame that is the government in Caracas. I don’t blame him for it. And I am very glad he brought me to the States with him. There is, after all, no National Review back in Venezuela, and I’m not sure my anti-Chavista jeremiads would have been received too well if we’d stuck around.

In This Issue

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