Venezuela 7 February 2019.

In 1998, the Venezuelan people elected Hugo Chavez as president of a country with a strong economy, but also one divided over the distribution of the benefits of that economy.[1]  Chavez was a “populist”: he nationalized the oil industry, the banks, and much of the land, then used the profits to fund programs to aid the poor.  A big rise in government spending outstripped revenue, so they started printing money.  Prices soared.  Chavez slammed on price controls.  These didn’t (and don’t ever) work.  By 2013, the inflation rate had climbed to 50 percent; since then it has headed toward 10 million percent per year and the currency is worthless.  Furthermore, owners of nationalized assets were bent out of shape (see: selfish) and the price controls had distorted economic activity (see: Paul Samuelson).  In these circumstances, men with guns might make all the difference when it came to staying in power.  Chavez kept a tight leash on the army.  They—and politicians–went into drug trafficking.[2]

Then America’s “fracking” revolution hit.  An alternative to oil and coal flooded the energy market.  Oil prices collapsed everywhere, to the distress of Arabs, Russians Nigerians, and Venezuelans.  In the case of Venezuela, the country lost most of its foreign exchange earnings.  This cut the amount of money available to pay for key imports.  One of these was food, because the “populist” polices in the countryside had reduced food production.  Venezuela had to import more food, but lacked the foreign exchange to do so.  The same went for pharmaceuticals.  Entrepreneurs-with-pistols now extract goods and services.  As a result, 75 percent of the country is in poverty.  An increasing number of Venezuelans demanded a new course.  The army became even more important.

Then Chavez died in 2013 and his chief subordinate, Nicolas Maduro, took his place.  Maduro could have tried to clean up a bad situation.  He would have been a national hero.  Instead, he decided to ride it down.[3]  Ever-growing street protests began in 2014.  When opposition groups won the 2015 elections, Maduro fell back to rewriting the constitution so that he could do what he wanted and arresting anyone who seemed like a threat.[4]  Both the police and pro-government paramilitary groups called “colectivos” assailed the protestors.  Hundreds are dead.  Many of the original leaders are in jail.  Many ordinary people are pre-occupied with getting food and other necessities.[5]  Three million people have emigrated to neighboring countries.[6]  So protests died down in 2018.  Maduro rigged the 2018 election to win a new six-year term.  Cuba has sent intelligence officers to support the repression, China has loaned millions, and Russia has warned off American intervention.

From one perspective, this looks like the collapse of Communism in 1989.  Like the collapse of Communism, the aftermath will be painful, messy, and often un-just.

[1] “The growing crisis in Venezuela,” The Week, 25 January 2019, p. 11.

[2] This probably isn’t much different from Mexico.

[3] See; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9_SMJ-Uwmkg

[4] Many of these people were old Chavez loyalists in government ministries and in the army.  As a historian, I can’t help thinking of Stalin purging the “Old Bolsheviks.”  I’m sure this is an over-reaction.  So don’t write to me.

[5] So, a capitalist black market thrives amidst the ruins of a formally socialist society.

[6] Perhaps seven million more may follow their path, according to one estimate.

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