For those of us correspondents who covered it for many years, it’s hard today to remember when Venezuela was the democratic hope of Latin America.
From the time the great Romulo Betancourt took over as president in 1959, overthrowing a bitter history of military dictatorships, Venezuela seemed to bloom. He made a unique deal with foreign oil companies (50 percent of the profits went to Venezuela’s social needs), distributed land to 500,000 peasants and established a truly working Latin American democracy.
Being a singular statesman in any nation, he left his country in 1964 and lived abroad so his people could stretch their young wings without him. And then, it all began to fall apart. The question today is why? Venezuela now dances darkly on the edge of civil war, ruled by a macho mug who depends on his “colectivos” or private militias (the murder rate is 20 times that of the United States) to terrify the people, who has driven 1,400 once-thriving foreign companies out of the land, and who has left his people quite literally on the verge of starvation.
When I interviewed the man most responsible for this fall from political grace, the late Hugo Chavez, the maverick colonel in the red Che Guevara beret who was elected president in 1998, he insisted there were “no models” for the Venezuela he would create. “We don’t copy models,” he told me, “we create them.” And on that, he was right.
No one in modern Latin American history has made such a total mess of a country with a small, able population of some 31 million, incredible oil resources and agricultural riches. Since model-maker Chavez died in 2013, leaving a former bus driver, the “macho mug” Nicolas Maduro, as president, the growing deprivation has devolved into utter and violent hopelessness, as protests and deaths sweep the streets of Caracas nightly. An economic theorist, Maduro is not! After the foreign oil companies were expropriated, his government tried to pay off service companies with IOUs.
Why? In 1992, the most respected thinker in Venezuela, Arturo Uslar Pietri, told me: “Venezuela is the richest country in Latin America, by far. Yet in the last 20 years it received $250 billion in oil income for a country of no more than 15 million people, and half of the people now live in poverty. ... People are very angry at this miracle in reverse.”
By the Chavez period, between 1998 and 2013, the potential miracle had reversed in high gear. By then, 80 percent of Venezuelans lived in poverty after four decades of putative democracy. Thirty-three percent of the people worked in the useless government bureaucracies, and 46 percent of the economic life of the country was in the underground economy, always an indicator of economic disintegration. In short, the politicians had stolen the country blind.
This spring, London’s prestigious Guardian reported from “a country in pain” that, “In what was once South America’s richest country, more than four households in five are in poverty. ... Babies and children die for lack of access to commonplace medicines. Murder and kidnapping for ransom are rife. ... There is a wretched stalemate.” And during all this time, both Chavez and Maduro, whom we might now rightly call “the mad mug,” were playing the old Latin American anti-Yankee game with Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Chavez’s Venezuela exchanged oil for Cuban doctors and “sports trainers” (really intelligence agents); Maduro himself had gone through the Cuban Communist Party’s School of Cadres; and, at one point, the two countries were even going to unite into one socialist paradise.
Overwhelmingly, thoughtful Venezuelans and others told me there was one reason, and really one alone, for the disintegration: the corruption and cupidity of the “elites” -- elites who care only for themselves and will not share the riches of a rich country with the workers or the poor. Sound familiar? The blame is laid on the lack of moral fiber of the elites -- morals that were basic to the formation of the country, but are no more, at least seemingly among Venezuela’s leadership classes. And haven’t we heard that somewhere before, too? Is this not the central question of our era? Whether in Venezuela or Europe or parts of America: Once everything seems ruptured and rent, shouldn’t we go back to basic principles, build upon them, or reinterpret and reform them? And without a resurgence of religion as a basis?
Venezuela is going to explode. Americans are angry about their country, too, but for now at least, not organized to attack the problem. In Eastern Europe (think Slovakia), young people are, with some effectiveness, protesting against the terrible corruption of the elites in their countries who are destroying post-Soviet dreams.
Hope is not dead, but it is uncertain; it has just not found the organized expression it needs. Perhaps if we study other countries going through similar moral upheavals, we might better understand our own.
Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years.