What’s the Matter with Venezuela?: It’s Not Socialism, It’s CorruptionPhoto by John Moore Politics Features Venezuela
While Venezuela has slid into an economic and political cataclysm under authoritarian President Nicolas Maduro, the political right-wing in the United States has consistently used the example of the country’s failed economy as a reason why leftist politics should be dismissed altogether. What they’re missing is that Maduro’s authoritarianism isn’t just contrary to the economic egalitarianism established by his predecessor Hugo Chavez, the corruption, greed, and elitism of the democratically elected government is directly at odds with everything socialism represents and everything the people of Venezuela long for.
The largest failure of the government, despite the overwhelming corruption, is the inability to set up a sustainable economy, which has resulted in extreme food and medicine shortages as well as astronomically high inflation and trade disparities. The vast natural resources in Venezuela, which include one of the biggest oil reserves in the world, should make it an extremely profitable society, but those resources are instead used to directly profit the people in the authoritarian regime. The country’s economy did not diversify to support all the Venezuelan people before this economic downturn the way Hugo Chavez originally envisioned. To a certain extent, Chavez carried out his socioeconomic reforms but pursued less savory results in various bids to increased his executive power, which gave Maduro’s administration more elbow room for corruption.
This is where the valid argument that dangers arise from putting a highly centralized system into the wrong hands comes into play. The possibility of a socialist government being taken over by a corrupt president like Maduro is, of course, high. There is no disputing this, but to say that the problem is equitably distributing the resources of the country would be like saying that capitalism is to blame for the abuse of the free market or our bought politicians, or overall harm on the planet—but American capitalists wouldn’t say that.
The imminent degradation of the environment, unethical agricultural production, and an immoral financial services industry steeped in voracity are all consequences of corrupt and immoral capitalism. The wealthiest companies in the world abuse their power and shift economic opportunity to benefit their companies by lobbying for laws that are favorable to themselves but not the workers or the world at large. Not only can capitalism result in immoral consumption, corruption, and limitless greed, we critique the ideology when we should be critiquing the corrupt individuals. Unfortunate consequences of human nature and capitalism lead to disparities in income equality around the world and oppression of the lower class. Yet we still only blame socialism for its flaws while there are plenty of faults to explore in capitalism.
We’ve abandoned impoverished Detroit and Flint, we poison the water and steal the land of indigenous Native Americans for the capital gain of oil pipelines, and we incarcerate 2.3 million people—more than any country in the world—for profit in privately owned prisons. Yet we don’t blame capitalism for these things, in part because these examples directly conflict with the stated values of the economic dogma: equal opportunity and free competition.
Of course, this is not to suggest that Venezuela isn’t an extreme example of corruption, but just as capitalism shouldn’t be blamed for these faults, socialist ideas are not what has led the country to starvation and commodity shortages like many in the United States suggest.
Under Hugo Chavez, there were significant strides forward that were never sustained, partly due to the incompetency of the Maduro government and partly due to their immense insatiability and corruption. Venezuela under Chavez saw progress for the people in reforms establishing universal health care, raising life expectancy, strengthening social security, providing adequate education, and even improving political participation despite the president’s bid for broader powers and diminishing non-party institutions to cripple political opposition.
How can the principles of universal health care, access to education, and attempts to mitigate hunger as well as poverty be associated with Venezuela’s failed socialist experiment, when relative prosperity came to the people when these policies were implemented? From a long history of tyrannical leftists and Red Scare brainwashing, socialism is equated with tyranny in the United States despite the central goal of the ideology being an equitable, classless society. Though here it exists on a different scale, we don’t disparage capitalism for those who pursue unfair circumstances, detriment to the workers, or harm to the natural world, despite these things being inherent to rampant free market consumerism, avarice, corruption, and labor exploitation.
The failure of Venezuela’s leaders to sustain a prosperous economy out of the fiscal opportunities innate to Venezuela has resulted in anything but an equitable society. But even more so, what really matters is the intent. Instead of having the people’s welfare in mind, Maduro’s band of tyrants are the beneficiaries of a sinking economy, while the rest of the society lacks the collective wealth that was once within their reach. The government consistently uses anti-Americanism, which has been perpetrated by Chavez and other leftists in the Americas, to blame the United States for sanctions and economic woes instead of doing the right thing: abstaining from corrupt activities and remaining accountable to their people.
The National Assembly’s Comptroller’s Commission said last year that $70 billion, or 16% of Venezuela’s overall GDP, was siphoned from public institutions. The National Assembly Commission determined one of the most corrupt institutions in the government is the state-owned oil company Petroleum of Venezuela (PDVSA). It makes up over 90% of the country’s export revenue and 25% of its GDP. A congressional probe recently stated that $11 billion was missing from the PVDSA, which is more money than the annual GDP of five Central American countries. In addition, there was a case investigated during the probe in which $4.2 billion was laundered in Andorra, the tiny tax-haven of a country between France and Spain. The commission also stated that there were nearly twenty cases like these that they were investigating.
This corruption is found at all levels of government, military, and bureaucracy. To sustain these extraneous profits for politicians and bureaucrats, the Maduro government has eradicated the health care system by cutting its funding, and has failed to provide adequate food for their citizens. Foods high in fats, sugars, and carbohydrates are cheaper in the country and have resulted in increased obesity in Venezuela, only adding to the health crisis.
The Economist described how the military is involved in businesses like food production and other nationalized entities ripe for exploitation. Though the argument could certainly be made that nationalizing key components of daily life can lead to this sort of nefarious abuse of power, capitalism is abused incessantly by businesses, politicians, and lobbyists—only less noticeably. It is not the socialist system in Venezuela that was pursued democratically, desired by the majority, and beneficial to many that should be liable for the country’s failure. The people who are supposed to uphold the laws are acting against them with impunity. Just as the failure of health care privatization to provide affordable medical services isn’t attributed to capitalism, the common notion that socialism is responsible for Venezuela’s poor health care is misguided and uninformed.
These purveyors of corruption clearly aren’t concerned with creating a society of equity—they cultivate a class of elites while the rest of Venezuelans are starving in Soviet-reminiscent bread lines (which is another country whose reprehensibility is attributed to socialist ideas) without adequate health care. While the people go hungry and die in desperate riots, the elite live with luxury in a completely classist, non-egalitarian society. There is even a full blog dedicated only to depicting government politicians and bureaucrats guilty of corruption and their expensive watches.
The corruption is widespread and widely known in Venezuela, so why do we blame socialism? It is not the ideology that is at work here, just like socialism wasn’t practiced during the Soviet Union or in modern China. We don’t hold capitalism in the United States to this catch-all criteria, so why do we hold socialism to a double standard? If the economic dogma of capitalism isn’t being fairly practiced in the country that preaches its benefits the most, the negative slant on socialism is a part of sustaining the globally inequitable, yet undeniably profitable, economic system at home, and is used as proof that leftist democratic socialism itself is to be dismissed.
The elite’s robbery of money and resources from the people of Venezuela is directly in opposition to the ideas of democratic socialism. It creates a clear class distinction in Venezuelan society, like others before it. While Maduro’s government halts the pursuit of socialist ideas that had gained decent progress—using them to foster inequity—the economy is plummeting, the Venezuelan people are starving, health care is failing, and crime has proliferated, making Venezuela one of the most dangerous countries on Earth. If the democratically elected socialist government was taking the actions voters wanted them to, then why would they be persistently rioting in the streets in valiant protest against the despot and his corrupt, regime even though many citizens supported the socialist policies of the past? The answer is simple: corruption, avarice, and exploitation yet again.
If Maduro and his government truly fulfilled the stated values of egalitarian democratic socialism, people wouldn’t be starving, there wouldn’t be bread lines, there wouldn’t be medicine shortages, there wouldn’t be inflation, and there wouldn’t be riots. There would be the promise of resources despite an economic recession, there would be equal opportunities for all and hope for better.
Ryan Beitler is a journalist, fiction writer, traveler, musician, and blogger. He has written for Paste Magazine, Addiction Now, OC Weekly, and his travel blog Our Little Blue Rock. He can be reached at [email protected]