On the last night of 2010, I was at a party in Caracas, Venezuela. Standing on the balcony of a house set high on a hillside, I watched fireworks burst randomly over the metropolis that spread across the valley below. A new year often brings hope of fresh beginnings, but, in that city that year, there were feelings of dread.
The political upheaval brought about by Venezuela’s revolutionary populist president, Hugo Chavez, was slipping into economic calamity, political corruption and a wave of street crime. And, as is usual with revolutions gone stale, democratic ideals were being sacrificed so that the regime could cling to power.
One of the other guests at the party, a wry, fatalistic gentleman who had voted for Chavez, told me he now very much regretted his vote.
“I was hoping we’d get Swedish socialism,” he said. “Instead, we’re getting Cuban socialism.”
I’d like to know how that man and others that I met during my visit are faring now because the difficult situation of 2010 and 2011 has grown exponentially worse in 2017. The current president, Nicolas Maduro, has none of the charisma or cleverness of the now-deceased Chavez, but his impulse to authoritarianism is even deeper. Once a prosperous, relatively stable nation, Venezuela is now broke, thanks to terrible governance and the precipitous drop in oil prices, the country’s primary export commodity. Food and the basic goods necessary for a civilized life are in short supply. Crime is worse than ever. And, rather than taking responsibility for any of this, Maduro simply blames his enemies and uses the crisis as an excuse to censor the media, subvert civil liberties and seize more power.
Under Chavez, elections were still relatively fair. That is no longer the case. In a rigged referendum last weekend, Maduro engineered the election of a compliant constituent assembly that is expected to rewrite the country’s constitution and eliminate the opposition-dominated National Assembly.
Monday, in a White House briefing detailing new U.S. sanctions that are being imposed on Maduro’s regime, national security advisor H.R. McMaster said, ”Maduro is not just a bad leader. He is now a dictator.”
Street protests that have been raging for months all across Venezuela have become much more violent as Maduro has tightened the screws on what is left of the nation’s democratic system. Government troops now gun down opposition protesters every day. Tuesday, several leaders of anti-Maduro political parties were arrested.
This deepening tragedy offers lessons for Americans of all political stripes.
For those on the left who cheered the rise of Chavez and turned a blind eye to his dictatorial inclinations and complicity in corruption, one might ask, when will you ever learn? Just as American leftists were dupes for Stalin in the 1930s and ‘40s, too many dreamy progressives all these years later still allow themselves to become apologists for self-proclaimed saviors of the people who spout egalitarian rhetoric but end up as despots.
For those on the right, Venezuela is not just an example of the failings of socialist revolutions, it is an illustration of what can happen when a crowd-pleasing populist politician attacks the free press, demonizes opponents, proclaims a militant nationalism and creates an alternative version of reality based on self-serving lies. The urge to make heroes out of bombastic demagogues is an affliction that affects people on the right as much as those on the left.
And for American political leaders, as well as the wielders of financial and corporate power, it should be noted that Venezuela’s problems began with a failure to address the country’s extreme wealth gap. Until the current troubles reached a crisis point, Caracas was a vibrant, modern city, home to a large, healthy middle class and a very fortunate upper crust of wealthy families. But on the hills surrounding the city a vast barrio of desperately poor people seethed with resentment. Those resentments produced Chavez and, now, Maduro.
The Venezuelan political and economic elite failed to address the inequities and disconnections in their country and now every Venezuelan is being brought low. Growing social disaffection in the United States already helped elect Donald Trump to the presidency and the rips in the seams of our democracy run in every direction. If they are not repaired, Trump’s follies may be only the start of the unraveling.
Let Venezuela’s agony be a reminder: It can happen anywhere.
Follow me at @davidhorsey on Twitter