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What the right gets wrong about Venezuela and the American left

Republicans like to use Venezuela as evidence of socialism's perils. But they're missing the big picture.

President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Central Wisconsin Airport in Mosinee, Wisconsin, on October 24, 2018. (Credit: SAUL LOEB / AFP)
President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Central Wisconsin Airport in Mosinee, Wisconsin, on October 24, 2018. (Credit: SAUL LOEB / AFP)

The White House’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) on Tuesday released a sprawling, wacky report titled “The Opportunity Costs of Socialism,” a 72-page manifesto that cites Venezuela 52 times, using it as evidence of the perils of socialism.

This shouldn’t be surprising. For the past couple of years, right-wing outlets and politicians have been fixated on the Latin American country. In the last month, Breitbart has occasionally published multiple articles per day about the country. The underlying argument goes something like this: rosy proposals of publicly funded health care, infrastructure, and education are a hop, skip, and a jump away from totalitarianism, medical supply shortages, and widespread hunger.

President Donald Trump has already used this propaganda tactic to dismiss his likely Democratic opponent’s progressive ideas. He weighed in on the heated Texas senate race last week, tweeting that Democratic candidate Rep. Beto O’Rourke “will never be allowed to turn Texas into Venezuela!” Numerous Republican candidates have done the same while on the campaign trail, including Florida gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis (R), who claimed that his Democratic challenger Andrew Gillum “wants to turn Florida into Venezuela.” Back in August, the Republican National Committee sent an email to voters declaring that the Democratic congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was the “Mini-Maduro Foreboding The Future Of Democrats,” referring to Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro.   

The imagery and statistics coming from Venezuela are admittedly compelling. On a 2015 trip to visit my family in Caracas, I witnessed a country in complete disarray. Even within the upper-middle-class community, conversations were strictly about waiting in endless lines for basic staples, exchanging pointers on black markets, and telling countless tales of hostages and car thefts. Constant news stories about societal decay have turned Venezuela into a parable happening in real time: a country that’s rich with resources wrongfully chose a path of nationalization and now is being punished with a humanitarian crisis. During an impassioned rant against Ocasio-Cortez on The View, co-host Meghan McCain declared, “Venezuela, [was once] one of the richest countries in the world in 70s. Now, the average Venezuelan has lost 24 pounds because they are starving to death [and] 90 percent of the country is living in poverty!”  

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There is some truth to this observation. Venezuela has the world’s largest reserve of oil, yet 82 percent of its population live in poverty. According to the right, this jarring disconnect can be attributed to Chávismo — the political ideology that was ushered in with former president Hugo Chávez and continued by his successor Nicolás Maduro. This narrative might lend itself easily for righteous, colorful outbursts like McCain’s, but it completely disregards history.

In a piece for Current Affairs responding to a conservative Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “The Tragedy of Venezuela,” Nathan J. Robinson disavows the notion that the South American country is an example of socialism gone wrong. He states, “If there isn’t equality, there isn’t socialism, no matter what the country’s leaders may choose to call themselves.” The writer goes on to argue that, if anything, Venezuela “tells us a lot more about the problems of dictatorship, corruption, and incompetence” than what the American left is actually proposing. Understanding how Chávez came to power exposes Republican talking points as reductive. His election in 1998 was a result of decades of American interference in the region, political turmoil, and what’s often to referred to as the “oil curse.”  

In the 1950s, Marcos Pérez Jiménez’s militant regime had the support of the American government because he was fiercely anti-communist and appeased foreign oil corporations. Following Jiménez’s ouster in 1958, there was a decade filled with both political strife and economic prosperity. While Chávez and Maduro are usually blamed for Venezuela’s contemporary disaster, Rafael Caldera and Carlos Andrés Pérez also played critical roles. In 1976, Pérez nationalized the petroleum industry and set the stage for cronyism and an over-reliance on oil for economic output. During his second term as president, in 1989, the country had accrued massive debt as oil prices plummeted. The International Monetary Fund gave him a loan under the condition of “Thatcherite” cuts to austerity programs.

Combined with his corruption and the nation’s wealth disparity, the stage was set for Chávez’s failed coup d’etat in 1992 and Pérez’s impeachment in 1993. When Caldera succeeded him for his own second term, he upheld the IMF’s unpopular austerity plan and subsequently lost to Chávez’s populism in 1998. Backed by a mandate, the charismatic leader used the nationalized oil industry to fund his social programs and enrich his allies. Due to mismanagement, a disregard for long-term infrastructural investments, and corruption, the country’s oil output began to decline. A year after Chávez’s death, the price of oil nosedived in 2014. Since the government’s budget was set for oil being priced at least $60 per barrel, the country was thrown into a crisis once it dropped to $30. A country that heavily relies on petroleum was never ready for this predicament.

As Robinson has pointed out, Venezuela’s lack of equality makes it completely divorced from any notion of socialism. Under Maduro’s government, social services have been wrapped up in an authoritarian form of clientelism: the system in which a political party essentially buys votes through food and subsidies. Maduro has made the country’s large poor population use dystopian “fatherland cards” for cheap oil and services. These cards are renewed near and at polling stations on election days, making compliance seemingly necessary for survival. In a May 2018 Open Democracy article, Matthias Vom Hau points to how even under Chávez, the allegedly socialist government’s public funding wasn’t robust enough to “radically alter the distribution of assets and wealth in the country.” Rather, the leader ushered in a period of political polarization, aggressive militarism, and centralized power. By repeatedly referring to Venezuela as socialist, right-wing pundits have strategically taken Chávista propaganda on face value.

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Through threatening Venezuela and flirting with planning a coup d’etat, Trump is merely exasperating the crisis and inviting another corrupt chapter in the country’s history. The 45th president and Maduro often use colorful, but empty rhetoric. Within their analogously fiery speeches, they serve as one another’s bogeyman. Just as Trump uses Venezuela to make voters fearful of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Maduro needs a jingoist American president to distract from his own disaster. To counter accusations that they are bringing Chávismo to the United States, people on the left need to move beyond this shallow exchange.

Discussing the merits of socialism is difficult because it exists largely in a theoretical realm. Using Scandinavia as a paradigm could easily be refuted by the obvious observation that the country is radically different than the United States. Instead of turning abroad, leftists should look to progressive policies that have already proven to be successful and popular.

Unlike the sensationalist images of empty Venezuelan supermarket shelves, these facts are grounded within Americans’ daily lives. The Affordable Care Act has steadily gained popularity. A recent poll found that a large majority of young Americans endorse a single payer health care system. Meanwhile, the Medicaid expansion under Obamacare has resulted in a reduction of infant mortality rates and an improvement of economic security for families. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) wants to fund an expansion of social programs by taxing the upper class, not through consolidating fossil fuel resources.

Without the smokescreen of Venezuela, conservatives are left defending their widely loathed tax plan, frequent attacks on Obamacare, and nonsensical claims about capitalism. The latest White House CEA report should be treated as an act of desperation.

Daniel Spielberger’s writing has appeared in Interview Magazine, Broadly, Playboy, and The Outline.