The scene is grim. What was once a place of opportunity, prosperity and refuge for immigrants around the world is today in complete shambles. According to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal, Venezuela is coming apart at the seams. While the comparison is inherently imperfect, Venezuela’s struggles are a cautionary tale for the United States as the country heads into a critical presidential election that may include a self-described “democratic socialist” on the ballot.
It’s hard to imagine today in light of the widespread violence, helplessness and abject poverty, but Venezuela was once a prosperous country. In fact, as scholars Ricardo Hausmann and Francisco Rodriguez recount, during the 1970s Venezuela was not only the richest country in Latin America, it also had one of the region’s highest growth rates and lowest levels of inequality. Not only that, Venezuela was among the 20 richest countries in the world.
Mariano Solis, an immigrant from Venezuela living in Orlando, Florida, tells Opportunity Lives that he remembers a time when Venezuela had a thriving middle class with the ability to save, invest and spend money on travel and entertainment.
Unfortunately, corruption, government mismanagement, a drop in oil prices and crony capitalism all contributed to a decline in the quality of life and a rise to inequality in the 1980s. Strong authoritarian governments only temporarily staved off the rise of the destructive forces of socialism championed by the late Hugo Chavez.
The authoritarianism and socialist economic policies of Hugo Chavez have only gotten worse under current president and former Chavez protege Nicolas Maduro, above. | Photo: AP
Venezuela’s demise under Chavez took time. In fact, in Chavez’s earliest days as president, he went out of his way to come across as sensible and pragmatic even as he pushed for punitive measures against the private sector and the free market. For a while, Chavez was able to spend lavishly on infrastructure projects and generous state-run cash transfers for the poor and middle class. But eventually, Margaret Thatcher’s maxim about “the trouble with socialism” proved true and the oil-rich and lush South American country ran out of other people’s money.
Now, 20 years after Hugo Chavez was first democratically elected, the country’s problems are the worst they’ve ever been. It is now commonplace for Venezuelans to wait in line for hours to buy basic groceries and home supplies. Price controls have ravaged the once prosperous country, forcing millions of Venezuelans to rely on a burgeoning black market for such necessities as toilet paper, milk and bread.
Particularly heart wrenching are scenes in some of Venezuela’s hospitals that include accounts of infants dying for lack of medical supplies. The Wall Street Journal describes the grim scene:
“During the past week, six infants died at the Central Hospital in the western city of San Cristóbal, according to officials with the city’s child-protection services office and the union that represents hospital workers. The babies died because of a shortages of medicine and functioning respirators for underdeveloped lungs, the officials said.”
“Until the problem of a lack of supplies and imports is resolved, the neonatal situation here is only going to get worse,” said Karelis Abunassar, the child-protections chief. She said an inspection of a packed maternity ward found just 11 working incubators and seven respiratory machines, insufficient for the number of premature babies born there.”
As Venezuelans struggle to survive under socialism, millions of Americans are supporting Sen. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign to enact far-reaching and ambitious socialist policies, not unlike what has been tried in places like Venezuela. Especially discouraging is the support Sanders’ socialist platform is receiving from Millennials. But as our own Tom Rogan has explained, a Sanders’ presidency would be particularly tough on young Americans: “Sanders’ economic policies would submit younger Americans to a future of ever-higher taxes and ever-fewer job opportunities.”
Even if Sanders does not win the nomination, his popularity has encouraged Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton to embrace many of the ideas the socialist senator from Vermont is peddling. If the Democrats happen to win in November, it would mean turning our back on the ideas of free enterprise, personal responsibility and a limited constitutional government that made the United States prosperous and strong.
In short, Venezuela provides us with a preview of what’s to come under socialism. Why on earth would we want to follow in their footsteps?
Israel Ortega is a Senior Writer for Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @IzzyOrtega.