Back when I was 8 years old, my days would usually begin with my mom telling me to go stand in line at the small neighborhood shop. The line would have been there since before dawn, long before the shop would open, if it opened at all, because they had so little to sell. This was Chile in the early ’70s, under Salvador Allende’s socialist government. The recent images from Venezuela—of empty store shelves and desperate Venezuelans crossing the border with Colombia in hopes of buying something, anything, to eat—brought back those memories. As I did back in the ’70s, people in Venezuela now regularly line up at shops with shuttered windows and locked doors. It’s not that people lack money. There’s always plenty of that during hyperinflation. It’s just the scraps of paper aren’t worth much of anything, which is why there’s nothing to trade it for. Still, you wait in line because there are always rumors, hope against hope, that something will come in that day—maybe a little sugar, a pack of cigarettes, a can of whatever. And then things would get suddenly tense.
Which is how my mom got beat up.
When the rumor was of chickens—or maybe I should just say “birds,” as the scrawny things were no larger than my 8-year-old hand—the stakes were higher than usual, and higher still if there were actually a few birds. One such day, Mom got to the front of the line just as the store owner was down to the last couple of chickens. He was as hungry as the rest of us and was about to be cleaned out. He asked my mom, “Could you take one for my family?” By agreeing to help the storekeeper—himself a capitalist pig, no doubt—my mother became an “accomplice” deserving of swift “popular justice.” She was beaten on the sidewalk outside the shop by the local Committee of Supply and Prices, basically neighbors who had become the thuggish street-level enforcers of the socialist revolution.
Her bruises were far bigger than the bird we never got to eat. Please take a moment to guess who handles the distribution of food in Venezuela today: the local committees of the United Socialist party. Hugo Chávez may be dead, but the disaster he set in motion is still very much alive. Several years ago, back when Chávez was still busy turning Venezuela into Zimbabwe, I asked a friend what he expected for his country once Hugo left power. “El chavismo is like a 70-year-old bus with loose steering, failing brakes, and no suspension, hurtling down a mountain road with cliffs on both sides and no guard rails,” he said. “After Chávez, the next driver may or may not be another madman, but it will still be the same bus hurtling down the same road.” And now, with Chávez’s chosen successor, Nicolás Maduro, steering, the wheels are coming off the bus.
Populists and socialists destroy their societies in predictable ways. It’s not like one day a populist gets up and says, “I’m going to ruin this country.” Rather, he starts out wanting to spread the wealth and finds that the easiest way to hand out cash is by simply printing lots of it. Which creates a new problem: As the currency weakens, prices rise. But the populist finds there’s an answer for that too. If bread is getting expensive, he can fix its price, and he gets to vilify the baker as a greedy capitalist.
But then the baker stops producing bread because he can’t afford to make it, what with the rising price of flour. And so what does the populist do next? He fixes the prices of flour. When that doesn’t work, the politically expedient thing to do will be to take over the bakery and the farms and hand them to the folks in the party’s local committees, who prove to be rather less apt at farming and baking than they are at mother-beating.Maduro is well down this path, having in the last months threatened to seize, among many other businesses, breweries that have shut down because they can’t get barley. Capitalists who would stop making beer are just trying “to sabotage the country [and] should get out,” Maduro railed this spring. In the same breath, he proclaimed that those who do try to get out “must be handcuffed and sent to the PGV,” Venezuela’s General Penitentiary.
None of this chaos is necessarily a problem for the populist politician. Because when food and other essential items—just try to get your hands on toilet paper in Venezuela these days—become really scarce, the power of the government’s local committees grows. They, after all, have a monopoly on the distribution of food and necessities. And if violence does erupt, it can be denounced as the doing of enemies of the state and used as a pretext for renewed crackdowns: “We’re going to tell the imperialists and the international right that the people are present, with their farm instruments in one hand and a gun in the other,” Maduro told a Caracas crowd. And soon, Mr. Populist finds himself with a good reason to suspend the country’s constitution. Thus does a tyrannical attitude toward the shop-owner selling bread lead to a tyranny over a whole nation.
And for what? Back in the ’70s when I was a kid waiting in line, most socialists actually believed that the shortages and hardships were just a way-station on the path to the promised land of socialism. Food shortages weren’t the disastrous endgame of collectivist economics but just a difficult stage, they thought, on the progress to the new state-run nirvana. Of course, back then, there was the Soviet Union with money to keep its socialist clients from total collapse. Latin America’s leftists felt themselves part of a bloc in a divided world. They had a religion of sorts and plenty of Cuban “revolutionary clergy” to spread its gospel.
But the current madness in Venezuela? Where does it lead? On the other side of this unhinged irresponsibility, there’s nothing but a failed state. One would hope this Chávez-instigated, Castro-advised, Kirchner-supported tragedy will have a sobering effect on the people of the region who might otherwise think that a failed state is something that only happens in distant African or Middle-Eastern countries. Because the toxic combo of populism, Marxist rhetoric, and weak institutions is all too prevalent in Latin America, a lurking challenge to freedom and the rule of law. And we need to get Latin America permanently off that bus.
Darío Paya is the former Chilean ambassador to the Organization of American States.
This article is taken from the Weekly Standard, August 8 2016
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