Tony Camejo

Venezuela: Promise of wealth redistribution was a “big lie”

Political realignments in Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador and Peru portend well for the whole of Latin America.

By Antonio Camejo

Running on an anti-corruption platform, Hugo Chavez came to power in 1999 in a free and democratic election. After 40 years of democratic rule by the two left of center political parties, AD and COPEI (Social Democrats and Christian Socialists), people were fed up and wanted change. Corruption and crony capitalism had alienated the growing middle class. Although poverty had been reduced during their reign, restrictive economic policies under COPEI and a world economic contraction led to currency devaluation, and the implementation of price and currency controls.

Carlos Andres Perez (CAP) then defeated COPEI and in a new approach, in his second administration, attempted to correct many of the errors of the past. The government privatized a number of state companies, negotiated to refinance Venezuela’s external debt, and freed up the economy by eliminating currency controls, import tariffs, and price controls. The socialist left and the bureaucratic state, including members of CAP’s own party, vehemently opposed these reforms setting the stage for a sergeant in the army, Hugo Chavez, to launch a botched military coup. CAP survived, but was later indicted on corruption charges. Hugo Chavez who was later pardoned by Christian socialist, Rafael Caldera, then made a run for President.

Chavez did not initially run as a socialist. People viewed him as a potentially strong leader, being a military man, who would stop government corruption and control violent crime. Most ignored that he had tried and failed to use violence to gain power. They felt that anything would be better than the status quo. The fact that Chavez took power through an election blinded many, both domestically and internationally, about what was to come. What became of Venezuela as time progressed should be a warning that how a leader gains power is important, but what they do once in power, is even more important.

Chavez had been part of a Cuban-trained Marxist cell imbedded into the Venezuelan army years earlier. Once elected, however, he faced a serious problem. Although he was a charismatic leader and popular with the poor, and even many in the middle class, Chavez did not emerge out of a social movement with a popular base. He was neither a campesino nor union leader. He had no real political party with which to govern. Aside from alliances with small leftwing splinter groups, he was alone. To fill the void he invited Cuba to provide the experienced and trained political cadre needed to organize his new government.

Over a period of years it is estimated that some 40-60-thousand Cubans entered Venezuela as “advisers.” It is important to remember that military service is universal in Cuba. So every Cuban is a member of a militia or army unit with a command structure. Venezuela today is for all practical purposes overseen by a foreign occupying army, much like in the satellite countries of the former Soviet Union. The Cubans currently oversee the Venezuelan military, control critical government agencies and institutions, and run the SEBIN or secret police.

While the world was recently learning in horror about the murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi officials, another horrific event was unfolding almost simultaneously in Venezuela. Fernando Alban, a member of the Caracas Libertador Municipal Council, and an opposition leader of Primero Justicia, had traveled to the United Nations to renounce human rights violations by the Maduro regime. Upon his return, he was arrested by the SEBIN and, it is alleged, was brutally beaten and, during his torture, suffocated to death. To cover up the murder, Primero Justicia claims that Alban was thrown from the 10th floor of the SEBIN headquarters. The Maduro regime claimed it was a suicide. It is tragic that hundreds of Venezuelans languish as political prisoners under horrible conditions while Venezuela sits on the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. Let that sink in.

The Maduro government now represents a minority of the population. The last several elections were clearly stolen. The regime apparently only believes in fair elections as long as they can win. When elections didn’t serve their purposes, they ignored the results. Maduro didn’t like losing the last congressional elections, so he organized his own “Asamblea Nacional” (ANC), by-passing the legally elected congress. Chavez likewise used his power, not to strengthen democracy, but instead to dismantle it. Interestingly, however, it was the social reformists (AD and COPEI) that actually paved the road for Chavez and his socialist takeover of the economy. During his first term in office, Carlos Andres Perez had nationalized the oil industry. Many cheered not realizing that the only significant private sector counter-weight to the government had been eliminated. It greased the skids for Venezuela’s slide into a complete government takeover of the economy under Chavez.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously said that the problem with socialism is that eventually “you run out of other people’s money.” Chavez and Maduro did one better. They have not only squandered the money of the rich and the middle class. They have been killing the goose that lays the golden eggs by plundering the oil industry. So again, the promises of “redistribution” to help the poor has ended up as a Big Lie. The chavistas, with the help of Cuba, are now in the process of accelerating the complete takeover of the economy and the purging of what remains of the middle class and private property. Even the poor have now seen through the lie and more than 2.4 million people of all social classes have fled the country. All that remains is a totalitarian government, armed to the teeth for crowd control, ruling by brute force and intimidation. For the Cubans, Venezuela is a lifeline of free oil to prop up a failing economy.

So what now? The Trump administration has correctly taken action against individual members of the Maduro regime involved in drug trafficking and money laundering. The Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, has been vociferous in his condemnation of the Maduro regime’s violation of human rights and the elimination of the rule of law. But words alone will not dislodge this military dictatorship. Historically, every struggle for freedom and independence by any people has invariably involved the assistance of sympathetic outside powers. Even the U.S. War of Independence from Britain would have more difficult if not impossible without the assistance of the French Navy. Non-intervention is a convenient concept invented by left wing dictators to protect their own rule.

The democratic opposition, now a clear majority of the Venezuelan people, needs help and there is only one country capable of galvanizing the forces necessary: the United States. What form that may take is anyone’s guess, but perhaps the Trump administration should escalate its efforts with a call for the immediate and complete withdrawal of Cuban troops from Venezuela. Then, with a “coalition of the willing,” the administration should make it clear to both regimes that the world will no longer stand by and watch with folded arms as an unprecedented humanitarian crisis deepens in our own hemisphere.

The recent election in Brazil of Jair Bolsonaro may be a harbinger that the socialist left’s 60 year run in Latin America may be coming to an end. While it remains to be seen how Bolsonaro actually governs, political realignments in Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador and Peru portend well for the whole of Latin America. It is perhaps time to be optimistic that this nightmare may soon be over.