Was it socialism or a capitalist conspiracy that tanked Venezuela’s economy? | On Culture | Chicago Reader

Was it socialism or a capitalist conspiracy that tanked Venezuela’s economy? 

And why did Trump want to invade?

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click to enlarge Aerial view of western Caracas

Aerial view of western Caracas

JUAN BARRETO/Getty Images

I'll give our porn star-and-Putin-loving president this: just when you think there's no further folly of his that could surprise you, bingo!

In the midst of our muggy and militaristic Fourth of July celebrations this year came the revelation that Trump seriously wanted to invade Venezuela, and had repeatedly raised the prospect with his staff, advisers, and the leaders of other South American countries.

To which I could only say, huh?

Since most of his advisers and all of the Latin American leaders apparently nixed this idea, it hasn't happened, but it left me wondering, Why would we want to do that? Is Venezuela building nuclear weapons? Annexing Colombia? Interfering in our elections? Bragging that it's got a bigger button?

Or had he—perhaps on a slow afternoon at Mar-a-Lago—just thrown a bunch of nation names into a Make America Great Again hat and pulled out Venezuela? Could we just as easily have been plotting the invasion of Canada?

So when I noticed that a lecture on Venezuela was coming up at the Lincoln Park branch of the Chicago Public Library, I put it on my calendar. The talk was sponsored by Open University of the Left, and the lecturer was B. Lee Artz, a professor of media studies at Purdue University Northwest.

The first thing I learned from it was the colossal and commonplace ignorance of my response. There are at least three basic things to know about Venezuela: First, it has the world's largest oil reserves and has, at various times, ranked among the richest countries in Latin America and the world. Second, it's two decades into the populist, leftist "Bolivarian Revolution" led by Hugo Chávez until his death in 2013 and now presided over by his successor, Nicolás Maduro. Third, since oil prices last tanked, starting in late 2014, Venezuela's already struggling economy has been in crisis: its people are going hungry, and many of them (according to most estimates, more than a million in the last year or so) have fled, swamping neighboring nations with refugees.

According to mainstream sources such as the Brookings Institute and the International Monetary Fund, the Venezuelan refugee crisis is on track to be bigger than Syria's, and Venezuela's annual inflation rate could rise to one million percent this year.

Why did this happen? There are two warring explanations: Either the populist brand of socialism introduced by Chávez was an abject failure, or it was a marvelous innovation—and such a disruptive threat to global capitalism that it had to be sabotaged.

Artz is a frequently compelling spokesperson for the latter theory. He says the Bolivarian Revolution was a historic event that overthrew a corrupt oligarchy and established real democracy, though most people in the United States don't know about it. He blames that ignorance on our own for-profit press, charging that the reporting—even from sources like the New York Times, CNN, and MSNBC's Rachel Maddow—is distorted.

Artz says that, unlike the United States, where we have a Supreme Court parsing what "a bunch of white guys who owned slaves thought 200 years ago," under Chávez, Venezuelans drew up their own constitution. Chávez also nationalized parts of the economy, privatized some property, and used a bonanza of cash from rising oil prices in the earlier part of this century to establish and fund extensive community services that were locally built and run.

Venezuela has true citizen participation, but isn't actually a socialist country, Artz says: major industries like banking, manufacturing, and retail were never nationalized, and that is, he claims—along with sanctions, sabotage, and U.S.-sponsored interference—why the Venezuelan economy is in trouble. He says food shortages, violence, and unrest on the streets are being engineered by Venezuela's pissed-off, partially dispossessed capitalists.

Still, Artz sees this as an opportune moment: "The capitalist class in Venezuela understands that this is an historic challenge to the way they run the world. It's a kind of test tube. What's transpired [there] shows the way forward. Venezuela has been letting the people decide," he says. "[The U.S. must] get out of the way and let them do it. This is an opportunity to change the course of history."

His comments about the press sent me to the New York Times archives for a quick check on what its reporters have been saying about Venezuela. After the presidential election in May that won Maduro six more years in office, Times writers William Neuman and Nicholas Casey reported that voter turnout had been 46 percent (down from 80 percent in the two previous elections), that the largest opposition parties and key politicians had been banned from participating in the election, and that "two pounds of chicken or beef costs as much as the monthly minimum wage package, which, including food coupons, is worth about $2.50."

For another take on all this, I contacted Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez, who's worked in microfinance and municipal government in Venezuela and is now a consultant and adjunct professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. Lansberg-Rodriguez says the roots of Venezuela's problems go back to Chávez, who was "a charismatic leader who turned the country briefly into an international player by spending a lot of money abroad. Oil was $18 a barrel when Chávez took office; much of the time he was in power it was over $100. So everybody was better off, but the government didn't set up anything sustainable." When oil prices fell, Venezuela went into debt in an attempt to maintain its expenditures, and when more debt was no longer an option, the system collapsed.

It wasn't the first time. Venezuela became a democracy in 1958 after a series of military dictators, and its oil was nationalized in the 1970s (as Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A.); it's ridden the oil boom-and-bust cycle before. But, Lansberg-Rodriguez says, "Chávez hollowed out the democratic institutions—the checks and balances—in a way that was semi-sustainable under him. Now Maduro, who does not have Chávez's charm and does not have his money, is using those institutional shortcuts to essentially hold the country hostage. Venezuela is in a cycle of privation and escalating brutality, with no end in sight.

"Oil production when Chávez took over was three million barrels a day; now it's hovering around one million barrels," Lansberg-Rodriguez continues. "After you nationalize joint projects, no one else is going to come in and participate." As for the sanctions, which began at the tail end of the Obama administration, "Things were already dreadful when they started."

The air force and national guard are corrupt, Lansberg-Rodriguez says, and there's now a "bunker mentality" in place: "There's nothing they won't do to stay in power. It's a cautionary tale."

Northeastern Illinois University professor Ana Gil Garcia grew up in Venezuela and moved to Chicago 20 years ago, but she goes back two or three times a year to see her family, including her 90-year-old mother. She says long before Chávez, education in Venezuela was free, and anybody could become part of the professional class. "My mother was a nurse; my father was a fisherman. We were eight brothers and sisters, very poor, but we are all professional. We all went to college free, and that was before Chavez."

Now, she says, "I have to send my mother food from here because they can't afford to buy anything." They have to stand in line for sugar or rice, she adds, and are lucky if there's any left when they get there.

Gil Garcia says millions of Venezuelans (out of a population of 32 million) have left. "We need to confront the issues [in Venezuela] through diplomacy," she says. But meanwhile, the Illinois Venezuelan Alliance (she's a founder and board member) is working with other groups to get HR 2161, the Venezuelan Refugee Assistance Act, passed in Congress. It would allow some Venezuelans who are already living in the U.S. to avoid deportation and apply for permanent residency.

Chávez (memorialized in Oliver Stone's reverent documentary Mi Amigo Hugo) "was like a messiah; people believed in what he had to say," Gil Garcia says, adding that some things in America now remind her of him. "Chávez came, and immediately changed the constitution. Went from a five- to a six-year presidential term, changed house and senate to a national assembly, took control over the supreme court, and started governing using executive orders. He was creating divisions among the populace-racial, religious, social classes. He initiated the destruction of the country.

"Maduro is the consequence of what Chávez did. Venezuela went from the dictator Chávez to the dictator Maduro," Gil Garcia says.

But DePaul University philosophy professor Peter Steeves, who taught at Universidad del Zulia in Venezuela in 1998-'99, writes via e-mail that "80 percent of the population [was] below the poverty level in the pre-Chavez years," and that Maduro's recent election "is a statement by the Venezuelan people that even in these difficult times they still believe in the Bolivarian Revolution."

Steeves says that when he was in Venezuela, he "saw with my own eyes how things improved. By 2011, the poverty rate was cut to 27 percent. . . . This is one of the greatest peaceful revolutions and turnarounds in world history. . . . So why are things so bad now? . . . The biggest problem is not internal. . . . With international sanctions that continue to cause great suffering, and a U.S. president who wonders aloud why he can't just invade Venezuela, we are not letting the Venezuelan people decide their own fate. We are, instead, the source of most of their problems. . . . I cannot think of a way to explain it other than class warfare."

You can check out Artz's OUL lecture for yourself on YouTube.   v

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