“Socialism or Death” proclaimed the late Hugo Chávez. It looks like Venezuelans may get both. Student demonstrations that began a month ago have both widened and deepened. Over two dozen are officially reported dead, among them a beauty queen, a world champion boxer, and well-known student protest leaders. Hundreds have been injured. And tear gas, one local told me, now wafts through open windows in the most sedate middle-class neighborhoods.
While the West’s diplomats must fixate on Ukraine and Russia, an alarming axis of socialist dictatorships is gaining ground in our own hemisphere. Cuba, long an ally of Chávez and now his successor Nicolas Maduro, seems the only nation paying serious attention to Venezuela. And it’s influencing Latin American neighbors through intimidation, and fear.
Venezuela’s government rested on a functioning democracy consisting of a president elected by popular vote with term limits, a constitutional court system, and a unicameral legislature.
Hugo Chávez changed that, coming to power on promises of poverty- and corruption-fighting but instead using democratic institutions to consolidate power. In his first year in office he succeeded in amending the constitution to grant six-year terms and eliminate term limits for the president. Chávez likely would have been president for life had not cancer gotten in his way during his fourth presidential term.
The crumbling of his socialist order was so great that Maduro only squeaked by in 2013 elections, beating an opponent by barely 1 percentage point. In the 20-year history of the Index of Economic Freedom, Venezuela’s economic freedom has declined more than any other country in the world.
For Venezuelans, the country’s downfall has been both profound and pedestrian. Grocery shopping? An official at the door will mark your arm with a number to control what you buy. Toilet paper? Hasn’t been available for months. Watching CNN? Censored. Gasoline in one of the world’s largest oil-producing nations? Unavailable at any price at most pumps.
Jonathan Kohn, who grew up in Venezuela and works for Balanced Energy in Texas, told me: “Venezuela has agriculture and a huge livestock industry. We are cowboys. We are llaneros [Venezuelan cowboys, among the first in South America]! But where is all the meat? Where is all the cheese? This would be like having no milk, no cheese, no oil in Texas.”
The shortages and rank oppression—has there been a socialist dictatorship where this didn’t happen?—sparked protests by students inspired by what they saw happening on the streets of Kiev.
But as the world also has learned, mob rule is messy business. The street revolution in Venezuela shows little hope of leading to lasting change without outside intervention.
The United States has important reasons to take the upheaval seriously. As we learned in the Cold War, once socialist dictatorships pummel, censor, and deprive their own people into submission, they usually turn their attention to neighbors. But this is a new version of an old menace: the old Soviet socialism replaced by mafia-style socialism. Venezuela’s Maduro and Cuba’s Raoul Castro, like Russia under Vladimir Putin, are using power to win lucrative deals with crony capitalists. “The U.S. and other Western nations are at a loss on how to deal with those who use democratic means to accumulate all power,” said Alejandro Chafuen, who is president of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation (and an Argentinian). “The Venezuelan government is controlled from Havana and the U.S. should monitor more how the Cubans and Venezuelans are corrupting business and electoral processes in neighboring countries.”
Case in point: Mexico, where President Enrique Peña Nieto has just written off millions in Cuban debt. Chafuen believes “the Cubans know who received tainted money in Mexico.”
For all the obliviousness in America to the realignment just beneath our border, the United States is Venezuela’s most important trading partner: The U.S. imports 40 percent of all Venezuela exports, and 30 percent of Venezuelan imports come from the United States. That’s leverage our government can use, as it may with Russia over Ukraine. We in the West and citizens in the former communist world lived too long with Cold War oppression to let a few despots take us there again.