In London’s posh South Kensington on Sunday afternoon I witnessed anti and pro-Venezuelan government protests form outside the Venezuelan embassy. On the pro-government side stood British socialists living in a fairyland defending Venezuela’s slide to totalitarianism. On the anti-government side, Venezuelans whose family members are literally starving.
British leftists have a long history of supporting the Venezuelan regime. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn once declared socialist revolutionary Hugo Chavez “showed us that there is a different and a better way of doing things”.
The Australian left similarly has a Chavez love affair. After a trip to Venezuela in 2008, then-Greens leader Bob Brown wholeheartedly endorsed the regime, lauding their “strengthening democracy”. Naturally, Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon is also a big fan. “Venezuela is remaking itself as a socially just society with priorities in literacy, health care, housing and land rights,” she told NSW parliament in 2006.
The sad reality couldn’t be further from the truth.
Venezuela’s failed socialist policies have caused a humanitarian and political disaster.
Venezuela faces a serious food crisis. Nine in 10 homes say they don’t have enough money to buy food; a third eat two or fewer meals a day. Chronic malnourishment among children is common. Hospitals are increasingly filled with emaciated infants. Venezuelans must line up for hours to buy measly quantities of food from almost empty supermarket shelves. This year many have begun rummaging through garbage. Shockingly, the government has resisted offers for food and aid from abroad, lest they admit their faults.
Meanwhile, crime has sky-rocketed and morgues are overfilling, power goes off for hours every day, and medicine shortages are dire. Yesterday a mother took to Twitter desperately seeking a basic antibiotic for her sick nine-month-old baby.
No fear, however, the socialist elite continue to be pampered through their links to the drugs trade and the US$70 billion stolen from public finances last year.
The international media has largely ignored this story, and recent events are being reported as generic anti-government protests. Horrifying failures of the socialist regime have been ignored.
In 1999, Chávez came to power and began redistributing wealth from oil exports, deficit spending, and price controls. For a shot time Venezuela was Latin America’s richest economy, benefiting from the world’s largest oil reserves, and a net exporter of food.
However, the past few years have proven Margaret Thatcher’s axiom: the problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.
The fall in global oil prices has bought to the fore fundamental issues with the overly regulated, centrally controlled economy. The lack of foreign currency from exports and growing debt meant the government could no longer provide. Price controls then caused shortages, mass inflation, and poverty. Today, the country has the world’s highest inflation, to reach 720 per cent this year according to the IMF. The economy has shrunk 27 per cent since 2013.
Last December the people elected an anti-socialist majority in the National Assembly, their parliament. However, President Maduro, Chavez’s anointed successor, has refused to listen to the opposition and stand-down for fresh presidential elections – instead blaming a foreign conspiracy and evil producers for the country’s woes.
This has plummeted the country into political crisis. In the past four months over 130 people have died in street protests.
On Monday, Maduro held snap elections for a ‘Constituent Assembly’ to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution. The opposition boycotted the sham elections, refusing to endorse an effort to disempower the opposition-controlled National Assembly, solidify Maduro’s power, and, according to one government source, instigate a truth commission to prevent dissent.
The official voter turnout claims were unrealistically high, indicating widespread fraud; and in the latest sign of things to come, heavily armed state police stormed the homes of opposition leaders overnight and dragged them to prison.
Venezuela is turning from weak democracy to a full dictatorship.
The immediate future is bleak. Venezuela needs fair and free elections, backed up by international monitors. This scenario, however, is unlikely. Mass protests, violently combatted by state police, will continue.
The lesson from Venezuela is clear: socialism does not work. You cannot plan and redistribute your way to prosperity. Knowledge is dispersed; not in the hands of state planners. The economy functions best, creating extraordinary prosperity, when buyers and sellers can voluntarily trade with limited government intervention.
In an era when state planning is on the rise, be it Donald Trump’s protectionism or the Turnbull Government’s gas export regulation, economic freedom to buy and sell still matters.
Australia is of course nowhere near the mess that is Venezuela, but we too often walk in the wrong direction. The more we involve government in our lives the less prosperous, safe, and democratic our society will become.
Matthew Lesh is a research fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs.
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