Column: But what about Venezuela, Claude?

Whenever I bring up socialism, whether in columns or in conversation, someone will inevitably butt in with the same tired point: “But what about Venezuela, Claude? Everyone in Venezuela is starving because socialism! Why didn’t you think of that?” So, with the recent expansion of sanctions imposed on the Bolivarian nation, let’s ask ourselves: what about Venezuela? 

First of all, how socialist is Venezuela? While the government has been fond of fiery left-wing populist rhetoric, private businesses remain numerous within the country. In fact, private sector’s share of the economy has remained at roughly two-thirds under the presidency of Hugo Chavez, whose election in 1998 marked the beginning of Chavist “socialism” in the country. Venezuela would probably be better described as “social democratic;” they retain a mixed economy dominated by the private sector with a number of public service policies.

Prior to the beginning of the economic crisis in 2014, Chavist policies had been generally successful: poverty fell, literacy rates rose, and numerous worker cooperatives and medical clinics were established. Why did it take over a decade for these policies to lead to ruin? Or, is there something else at play?

Venezuela’s biggest economic problem, ever since the 1970’s, has been crippling overspecialization in the petroleum industry. The current economic crisis can be attributed to the “oil glut” that started in 2014 when Saudi Arabia flooded the petroleum market. This led to a massive drop in the price of oil — and when oil accounts for about 25 percent of your country’s GDP and over 95 percent of your exports, such a crisis is inevitable.

Even with the food shortages, according to the World Bank, the Venezuelan people are far better off under Chavist policy than they were under neoliberal capitalism. In 1998, before Chavez took office, Venezuela had a “food deficit” of 116 kilocalories per day per capita. In 2016, after almost two decades of Chavismo and well into the food shortages that began in 2014, the food deficit had been reduced to a mere 9 kilocalories per day. 

Beyond this, however, there are sinister forces that have been exacerbating the food shortages in Venezuela: an economic war against the country. Venezuelan corporations have been hoarding food and withholding it from market, as well as engaging in fraudulent import deals to siphon money and goods out of the Venezuelan economy. The multimillionaires and billionaires who run these corporations are the same people who are the same people who are actively leading the opposition and blaming the Venezuelan government for the food shortages that they themselves are causing.

Many of the protesters you see in Venezuela aren’t working class people protesting a lack of necessities, but rather members of the upper middle class who want to install a government friendlier to corporate interests. This is the Venezuelan opposition that has received millions of dollars in funds from the United States government in an attempt to destabilize Venezuela.

But even if the oil glut and a U.S. funded economic war weren’t responsible for Venezuela’s troubles, and Venezuela’s left-leaning policies really were to blame for its collapse, wouldn’t we expect to see similar crises in other Latin American social democracies? A good comparison might be Bolivia: having been led by leftist president Evo Morales since 2006, Bolivia has been just as radical as Venezuela in its reforms and policies. However, while Venezuela is struggling, Bolivia has prospered. Since 2006, the number of people living in poverty in Bolivia has plummeted from 59.9 percent to 38.6 percent, per capita GDP has more than tripled from about $1,000 to over $3,200 and chronic malnourishment has been cut in half. All this has happened while as of June, 2017, the rate of inflation was only 1.84 percent. 

But you don’t hear about the successes of social democratic policies in Bolivia, nor the causes of the food shortages in Venezuela, because both of these hurt the pro-capitalism narrative that media corporations want to promote. The next time someone mentions who socialism has ruined Venezuela, ask yourself: where, then, is the success of capitalism in Latin America?

Thanks for reading.

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