Once Latin America’s richest country, present-day Venezuela has reached such low points in its economic and social development that it is not out of the question to consider it a failed state at this juncture. Lurid imagery of soldiers stealing goats, citizens turning to vigilante justice, public hospitals lacking supplies, and long lines to get basic goods have now become the norm in Venezuela. President Nicolás Maduro recently declared a state of emergency in response to alleged plots by the United States and subversive elements in Venezuela to depose him. From a glance, it seems that the governing apparatus that Hugo Chavez created in 1998 may be on its way out.
A few years back, ironically, many pundits on the international left saw Venezuela as a socialist miracle during the oil boom of the mid-2000s. During this boom period, Venezuela was portrayed as an alternative model to capitalistic development. Many conveniently ignored that this was just part of a boom and bust cycle in which the Venezuelan government collected massive windfalls from high oil prices before the inevitable bust. The reality is that this money would be pilfered away and redistributed in the form of inefficient government programs and handouts. On net, there was no real wealth generation or value created during this time period.
Once oil prices fell, the numerous economic controls, expropriations, easy-money policies, and crushing regulations implemented by Chávez and Maduro doomed what was left of Venezuela’s productive capacity. A rotten economic framework can only be masked so long by high commodity prices. Naturally, many of these experts have gone radio silent as Venezuela’s economy has completely hit rock bottom and its society teeters on the brink of collapse.
What Venezuela is currently facing is no longer just confined to the economic realm. This crisis has essentially devolved into a social breakdown of a country that is on the verge of turning into a failed state. Cuba and Venezuela are often compared given the similarities in their experiences with socialism. Although Cuba has turned into a centralized Communist state which dominates all aspects of its citizens’ lives, Venezuela’s socialist experiment looks like it may lead it down the road to political fragmentation.
In an atavistic sense, Venezuela is slowly reverting back to its 19th century status – a political and economic backwater ruled by caudillos (strongmen) and other petty tyrants. This scenario could be a harsh reality for Venezuela if public order continues to break down and its standard of living deteriorates. When the military can’t bring in order, the natural course for a desperate populace is to turn to local strongmen and other figures of authority.
Historically speaking, Venezuela has experienced a “Wiki-Constitutionalism” of sorts in which its government has rewritten its constitution on numerous occasions, 26 to be exact, during its 200-plus years of history. On average, the shelf life of constitutions in Venezuela has rounded out to about 8 years. Such a trend does not bode well for the Bolivarian regime, whose constitution was ratified in 1999 under Chávez’s watch. In the likelihood that Maduro is deposed, his predecessor’s constitution will very likely go with him.
One of socialism’s greatest successes has been its ability to convince its idealistic followers that it has never been “truly implemented.” Invoking this No True Scotsman fallacy, many socialist thinkers will look to distance themselves from Maduro by claiming that he did not stay true to socialist principles and Chavez’s vision for Venezuela. Other intellectuals and pundits will use the typical excuses of “corruption” and “bad administration” to rationalize socialism’s failure in Venezuela.
The reality is that Maduro followed Chavez’s agenda to the letter, the only difference is that Maduro did not have the luxury of high oil prices to finance such grandiose spending. To make matters worse, the effects of the byzantine system of exchange and price controls have reared their ugly heads in the form of basic good scarcity and dwindling dollars in the economy. Compounded with a central bank that has become the government’s official printing press, Venezuela’s national currency, the Bolívar, has effectively been turned into monopoly money.
Joined by the likes of Cuba, East Germany, North Korea, and the Soviet Union, Venezuela will now be a part of the ignominious list of countries that have fallen to socialist economic policies.
Maduro’s regime might be on its last legs, but the damage done by him and his predecessor will have long-lasting effects on Venezuela’s economic and social health. In the moment that the Chavista governing apparatus falls apart, the Venezuelan opposition must be ready to provide a clear political alternative that emphasizes the rule of law, provides a stable constitutional framework, and allows free markets to actually prosper.