When it comes to Venezuela, medicine, food, guns, and hope are scarce.
So is information. Even in an age where images on social media of tanks rolling over protesters, government forces shooting into crowds, and people eating out of trash cans are relatively instantaneous. The Venezuelan government isn’t the only one attempting to control the narrative, interpret their Constitution, or present propaganda as facts.
Like many, I’ve been interested in what’s happening, why, and what we can learn from it. Further, what could be done with the aim of helping alleviate the humanitarian crisis that won’t merely make the situation even worse. But I don’t consider myself an expert, nor do I regularly speak to those on the ground where history is happening. Hell, I don’t even speak Spanish.
So I figured I’d talk to someone who has greater connections in the area, who has made the situation a specific focus of their advocacy, and who has presented ideas on how to address it. Someone well versed in the nuances and specifics of recent history and who’s motivated enough to do something about the tragedy. In short, someone who knows more about the situation than I do.
I first met Dr. Varner at an UnConvention, where he had talked primarily about healthcare. More recently, he’s been pushing for the US government to grant universal asylum for the Venezuelan people in order to offer them an escape. The LNC is expected to consider his resolution on this in July, and he hopes to expand the idea enough to gain traction with the major parties as well. I talked to him on the phone last night from Panama City.
(The only edits of this interview are in the interests of time and clarity)
TLR: I’m talking to Dr. Kyle Varner, author of White Coat Cartels, an expert in healthcare policy, and recently, an advocate for the Venezuelan people. Thank you for talking with us.
DKV: I’m really glad to be here with you.
TLR: How did you first become interested in the crisis in Venezuela, and what have you been doing personally to provide aid?
DKV: So, I first got interested in the crisis in Venezuela a couple of years ago when I started to get to know, personally, some activists in Venezuela. At a Liberty International conference Puerto Rico in 2016 I got to know Leonardio Brito, who is associated with the Bastiat Institute of Venezuela. And I began supporting them.
I then got in contact online via the Mises-Mambi Institute here in the US with a lot of on-the-ground libertarian activists, started to become friends with them, talk to them, support them in terms of doing things like funding activities, things like having barbecues where libertarian ideas were discussed. We’d provide money for the food, they’d do some educational activities after inviting people from their town. Ideological education, spreading the ideas of liberty.
From there, I got to know a lot of activists of a political party in Venezuela, called Vente Venezuela. Which is a coalition party from center right to libertarians. So, it’s pretty much the only pro-market party in Venezuela, but they’re really good people. When you hear their rhetoric, there’s always discussions about the virtues of free markets, of freedom, of liberal ideas. So I was really happy to see that there are people out there telling the truth about economics and about what needs to happen to take this horrible humanitarian crisis and turn it into something new.
So, the biggest thing that I’ve done so far besides providing support for educational activities is helping someone get out of Venezuela and being prepared to help a lot more. So, briefly, what happened, is that through my contacts at Vente Venezuela, got notified about a medical student who had just been expelled from his medical school for his opposition to the Chavez, I’m sorry, the Maduro regime.
So this young man stood up in an ideological enforcement session. Basically, what had happened was that Juan Guaido was appointed President by the national assembly. Two days later, his entire medical school was basically brought into different classrooms and lectured about the importance of supporting Maduro, supporting the Bolivarian Revolution, told that they are receiving a free education thanks to Maduro’s efforts, and they’re obliged to support it. And he stood up and argued in favor of freedom, and argued against the idea that they should be grateful for freebies, from government and so forth. And he argued for free markets. So for that he was summarily expelled from the medical school.
And because his case began getting attention in the Venezuelan media, he became the subject of some very serious threats. Because in Venezuela in every town, there’s a paramilitary group that’s made up of some local ardent Maduro supporters, and some Venezuelan, sorry, some Cuban terrorists/soldiers, depending on what you want to call them. They show up to places on motorcycles en masse, start shooting people, began threatening him, the university officials started accusing him of threatening to burn down the university.
So he went into hiding.
So luckily, he was able to get to the United States, where he’s now applying for asylum. So I committed to making sure that number one: he gets his asylum case taken care of and gets on his feet here. And then eventually, ends up getting back into medical school.
And I have an open offer to all the libertarian activists to Venezuela, and that is if things go south for you, because of your political activity, and your life is in danger, I will fund your escape from Venezuela. I’m not going to fund it just because you don’t like it there, nobody likes it there. But if you’re in danger of getting killed or in prison because you’ve been fighting for freedom, I’m going to do everything I can to get you to safety.
I keep in really close contact with a lot of the libertarian activists on the ground, getting them financial support for things like food, because if you’re protesting in the streets every day, it’s hard to eat. So getting them the food, water, money, helping with some medical bills or helping directly with medical advice when it’s possible. Those are all things that I’m doing to help support the people who are fighting for their freedom right now.
TLR: In your travels, what’s the most heart-wrenching thing you’ve seen that highlights just how bad things have gotten over there?
DKV: I haven’t been to Venezuela because it’s not safe for me to go. Just to give you an example, Jesus Noria is a libertarian activist. When I say libertarian activists, I mean, he goes in the streets, he wears a porcupine shirt. Right. So he was just arrested on the April twenty-ninth protest. He was beaten very badly. I have a picture of him… huge black eye. Just yesterday, he told me that he lost a lot of vision in that eye and a local doctor told him he lost fifty percent of his vision.
I’m a doctor, I want to help him. So I’m like, ‘okay, look, we need to get a CT scan of your head. Let’s see if there’s something wrong. What’s wrong with your eye?’ The problem is we don’t have the ability to do that. No medical capacity. I can’t fix it sending in money. I can’t. He’s really committed to staying and fighting, but it’s just like, you know, could he have permanent loss of vision in that eye thanks to Maduro’s thugs beating him and then thanks to the deterioration of the medical situation, maybe? Maybe it’s going to get better. It’s heart wrenching to me.
TLR: Do you think things in Venezuela would have gone differently had they not been recently disarmed? You’ve claimed the government has terrorized it’s people with extrajudicial executions by government security forces directly, and deployed state-sponsored paramilitary groups. Do you believe that a well armed populace could have effectively fought back?
DKV: Oh, of course, of course, you’re talking about people who have no guns.
I mean, here’s what happens in the protests: The people are out there. They’re waving a sign. Maybe they’re marching on Miraflores, which they really want to do, which is the presidential palace. But then guys with guns show up on motorcycles, wearing masks, and they start shooting. The crowd scatters.
Unarmed people stand no chance against people with guns.
And I don’t think this would have gotten nearly this far if the people in Venezuela could protect themselves. And we’re not even talking about protect themselves from the military, but about protecting themselves from the terrorists who are kind of this quasi-military wing of the government. So they’re sitting ducks, because of the disarming that was conducted. It’s really exacerbated the situation. There’s no doubt in my mind, I’ve discussed this with a lot of people, if the people in Venezuela have guns…
Number one, the military wouldn’t be behind Maduro anymore, it wouldn’t be safe. The military is behind Maduro, because they’re afraid they’ll get shot if they defect. But the thing is, if they don’t defect… if the people are armed, they’ll get shot if they don’t defect. You know, an armed populace makes the military has to have to be on the side of people. Because you can’t have you know, millions of people with guns against a military of hundred thousand people. It’s not possible to oppress them.
TLR: You’ve been pushing a proposal for the US to offer universal asylum for Venezuelans fleeing the conflict. Given that modern Republicans seem so automatically opposed to immigration in general, while Democrats aren’t trying to advertise the praise many of them gave for Maduro, Chavez, gun control, and Venezuelan reforms… do you think there’s any realistic chance of any such bill passing?
DKV: Well, here’s the thing is that… if we don’t open our doors to the Venezuelan people, we’re going to see tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of deaths from things like rampant disease and starvation. Because what’s happening is that the refugee crisis is so severe, it’s destabilizing Colombia, Brazil and their border regions. And it’s creating situations that are ripe for the spread disease and… this isn’t even just a humanitarian thing.
Do I think the Republicans have it in their heart to open our borders, to Venezuelans for humanitarian reasons? Well, I don’t know. But I do know this, that they did it once before for Cuba, and that it was really politically beneficial to the Republican Party. You know, Donald Trump would not have won Florida if it were not for the immigration policy we had towards the Cubans, which led to a lot of Cubans coming to the United States.
The people who come to the United States under a under a universal asylum policy will be people who really value freedom. And they’ll be people who are interested in paying back, politically, the people who made that possible. That is to say, they’re going to be grateful, because… So Donald Trump and the Republicans being the ones in control, right now or in the majority control… have a chance to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, and to have those hundreds of thousands of people be extremely grateful, and remember that in the future, when they’re thinking about who to vote for.
So that will be the argument I’d make to them, that it’s politically wise, because added to humanitarian reasons– is a right thing to do in– and the politically wise thing to do. And, you know, we as a wealthy country, which is a very generous country, have – we’re not going to have any problem having private support for these people when they arrive. We’ve already got a huge Venezuelan community that’s going to do that. But we also have so many generous Americans with the most generous country in the world.
We don’t need to worry about tax taxes or government benefits for the people arriving. And in fact, you know, they can put that in the bill that in one way or another to prevent that from happening. But don’t worry, the American people who care for the humanity of our neighbors to the south will gladly voluntarily help them. This is an emergency and the humanitarian crisis, and I mean, it’s just the right thing to do.
TLR: You brought up the Cuban government directly propping up Maduro in a couple of kinds of ways. So is there any conclusive public evidence for that or is it just something that’s sort of… known… in-country?
DKV: Okay, so there is a lot of public evidence which I would point you towards- the report in the, the Mises-Mambe Institute has released the called the Open Source Intelligence Report, and got a lot of sources… we probably know, like, that we can show about five thousand troops.
But most people think it’s more.
Here’s why I think it’s more. It’s because every time they come and interact with protesters, they verbally threaten the protesters. And the protesters, the opposition on the ground, tell me these verbal threats come from someone with a Cuban accent most of the time.
Why is the guy with a mask speaking in a Cuban accent?
Because he’s Cuban. So that’s why we think that it’s so much greater than just a few thousand military advisers. And there’s other evidence… look at the report from the Mises-Mambe Institute, and I really don’t think it’s possible for Maduro to maintain control, without strong supportive Cubans all around.
TLR: Do Venezuelans have any greater claim to universal asylum in the US than, say, those from the northern triangle? Is the situation in Venezuela worse to a significant degree? Or would you advocate northern triangle countries have the same sort of opportunity?
I’m an open borders kind of guy. And so yeah, I think we should give everybody the opportunity to come to the United States if they want. There are some other really, really bad humanitarian conflicts going on right now. I would say definitely Venezuela’s the worst in this hemisphere right now. It’s just one emergency, a priority that I’ve gotten to know about and want us to respond to.
But I would like to see us respond to other emergencies in the same way. Because, we need to live our values. And our values are, as free trading capitalists, and that’s actually a really humanitarian thing. I think one of the most shameful things in the history of the United States is the fact that we would send boats full of Jews back to Germany, prior to the Holocaust. It’s a really shameful thing.We have the opportunity today to be a safety boat for millions, or at least hundreds of thousands of people, to ease the overcrowding conditions on the other borders of Venezuela, and to save a lot of lives. And in the process, to actually augment our own economy and to practice the kind of laissez faire capitalism that we’re in favor of. It’s just a win-win for everybody.
TLR: Are there any actions that you think the US should take to help the Venezuelan people outside of immigration reform?
DKV: Well, I think it’s really important that the United States government be respectful of the Venezuelan constitution. And what that means is that it’s important that the United States government have diplomatic relations with the legitimate government of Venezuela. And that’s the government headed by Juan Guaido, that’s the government with the Supreme Court, and that’s the government headed by the National Assembly, which is the only elected body of Venezuela right now.
That doesn’t mean I think we need to go to war.
The war would be a really, really bad idea. And the reason it would be a bad idea, because the presence of US troops in Venezuela would significantly inflame ideological tensions.
But there are other things going on. Right now, it’s illegal for Americans to send guns to Venezuela. There’s international firearms export regulations going crazy with that. So we can’t as private citizens help the people. I can’t send guns to libertarians. I can send them food, I can send them moral support, I can promise to help them get out of things were bad to them, but I can’t send them what they really need. And the United States government could end that right away, they could change those regulations to allow the citizens voluntarily to help those who need our help. That’s one thing they could do.
The other thing, obviously, is to support the Guaido government in their efforts to to take military action against the rogue elements of the military that are still supporting the usurpation. So what would that look like? I suggested multiple times, that Juan Guaido should issue letters of marque against ships that are carrying stolen oil from Venezuela. Right now, they’re still shipping oil to Cuba and Russia. We should allow the people who use those letters of marque to operate out of US ports and sell the ships and the oil in our ports. We definitely should hand over any government assets to the legitimate government.
But sending troops? No, I don’t think we should do that. And I would be really, really against that. But that’s also not something I even see on the political horizon. I think that this is something that’s going to play out internally… with possible intervention from Colombia or Brazil, which has a different connotation entirely. Because it’s in the region, that has a crisis on their border. It’s not something the United States government should be involving ourselves in. It would cause unintended consequences for us and for them. That won’t happen if you have regional partners who are not seen, as you know, the the Yankees, the Yankee imperialists that a large portion of the Venezuelan population will see us as.
TLR: You’ve called the regime of Nicholas Maduro “illegal”. Is that because of vote rigging in the last election, or because his government broke international or natural law regardless of how he stayed in power?
DKV: It’s illegal based on the Constitution, the Constitution that interestingly was was written by Hugo Chavez himself in 1999. The Venezuelan Constitution provides for a National Assembly. When the National Assembly switched to opposition control in the 2015 elections, Nicolas Maduro…
Basically what the previous Assembly did was held a lame duck session that packed the Supreme Court. Then Maduro basically threatened the Supreme Court judges who were independent minded, they fled the country. And they basically tried to dissolve the National Assembly.
And when they couldn’t dissolve the National Assembly, they created something called the Constituent Assembly. Which is made up entirely of members of the Maduro’s party, has no basis in the Venezuelan constitution, has no basis of anything other than being a kangaroo for Maduro to do as he pleases. So they’ve tried to create a parallel government that has no basis in the Constitution.
I mean, by definition. It’s a government acting outside the Constitution. And as libertarians, we believe in the rule of law, because we know that when we restrain a government to the limits of the Constitution, it protects our liberty. But what Maduro is doing is acting outside the Constitution. And so that’s why I call his government illegal.
It’s unconstitutional. It’s unconstitutional, to have a Constituent Assembly. It’s unconstitutional to pack it up with your cronies. And yeah, it’s not a valid election, when you put all your major political foes in jail or ban them from politics. And when you have a variety of electoral irregularities that render the election, basically, null and void.
At that point, the Office of President is legally vacant. And so as the Venezuelan Constitution prescribes, when the office is vacant, the National Assembly will select the next President, the interim President, until elections can be held. And that’s what they’ve done.
So I see one side as following the law, following the Constitution, and the other side is acting outside of the Constitution. And to me, the rule of law is paramount to human liberty. The minute you let the government start getting away with things, extra constitutional things, violating the Constitution, you no longer have free society, you have despotism.
TLR: To what extent is a centrally planned economy responsible for the humanitarian crisis there? What are the other factors which contributed to what we’re seeing now?
DKV: I think that the essentially planned economy is nearly entirely the cause of the current crisis. But it’s for a variety of reasons. So you have widespread price controls that have created shortages, that have interfered with the ability of private business to remain in business.
You have currency manipulation, and currency controls, that have actually created a system where politically powerful people can just steal from everybody else. Basically, there are two different rates at which you can change bolivars for dollars. There’s the official rate and there’s the black market rate. And people in the government, what they do is they’ll exchange bolivars for dollars at the official rate, and then they’ll go sell those dollars on the black market, for the black market rate and then take the bolivars and buy dollars at the official rate again. It’s just this big circular scheme to just bleed the government.
A lot of corruption has happened. And I think corruption as a result of a centrally planned economy. You get the corruption because you get power placed in people’s hands.
But it’s interesting to note that the wealthiest person in Venezuela is the daughter of Hugo Chavez. She’s worth four and a half billion dollars. And the interesting thing is she made it all basically running a company similar to Avon, selling cosmetic products door to door. I don’t think anybody makes four and a half billion dollars selling Avon in Venezuela, but maybe I’m just a skeptic.
You’ve got corruption, robbery, and a centrally planned economy. Oil output is falling pretty much every year since Hugo Chavez took power. And this is a a result of failure to invest in oil infrastructure.
But you know, this happened before. In Chile, when they had basically an attempted communist revolution, they came to power, they nationalized the copper mines, what happened? Production fell. When you have government controlling the means of production, they don’t do a good job of producing. That’s a constant lesson of history.
I think you you have to lay the economic blame at the feet of central planning, with a heavy dose of corruption, that I would argue is a feature of central planning.
TLR: As a doctor who’s been associated with this, you’ve been able to appreciate the decay of health services and the rampant spread of deadly diseases. Looking even outside of Venezuela, what are the health care policies in other countries that could most effectively prevent such breakdowns of health care systems?
DKV: Well, what you need to do is understand that healthcare is a sector of the economy, it’s really a part of production, production of Healthcare Services. So what do you want? Do you want health care services that are abundant, high quality and cheaper or do you want health care services that are scarce at a low quality, free or allegedly free?
And so that’s, that’s the choice that every country has to make. And sometimes they can in different ways, but because some countries will try to create like a two tiered system that is a private public system.
But the bottom line is what what any country, no matter where they are, needs to understand is that would healthcare delivered by the private sector in an open and competitive market? It’s really good, it’s really cheap, and it’s really accessible. When healthcare is delivered by the government, the quality goes down, it becomes less accessible, because there are inevitable shortages. And then the worst thing that happens is that instead of money being what you pay for health care with its political influence. So if your uncle is, you know, administering government, you go to the front of the line. If you’re a nobody, you go to the back of the line, it doesn’t matter which one of you is sicker.
This is the way this way, essentially, planning system works – political influence takes the place of money, I would rather be a free market where the prices go down, so that almost everybody can afford it. Then we only have to worry about charity or subsidies for a very small portion of the population.
I think the best example is Singapore that has a very strong market-based system, and I’m not saying they don’t have government involvement. They do and they have a lot of it – but they’ve done it in a market based way. And as a result, healthcare is very affordable, is very accessible at the patients are also in control, because they’re the ones who spend their own money. So I think they may actually have the best system in the world. But I think it’s possible to construct an even better system, if we pay attention to market economics, a little more than they have.
TLR: At the beginning of this conversation. You talked about a libertarian movement in Venezuela that is seeing violent reprisals from the government trying to repress their activism. How large of a movement, is it? I mean, how much of the protests we’ve seen do you think are based on such an ideology, and how many of the protests are just protesting conditions… um, without a thorough understanding of what led to their conditions or through some other understanding of them?
DKV: Yeah, I would say that. So, I think that I’m probably in contact in one way or another, directly or indirectly, with several hundred people in Venezuela who identify as libertarians. I think that’s pretty remarkable. There are tens of thousands of people who work with Vente Venezuela, at minimum, tens of thousands. Although I think that Maria Corina Machado, who’s the leader of that, has a much larger personality-based following that may number up to a million.
So you kind of got these tiers of understanding, right? So, you’ve got people who self-identify as libertarians who wear porcupine t-shirts. You’ve got the people who are at Vente, who are people who I would describe them as classical liberals. And as you know, you’re going to have the hardcore libertarians in the libertarian party… you have a much larger group of people who are classical liberals who are broadly supportive of the idea of the free markets and of strong institutions that protect human liberty and are libertarians, but maybe not quite as rabid. And then you’re going to have people who are generally supportive of more freedom, but don’t have a coherent philosophy around it. So that’s what I’ve tried to describe there.
The other parts of the opposition are largely leftist space. It’s unfortunate. But because of the history of Venezuela with the strength of Chavismo, a lot of politicians have been pushed to the left. So you have a lot of people who identify as progressives and are socialists. Juan Guaido identifies as the socialist, as has Leopolda Lopez.
It’s not clear to me how much of that is genuine conviction for these ideas, as how much of it is just political necessity. But what I also know is that the opposition is very united in, I believe, a sincere desire to return to a system of elections and reducing corruption.
I think there are there are gonna be big fights about privatization. PDVSA, as they call it is the oil company, and you’ll have most of the leftist politicians saying, no, we can’t privatize it. But I will tell you that in the past, like New Zealand, in the late 70s, had this great exodus from larger socialist policies. And it was instigated by socialists, who just basically realized they were in real financial trouble and couldn’t do socialism anymore if they wanted the people of New Zealand to eat.
It’s not clear to me how much of that’s going to happen, because I think you have a mix in the opposition of people who are actual socialists. And then you have people in the opposition who are socialists because it’s convenient – you might call them SINOs, socialists in name only.
And so, my hope is that after the elections are held, you’re going to see that Vente has a really large share of the deputies, and has a voice in terms of a coalition. You’re not going to see with nine parties, you’re not going to see anybody get an outright majority. They have to form a coalition, a coalition that includes people who want free markets. And there’s going to be this very long and difficult process of deconstructing the socialist state.
It’s going to be a challenge, because if they do it right, and it goes well, that momentum will continue to more and more deconstruction of the socialist state. If they do it wrong, and give resources to political cronies, instead of privatizing them in a real market based way… then there’s going to be a lot of resistance to further “privatization”.
So it’s not like there’s just going to be, you know, an end to Maduro or an end to socialism overnight. But, you know, keep in mind the Eastern Bloc countries, you had an end of the Soviet Union, and then a multi-year process of rolling back socialism. And so that’s probably what we have in store for Venezuela is a multi-year process.
But we’re going to get many libertarian economists over there, after the fall of Maduro, who are going to be able to advise whoever the president is, whoever the deputies in the in the National Assembly are about the ways to make Venezuela a prosperous country again. And I think they’re going to listen because they had a real life experience. And you know, we’ve got economists who have done this. They’re still around from from when we helped reconstruct Eastern Europe. And we can take those same economists or their students, and we can get them to Venezuela and have them help in whatever way they can to advise on the right way to reconstruct a country after socialist collapse.
TLR: Kyle, I really appreciate you talking to me, this was pretty instructive and interesting. And I appreciate your time.
You can learn more about Dr. Kyle Varner and follow his blog HERE.