Venezuela – the ongoing tragedy of Populism

Updated: Dec 28, 2020

Ecuador has just announced it will no longer let Venezuelans cross into its territory without a passport. The Brazilian army has been sent to its northern border to control violence.

Peru is planning similar passport measures and Chile has had tighter regulations for years. This is sad, but perhaps a little understandable.

South America

The Bolivarian dream is for closer unity.

Firstly, the countries of South America are more like ‘Sister Republics’ than entirely distinct entities (fairly free movement between Andean countries has been commonplace for years).

As per Bolivar’s dream, there is much more that links the societies at a human level than separates them, and it is tragic when South Americans jump on the bandwagon of ‘blaming’ migrants for everything from crime to lower wages. Both issues speak more to poor administration than anyone looking to cause trouble.

Venezuela’s gradual descent into economic ruin has been like watching a blimp crash in slow motion. Populism, corruption and endemic inequality have taken a rich, yet deeply divided country and simply crushed it.

Venezuela has the second largest oil reserves on Earth and it is a member of OPEC.

Chavez had a close relationship with Cuba

When the late Hugo Chavez was elected, he spouted the same populist rhetoric that has long shackled the genuine progressive left throughout the region. Remember way back to Evita Peron throwing money to the masses, or El Salvador’s current government locking women up for having miscarriages. Small noisy acts that pander, rather than addressing real structural issues.

Populism has long been the bane of Latin American development and justice. From corrupt colonial rule – hand in hand with the Catholic Church – to violent military juntas, broken by the odd moment of stability or progress. So many Latin Americans have been drawn to populist causes out of sheer desperation – or exasperation.

When Chavez was first in power I was doing a graduate degree in Latin American studies. Anyone with an ounce of compassion or understanding knew Venezuela (along with many other countries) desperately needed some form of social investment and income redistribution.

We hoped he could have led an honest, transparent government, genuinely concerned about the disenfranchised 50% of the population.

He did not. Instead, he grandstanded, caused thousands of businesses to fail and aligned himself with other populist regimes. The system hobbled along thanks to high oil prices, but when prices fell, the utter mismanagement of the economy became exposed. It is now collapsing.

Offering a little more context, I remember sitting in Santiago airport in 2003. The flight beside mine was bound for Caracas. I started chatting with some (clearly wealthy) Venezuelans who were flying home. When I asked about Chavez, they simply said; ‘the Gringo’s need to kill him, but they are too busy in Iraq.’

This is why populists are elected. The many disenfranchised populations throughout the region and around the world never did enjoy the benefits of such one-sided economic development and this is why Maduro still has support in the slums of such a wealthy country.

It is easy to understand why so many in Latin America feel disenfranchised

*As a side note, I have many times heard the same thing from wealthy Brazilians. When asked about the favelas – slums, I have been told ‘those people are lazy.’ 

From the left or the right (and remember the right in Latin America ran most of the region through the dirty wars of the 1970’s), this slogan-chanting populism has done remarkably little for a long-suffering people. Moreover, evidence of success when good administration has been attempted is so overwhelming, it is almost non-debatable.

Costa Rica stands out as a remarkable model.

Costa Rica

He fought for Costa Rican freedom

When faced with civil war, this tiny country simply disbanded the army. Now the whole population is literate. Chile emerged from the hard left and the military right. The police are well paid and while corruption exists, it does so far less than regional averages. The economy and public infrastructure are doing far better than elsewhere.

Next door to Venezuela, beautiful Colombia has finally ended its many insurgencies and lo and behold, the economy is growing – we’re even selling tours there now, and it is a magical destination. Stability is a pre-curser to economic development, and needs to be followed by social investment. Not that Colombia does not need to spend 25% of its GDP on military, roads, schools and hospitals can benefit!

Maduro and his merry band have failed. My little essay here is not going to change their mind and nor will foreign military intervention. It is time for real elections, independent monitoring of the government and an opening of the economy.

If that could happen, real aid could pour in, Venezuelans could return home and the Bolivarian Republic could take its rightful place among the magnificent countries of the region. All these people being forced to leave are allowing his regime to survive. Venezuela is not war-torn, and it is long past colonial rule. This is purely political and one would hope the Venezuelan people may take the reins of their beautiful country and force change.

My solution is not sexy or particularly fast, but it really does seem to work. Transparency, social investment, fair taxation used for infrastructure and public health, independent monitoring, a free press and the complete rejection of populist nationalism.

Redistributing wealth in a purposeful way builds democracy and trust in institutions. Hiding behind a flag while blaming ‘others’ is a path to intolerance and economic decline. 

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