Venezuela, today a land of misery, once had the longest-running and most exuberant democracy in South America. In its pluralist heyday, I was a reporter for the Daily Journal, an English-language newspaper in Caracas. I still remember my first assignment: covering a speech in Congress. In the press gallery, I was struggling to understand some senator’s flowery peroration. “What is he saying?” I urgently asked a Venezuelan reporter. Without even pausing his swiftly tapping fingers, the reporter said dryly, “Puras mentiras.” Pure lies.
That was the first clue that Bolívarian democracy was far from perfect. Other signs were to follow. Journalists, as I saw with my own eyes, were paid to keep silent. Military nests were comfortably feathered.
Oil money flowed but often in illicit ways. Once, I was among some journalists being wined and dined by an official of the state oil company. Round of whisky followed round of whisky. “How can you afford this?” I naively inquired. Unabashedly, our host replied, “There is plenty of oil.”
The oil wealth was supposed to be invested to develop other industry and to educate the people. Some of it was, but to little effect. Mostly, it served as a Band-Aid. The poor got bones, but they lived in corrugated hillside ranchos; the powerful were protected.
The root cause, long before the scourge of Chavista socialism, lay in the country’s colonial inheritance. The Spanish bequeathed a culture of statism, meaning, central control, an economy of royal charters and privileges, that era’s form of cronyism. The path to wealth led not from entrepreneurship but from royal favor.
Simón Bolívar liberated Venezuela from Spain, but he was unable to remake the political culture. Tomás Lander, the 19th-century journalist, called his country “a nation of accomplices.” He meant that, at some level, Venezuelans in authority — landowners, rulers, the church — knew about the lies. And stayed silent.
Postwar, genuine patriots overturned a military junta and established a democracy. From 1958 to 1998, elections were free, results were counted honestly. But power was stacked in the executive. The legislature was not accountable to constituents and, anyway, it was powerless. Sooner or later, a democratic leader needs a legislative check. Otherwise, democracy will devolve into a dictatorship.
The oil money papered over these failings. They afforded the public bread and, not infrequently, circuses. But then, oil plunged to $12 a barrel. Make no mistake, the popular dissatisfaction that led, in 1998, to the election of Hugo Chávez, a populist lieutenant colonel, was genuine. Chávez was a disaster — a leftist strongman, undemocratic and anti-market. His successor, Nicolás Maduro, has these flaws to a greater degree.
There is no longer democracy, even of an imperfect sort. There is no free press to speak of. The opposition was repressed, the judiciary made into the government’s lackey. Private businesses were brutalized (save for friends of the dictator). The private market all but disappeared; the economy collapsed. There are no medicines for the sick or nutrition for mothers and children. Social order has disintegrated; the murder rate has soared. Three million Venezuelans have fled. Among those who remain, average weight is said to have dropped 25 pounds over a year. With annual inflation at a fantastic number (some calculate it at over 100,000 percent), Venezuela does not have a genuine currency.
It is hard to convey the contrast to the country I knew. I remember prosperity, which extended to the middle class (though not the poor), a buoyant commercial culture, noisy political caravans, loudspeakers proclaiming favorite candidates, a vibrant press, restaurants plentiful and well-attended, going out at night without a thought to personal safety. All of it now is gone. For those to whom the country is dear must admit that Venezuela’s collapse has been, for the most part, self-inflicted. The United States is not to blame, nor is Cuba or Russia.
True, the United States was for a long time Venezuela’s ally. But contrary to the anti-American rhetoric that often attends discussion of Latin America, Venezuelans were the authors of their destiny. And though the present regime has fallen in with Havana, the point holds. Venezuelans created this mess.
In recent days, Venezuelans have risen to protest the regime. The National Assembly — ironically the only independent political body remaining — picked the courageous Juan Guaidó to lead it. Guaidó called last year’s reelection of Maduro a fraud. He is not alone. Various international bodies, including the Lima Group and the European Union, have refused to recognize its results. With encouragement from the United States and a score of other nations, Guaidó has declared that, in the absence of an election, the constitution makes him the interim head of state.
Judging from protests and rallies on the street, he seems to have broad support, in poor districts in particular. Maduro’s response has been to murder dissidents. Guaidó was briefly arrested and then released. He has pleaded for international support, and he has set the right priorities. If he takes power, his agenda will be humanitarian aid, a broad-based (transitional) government and free elections.
Perhaps the most hopeful sign is that the 35-year-old Guaidó is an engineer. Like France, Venezuela graduated troves of political scientists but not enough chemists, physicists and engineers. If a new Venezuela emerges, hopefully without bloodshed, it will need more hard scientists, software developers, doctors, nurses, teachers, managers and entrepreneurs. It will not need more aspiring Bolívars.
The Trump administration is right to lend support for Venezuela’s democratic uprising. So is the Organization of American States, and many of its members, including Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Argentina and Brazil, among others.
The cards are mostly in the hands of Venezuelans, in particular, those of the country’s military. More than anyone, they have the power to force Maduro into exile. But international effort is required, too. The United States has imposed sanctions against Petróleos de Venezuela in an effort to starve the government of cash. It also deemed Guaidó responsible for Venezuelan accounts at the New York Federal Reserve. Britain blocked the Maduro government from withdrawing gold reserves.
Foreign states do not have a duty to trade with brutal dictators or to extend them credit. Sanctions are an appropriate and oft-tried weapon. When the humanitarian stakes are this large, it is a moral failing not to help.
Many Americans are uncomfortable supporting anything Trump. The feeling is understandable but not a basis for policy. When a bad person does a good thing, it is a good thing. There is also hand-wringing over America’s history of intervention south of the border. Whatever you think of that history, what matters now is that American influence is being used for the good. Mostly, support for the administration has been bipartisan.
Venezuela has been a friend and an important trade partner. It was a democracy, albeit flawed, for as long as South Korea has been. Things went terribly wrong, but for the first time in recent memory, Venezuelans are refusing to be accomplices. Civilized nations must do no less.