The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion No, Venezuela doesn’t prove anything about socialism

A man walks past graffiti that reads “hunger” in Caracas, Venezuela, on Monday. (Carlos Becerra/Bloomberg News)

Venezuela is clearly having its moment in the American conservative mediasphere. The country’s catastrophic collapse is, we’re told, all we need to know about the terrifying dangers of socialism.

First there was Meghan McCain turning Venezuela into Exhibit A in her screed against socialism on ABC’s “The View.” On Fox Business Network, Stuart Varney used Venezuela’s latest bout of instability as a “teaching moment” for Americans tempted by “pie-in-the-sky” socialism.

Off on the fringes, it’s a popular theme, too: Remember that the priceless Infowars gotcha video with the world’s most unflappable sailor girl turned on the killer line: “You know Venezuela? The majority of the country is now eating rats.”

I’ve spent two decades chronicling every agonizing twist and turn in the decay of Venezuela’s democracy, economy and society. You’d think I’d be on board with these takes. Think again. I’m revulsed. It’s appalling to see my country’s suffering leveraged for cheap partisan point-scoring.

It bothers me because it’s lazy. But it bothers me more because it’s wrong.

Since the turn of the century, every big country in South America except Colombia has elected a socialist president at some point. Socialists have taken power in South America’s largest economy (Brazil), in its poorest (Bolivia) and in its most capitalist (Chile). Socialists have led South America’s most stable country (Uruguay) as well as its most unstable (Ecuador). Argentina and Peru elected leftists who, for various reasons, didn’t refer to themselves as socialists — but certainly governed as such.

Mysteriously, the supposedly automatic link between socialism and the zombie apocalypse skipped all of them. Not content with merely not-collapsing, a number of these countries have thrived.

Take Peru. When Ollanta Humala, widely seen as one of the most radical hard-left leaders in the region, was elected president in 2011, 28 percent of Peruvians were poor. In office, Humala governed from the left, but sensibly, investing in the poor while nurturing economic growth. By the time he handed over power in 2016 (peacefully, to a right-wing successor), just 21 percent of Peruvians were poor.

Some argue that it was Humala’s relative moderation that averted disaster. But look across his southeastern border. In Bolivia, a hard-core socialist, Evo Morales, has been in power since 2006. Morales’s tenure lays waste to any notion that countries succeed only under “moderates” — he’s a proper extremist, a hard-leftist who nationalized the nation’s most lucrative industry, as well as an authoritarian who has done real damage to his country’s democracy. I despise him. But it’s an incontestable fact that he has handled the nation’s finances with prudence and scored real social achievements along the way. According to the World Bank, under Morales poverty in Bolivia fell by a third, with none of the economic chaos Venezuela has seen.

None of this is to endorse South American socialism, mind you. In Brazil, socialists oversaw corruption so shocking that it destabilized not just their country but also its neighbors. In Argentina, socialists-in-all-but-name ran the economy so poorly they very nearly brought about a Venezuelan-style collapse. In Ecuador, the socialist president’s rank authoritarianism brought the country’s democracy to the very edge.

I never would have voted for any of these people. But when you try to evaluate their records, the word that comes to mind is “mixed”: successes in some areas, failures in others, and nary a society-wide cataclysm in sight.

Don’t believe me? Ask the hundreds of thousands of desperate Venezuelan refugees now making their way to Brazil, Ecuador or Argentina in search of a better future.

American conservatives won’t acknowledge the rest of South America, because doing so would mean acknowledging that Venezuela-style collapses are the opposite of typical. And because a dispassionate look at the Venezuelan case would conclude that it has been driven by a unique mix of circumstances, in which socialism is just one ingredient.

Far more toxic, in my view, has been the collapse of democracy. Venezuelans can no longer vote out a horrifically misguided government, leaving society helpless. In the rest of the region, democracy held up, so socialists who messed up got term-limited or voted out of office.

Look, I get it. When U.S. conservatives bring up “Venezuela,” they’re not talking about the place I grew up in. They’re using the word as a rhetorical club, a verbal firebomb you throw at the the opposing ideological barricade. Their goal isn’t to enlighten; it’s to delegitimize vast sectors of the left. After all, if you convince people that every left-wing government is on a slippery slope to Venezuela, the entire left becomes toxic. Which is very much the point.

Don’t be fooled. All Venezuela demonstrates is that if you leave implementation to the very worst, most anti-intellectual, callous, authoritarian and criminal people in society, socialism can have genuinely horrendous consequences. But couldn’t the same be said of every ideology?

It’s a question that supporters of the current U.S. administration would do well to ponder.

Read more:

The Post’s View: All Venezuelans can do is flee. We must help them.