While it’s nearly impossible to imagine now, Venezuela was one of the wealthiest nations in the world until the 1990s. With a healthy democracy and burgeoning middle class, Venezuela was poised to remain prosperous for generations to come. Following the rise of socialism in Venezuela, however, that all changed. The people of Venezuela are now forced to endure unimaginable suffering due to a socioeconomic collapse brought about by failed socialist policies. Shockingly, the type of big government that has caused so much needless suffering in Venezuela is now popular in the United States. We must learn from Venezuela and reject socialist policies that breed human misery.

When I use the word socialism, I mean the wholesale government takeover of the economy. That is, out-of-control government spending, socialized medicine, price controls and the like.  I feel the need to define socialism because the word means a lot of different things to different people. In our discourse today, there is much disagreement over who or what qualifies as socialist and for that reason, I think it is necessary to define the term. 

Before the onset of socialism, Venezuela was a true economic powerhouse. In the 1960s and 1970s, the country produced 10 percent of the world’s crude oil and maintained a GDP per capita approaching that of the United States. At the same time, Venezuela could boast a democratic government. Elections occurred at regular five-year intervals and were contested peacefully by political parties committed to democracy and sensible economics. While the country persisted for some time after, the seeds of the inevitable decline of this thriving socioeconomic system were sown with the nationalization of the Venezuelan oil industry.

Former Venezuelan President Carlos Andrés Pérez argued that more government control over the oil industry would benefit the people instead of greedy industrialists. In 1976, he created a state oil monopoly called Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) and banned foreign companies from the Venezuelan oil market. When a global oil glut hit the industry in the mid-1980s, the Venezuelan state proved unable to cope with the market change. Within 10 years of nationalization, Venezuelan oil production fell by roughly 50 percent to less than two million barrels a day.

Instead of embracing market reforms, the people of Venezuela turned to even more extreme government intervention to turn around the economy. In 1998, Venezuela elected self-proclaimed Marxist Hugo Chávez as president of Venezuela. After he was elected in a landslide, Chávez promised cheering supporters, “Venezuela’s resurrection is underway and nothing and nobody can stop it.” 

Unfortunately, the socialist policies implemented by Chávez proved devastating to Venezuela’s economy and society. Chávez instituted aggressive policies to redistribute wealth from select industries and individuals to his working-class constituency. For example, Chávez nationalized the Banco de Venezuela, or Bank of Venezuela, and the nation’s largest telecommunications company, CANTV. To cope with rising inflation resulting from nationalization, Chávez implemented price controls on a wide array of basic necessities.

By the time Nicolás Maduro was elected president following Chávez’s 2013 death, Venezuela’s economy was in full free-fall. By over-inserting the government into the economy, Venezuela’s socialist leaders have brought about the disintegration of the country’s economy and society. Venezuela has been brought to its knees by poverty, corruption and hunger.

The Venezuelan economy has halved in size over the past five years and inflation has reached above 2 million percent annually. The Venezuelan people are enduring unimaginable suffering as a result of this crisis. Due to food shortages, the average Venezuelan lost 24 pounds in body weight during 2017 alone. With an 85 percent shortage of medicine, Venezuela’s entire healthcare system is at risk of total collapse. More than 3 million Venezuelans have fled the country, desperately searching for a better life.

Venezuelans are no longer willing to sit idly by while their great country is ravaged by man-made disaster. Being faced with resounding defeat at the ballot box, Maduro jailed potential opponents and threatened others in the run up to the May 2018 election. Following this fraudulent election, Maduro is using state security services to hang onto power in spite of his people’s wishes. Make no mistake, Maduro has morphed into a full-blown dictator willing to watch his people suffer so he can hang onto political power. The world must support the Venezuelan people in their quest to liberate themselves from the scourge of despotism. I’m confident that the Venezuelans will emerge victorious in their quest for the restoration of prosperity and individual liberty.

While the Venezuelans struggle to free themselves from a socialist system, an increasing number of Americans are fighting for one here. In fact, a 2018 Gallup poll found that 57 percent of Democrats view socialism positively while 45 percent of those aged 18 to 29 favor socialism over capitalism. Illustrating this trend of increased support for socialism, leading 2020 presidential contender Bernie Sanders openly identifies as a “Democratic Socialist.” Sanders has pledged to “… create an economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy.” While we all can support an economy that works for everyone, the socialist policies creeping into the mainstream of our society would do anything but. Replacing human innovation with a big government proves destructive to any society. 

A plethora of such destructive socialist policies is currently finding burgeoning support among the American electorate. For example, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., has introduced the Green New Deal. This initiative would rob the American people of consumer choice, raise taxes and lead to countless job losses. As further evidence of this trend, a significant number of 2020 Democratic presidential contenders such as Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., have come out in support of the elimination of private health insurance in favor of government control.   

Unfortunately, the Venezuelans know this kind of state takeover all too well. Campaigning under the guise of equality, socialist leaders there robbed the country of its prosperity and democracy while enriching themselves. Socialism is destructive wherever it’s implemented due to its desire to repress individual liberty in favor of absolute power for the state. However, the human spirit always triumphs. There’s no socialist system strong enough to quash our innate desire to be free from the constraints of absolute government control. The American people must reject socialism so that we never face the same terrible plight as our Venezuelan neighbors. 

Dylan Berger can be reached at dylberge@umich.edu.

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