It’s ironic – and tragic – that as the world celebrates the twentieth anniversary of Communism’s defeat in Europe, the comic-opera that is Hugo Chavez’s “21st century socialist” Venezuela is descending to new lows of absurdity. Beneath the buffoonery, however, there’s evidence that life in Venezuela is about to take a turn for the worse.
By buffoonery, I mean President Chavez’s decidedly weird statements of late. These include threatening war against Columbia, advising Venezuelans that it is “more socialist” to shower for only three minutes a day, telling his fellow citizens to eat less because “there are lots of fat people” in Venezuela, eulogizing convicted murderer Carlos the Jackal as “a revolutionary fighter”, defending Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe as a “brother”, and wondering whether Idi Amin was so bad after all.
It’s not unusual for Latin American caudillos to say things that suggest a growing detachment from reality. The truth, however, is that for all Chavez’s eccentricities, it would be a mistake to dismiss these comments as nothing more than egomaniacal ravings.
It’s no coincidence that the noticeable uptick in Chavez’s verboseness corresponds to a radical downturn in Venezuela’s economy. On November 17th, Venezuela’s central bank announced that the country had experienced its second quarter of negative growth. In other words, Venezuela is officially in recession. But while most politicians would consider this a cue for policy-change, Chavez decided to question the entire GDP methodology. “We simply can’t permit”, he said, “that they continue calculating GDP with the old capitalist method.”
One reason for Venezuela’s declining economic fortunes is the fall in global oil prices since July 2008. Given Venezuela’s heavy dependence on its vast petroleum resources, this was bound to affect its economy.
This, however, is exacerbated by deteriorating economic and social conditions throughout Venezuela that flow directly from Chavez’s “21st century socialist” policies. Amidst other data released on November 17, Venezuela’s central bank reported that private sector activity declined 5.8% and inflation was averaging 26.7%. Further complicating matters has been the drying-up of foreign capital. Outsiders are increasingly reluctant to invest in a country where nationalization of private property is a routine occurrence.
Then there’s the rationing. Chavez’s price-controls on goods such as agricultural products have undermined an indispensible element of a prosperous economy: i.e., free prices. Hence food, water, and electricity are increasingly rationed in Venezuela. Naturally there are ways to circumvent this, most notably the black market and corruption. But these merely contribute to Venezuela’s growing crime epidemic, as Venezuelans turn against one another in their daily struggle to survive.
In this light, some of Chavez’s recent remarks seem less odd and far more calculated. His exhortations to eat less and take shorter showers, for instance, sound like a man trying to rationalize growing shortages of essentials.
The same economic problems may explain Chavez’s efforts to generate foreign policy crises. It’s an old tactic routinely employed by most authoritarian regimes, and plenty of Venezuelans know it. The vice-president of Venezuela’s Catholic bishops’ conference, Archbishop Baltazar Porras Cardoso, for example, recently described Chavez’s recent war threats against Colombia as an attempt to cover up the grave crisis now engulfing Venezuela.
But Chavez is not simply relying upon conjuring up a parallel universe to legitimize Venezuela’s deteriorating economic situation. He’s also bolstering his position through increased repression.
This takes many forms. One is his regime’s habit of billeting soldiers on university campuses whose students demonstrate against Chavez’s policies. More recently, the government asserted total control over all schools’ educational curriculum. Protestors against this new educational law were taken into “detention for investigation”. As Venezuela’s Catholic bishops noted, this represents a reversal of the principle that people are normally investigated first before being arrested.
Given the Catholic Church’s prominence in highlighting the illusions and oppression increasingly used by Chavez to shore up his regime, it’s hardly surprising that his intimidation tactics are increasingly being directed against the Church.
Apart from the daily threats made against priests and now-routine public abuse of bishops by government officials, Chavez’s latest gambit is to threaten to confiscate Catholic churches, buildings, and other property in the name of “protecting the national patrimony”. Indeed, plans to this effect have already been announced for parts of the capital Caracas. The historically-aware will know that the very same tactic was employed against the Church by European Communist regimes after World War II.
But however much one might detest Chavez, he is not a stupid man. A fool would not have been able to gain and hold power for so long. Yet reality is starting to catch up with Venezuela’s leftist strongman. Unfortunately that’s no consolation for Venezuela’s long-suffering people for whom religious, political, and economic freedom are increasingly mere memories in a daily world characterized more by fantasy than truth.