The Roots of Venezuela’s Disorder
Russia and Cuba are reaping what they’ve sown in Latin America.
On Wednesday, as Venezuelan strongman Nicólas Maduro was promising more repression to crush relentless student protests, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told reporters that Moscow plans to put military bases in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba. A few days later a Russian spy ship arrived in Havana harbor unannounced.
The usual Cold War suspects are back. More accurately, they never left. Former KGB officer Vladimir Putin is warning President Obama that Russia can make trouble in the Americas if the U.S. insists on solidarity with the Ukrainian people. Meanwhile, Latin America’s aging Marxists are lining up behind Mr. Maduro, successor to the late Hugo Chávez.
Russia and Cuba are finally reaping the benefits of the revolution they have long sown in Latin America. Any chance of defeating them requires setting the record straight about how Venezuela got so poor.
Venezuelan politicians sold left-wing populism like snake oil for decades before Chávez came to power in 1999. They demagogued entrepreneurs and indoctrinated the masses with anti-businesses propaganda. From the earliest days of the Cuban revolution, Castro was a hero in Venezuelan universities where Cuban-Soviet propaganda flourished. By the 1960s school children were being weaned on utopian collectivism. The brainwashing intensified when Chávez opened Venezuela to Cuban proselytizers.
Through it all, the politically connected got rich, including the chavistas. But today a large part of the population believes that business is underhanded and greedy. This is why escaping the noose of totalitarianism is going to be difficult. The culture of liberty has been nearly annihilated, and even if Mr. Maduro is overthrown, that culture must be rebuilt from the ground up.
To be sure, social media makes it harder to put a smiley face on tyranny than in the 1980s. Back then a doctrine like sandinismo could be marketed by Cuba and Russia to naïve Americans as the salvation of the Nicaraguan poor even while the Sandinista army burned Miskito Indian villages and arrested banana-selling peasants as speculators in the highlands.
Today word gets around. A Feb. 18 cellphone image from the Venezuelan city of Valencia—of a young man carrying the limp body of 22-year-old Genesis Carmona after she was shot in the head by Maduro enforcers—has gone viral as an emblem of the repression.
Yet so far Mr. Maduro has escaped broad international condemnation. Most eyes are on Ukraine. In this hemisphere, Chávez bought friends with “oil diplomacy.” Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina and El Salvador are applauding Venezuelan brutality.
Mr. Maduro even has Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff on board. She has dined out for some 25 years on her imprisonment by Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship. She seems proud of her past in an armed urban underground that tried to topple a dictator. But now she is backing the crackdown on Venezuelan civil liberties.
Thanks in large part to Ms. Rousseff’s Workers’ Party, Brazil has blown its chance to become a global economic player over the past decade. As a card-carrying member of Chávez’s Bolivarian empire, however, Brazil feels geopolitically important. Ms. Rousseff knows it won’t last if Venezuela’s military government doesn’t. The collapse of chavismo would take away the best weapon Brasilia has ever had in its quest to defeat U.S. hegemony in the region.
Inside Venezuela, many have bought the line that the country was ruled by capitalist oligarchs before Chávez. Few remember that former President Carlos Andres Pérez (aka CAP) was a socialist who nationalized Venezuelan oil in 1976. The early years of his first term in office (1974-1979) were a populist fiesta as oil prices jumped along with government spending. Many entrepreneurs and some intellectuals were unhappy with his disregard for the rule of law and his decrees, including price controls. They were right. The big party ushered in the “lost decade” of the 1980s.
CAP returned for a second term in 1989. This time he tried market liberalism. But he underestimated Soviet-Cuban organizational skills in the barrios. When he increased gasoline prices slightly and some Caracas bus fares were raised, militants unleashed the mobs they had inculcated. Chávez rose on the heels of the “Caracazo,” as that fateful event is known.
CAP tried to free the economy, but he took “austerity” advice from the International Monetary Fund, and the adjustment was too painful. In 1993 his many political enemies used allegations of corruption, dug up by a pro-Castro journalist, to remove him from office. Today he remains a symbol among chavistas, not of a disruptive socialist but of a corrupt oligarchy.
Mr. Maduro seems confident that he can keep blaming entrepreneurs for Venezuelan suffering. That would explain why, though store shelves are already empty, the government is implementing the “law of just prices.” It threatens companies that don’t obey price controls with penalties that include expropriation, corruption charges and jail. This will asphyxiate business, creating more shortages and leaving the government as the only supplier of food and other necessities. But then that’s the point, isn’t it?
Write to O’Grady@wsj.com