Hugo Chávez, the late president of Venezuela, used to say that the political movement he started in his country was “21st Century Socialism.” Unfortunately, like its predecessors from the 20th century, the socialism of our time is also eager to kill its citizens.
For the past three weeks Venezuela has witnessed a series of demonstrations carried out mostly by students. The catalyst for these demonstrations was the sexual abuse of a girl at the University of Táchira. However, the reasons for widespread social discontent can be traced back to two related phenomena.
First, Venezuela's economy is in dire straits. Although the country is oil-rich and the international price of oil has done nothing but go up since 2002, the country borders on economic collapse. Milk, flour, and insulin are impossible to find. Last year there was even a “toilet paper crisis” due to the severe shortage. Moreover, while the official exchange rate between the Venezuelan bolivar and U.S. dollar is approximately 12 to 1, in the black market – the inevitable result of controls that make buying foreign currencies almost impossible for citizens -- the rate is 100 to 1.
Second, since Chávez took office in 1999, the political climate of the country has become strained. What was once the strongest democracy in Latin America, not to mention a safe haven for political refugees, has eroded rapidly into a populist and autocratic illiberal regime. Slowly but surely each and every remnant of the republican order was replaced by an overarching state power that harasses and persecutes its opposition. The government launched an assault on Venezuela’s civil society. Mutual respect, freedom of speech, and democracy were the first victims.
Chavez's death did little to pacify the country. New presidential elections took place last April, and in a process that was far from free and fair, Nicolás Maduro – Chávez's political successor and a former bus driver – came out the winner. His questionable victory has polarized Venezuela.
What the street protests elicited from Maduro is best described as the firm response of a weak leader. Like Assad in Syria or Yanukovich in Ukraine, Maduro’s reaction is a textbook example of what authoritarian leaders turn to when in trouble: censorship and repression. News of the demonstrations was blacked out. National media censorship was complemented with a ban on the regional news channel, NTN24, and the expulsion of CNN journalists from the country. Moreover, many cities are experiencing an Internet and other communications shutdown.
Repression has come at the hands of police, the military, and revolutionary militias. Several times unidentified men have opened fire on unarmed demonstrators, causing many deaths. Leopoldo López, an opposition politician and leader of the protests, was recently arrested. The government accuses him, among other things, of homicide, arson, and terrorism. If convicted, he faces countless years in prison.
Almost all other countries in South America have taken, at best, a faint-hearted position on the Venezuelan turmoil. The case of Brazil is particularly sad. As a self-proclaimed regional leader, Brazil’s silence is only comprehensible as a severe case of moral deafness.
Argentina is the only exception. This other regional “power” has both ideological and economic ties to Venezuela. Therefore, out of fear for its own future, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s government, has been loudly supportive of Maduro and his state terrorism.
After suffering the criminal acts of their own government and the complicity of the other countries in the region, protesting Venezuelan students – now joined by other sectors of Venezuelan society – remain in the streets. Their fire is far from extinguished, but no one knows what lies ahead.
Nevertheless, they have taught the whole world a lesson in what freedom and dignity mean.
*A slightly different version of the article was originally posted at the Austrian Economic Center's blog: http://www.austriancenter.com/blog/2014/02/24/venezuela-new-socialism-same-old-victims/#.Uw-BT_ldU5M