Venezuela is providing a case study in how to impose a dictatorship. Looking back over the past twenty years, one can see a step-by-step process whereby a wealthy, relatively stable nation brimming with valuable natural resources becomes a hellhole of desperation ruled by two socialism-spouting strongmen in a row.
I say relatively stable, because, as is par for the course in Latin America, Venezuelan history has been full of coups, factionalism, fragile coalitions and treachery. It was a big deal in March 1964 when the presidential sash was passed from one democratically elected president to the next in a civil ceremony devoid of funny business, and in 1969, when the outgoing and incoming presidents were of different parties. That incoming president, Rafael Caldera, served again in the 1990s, and was the president who pardoned Hugo Chavez.
Pardoned him for what?
Chavez, born in 1954, was an army officer in 1982 when he and two other officers founded the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement-200, which, ten years later, attempted a coup against then-president Carlos Andres Perez.
The early 1990s in Venezuela saw economic "reforms" instituted - none of which were really free-market, it must be pointed out - including a controversial IMF aid package. the upshot was a rise in oil prices and civil unrest. In fact, the coup attempt by Chavez's group was one of two.
Chavez high-tailed it to Cuba after his release in 1994 and gave a speech there that served notice that he'd gone full socialist revolutionary.
So the conditions were ripe for what followed. A large, resource-rich Latin American nation with a political landscape characterized by a confusing array of parties and coalitions, and a succession of presidents each convinced that he had the formula for bringing coherence, prosperity, safety and more freedom to society. Because each formula was some variant of collectivism, it always fell short. And then along comes a firebrand with just the right tone to his message.
Then came out-and-out statism, with nationalized industries, "community coordination collectives," state media, calls for rewriting the constitution, and alignment with Cuba. That last development is significant, because in 2005, Cuba assumed the task of issuing Venezuelan national-identify cards and passports.
This burnished Chavez's bona fides with US leftists such as Harry Belafonte and Bill Ayers. When the US elected a hard-left president, Barack Obama, Chavez sensed that he could proceed with his designs without pressure from the north.
As we know, he died and was succeeded by former bus driver Nicholas Maduro, who has stripped the National Assembly of its powers. Now comes the recent "election" of a constituent assembly tasked with rewriting the constitution. Polls show that the Venezuelan populace hated the idea, but, to no one's surprise, the referendum's outcome has been favorable.
The economic decline over the twenty-year course of the Chavez-Maduro era has been unlike anything Venezuela has ever experienced. People break into zoos and eat animals. Toilet paper can't be found on store shelves. Applications for asylum in the US were up 160 percent last year. Over 26,000 people crossed the border into Colombia in one day - last Monday, July 26.
Now, regarding whether Maduro will follow the next steps in the textbook for tyranny, we shall see. Generally, when a nation has been ruined economically by a dictator, he rallies the populace with cries that outside forces caused the malaise and begins taking an aggressive stance internationally. Chavez and Maduro have tried the blame game, but Venezuelan society has not been susceptible to buying it - hence the civil unrest. But sometimes the regime goes ahead and uses its international alliances to hitch its wagon to expansionist designs. Witness the Assad regime in Syria and its solidarity with Russia and Iran.
All of this points up one thing that is obvious to anyone who understand the folly of muddled economic policy. Without any faction in a nation offering a full-throated defense of the free market, all kinds of lame-brained and, finally, tyrannical measures look like possible panaceas.
Which gets to an even larger point we make often here at LITD: undesirable developments of a cultural, economic, or world-stage nature, reach a point of irreversibility if no one is offering meaningful objection.