Venezuela's petty socialism

Venezuela’s socialism will be durably remembered as an archetype of economic failure, political repression and ludicrous leadership. Even its closest allies are taking heed

Failure: Chavez's 21st century socialism
Fabio Rafael Fiallo
On 13 May 2014 19:03

The film An Average Little Man, of Italian moviemaker Mario Monicelli, ranked high among the box-office successes of the 1970s. Alberto Sordi plays the picture’s leading role, namely that of a mediocre public officer who reaches retirement age.

At an early stage of the film, we see him at the cocktail party organised by his department on the occasion of his departure. The time of the toast arrives. He thus readies to say a few words, but his colleagues hasten to quit the place, indifferent to what he may tell them.

His family life isn’t any brighter. His son is caught in the middle of a street shootout and dies, although some details lead the audience (at least this author) to believe that the killing might be a hallucination of the bureaucrat, who refuses to admit that the son merely ran away from home so as to emancipate himself. Be that as it may, the father goes off in search of the culprit of the alleged murder.

The wife (Shelley Winters), for her part, was hardly taken into account in the household decision-making. All too naturally, she finally lost the faculty of speech.

At the end of the film, the petty bureaucrat is seen in a park, uttering foolish remarks in an attempt to engage in conversation with young mothers who have taken their children for a stroll without paying attention to the intruder.

This story does not quite pertain to the domain of politics. All the same, it does bear a striking resemblance with the predicament of the so-called “twenty-first century socialism” launched a decade-and-a-half ago by late Venezuelan populist leader Hugo Chávez.

To demonstrate the analogy, let’s start with something akin to the film’s farewell party, namely the commemoration last March of the first anniversary of Chávez’s demise.

Replicating the indifference of the colleagues in the film, several heads of state of Latin America, who had been close buddies of the Venezuelan late leader, didn’t bother to travel to Venezuela to attend that ceremony.

This was the case of Brazil’s Dilma Roussef, Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa. Nicaragua’s president, Daniel Ortega, another close partner of Hugo Chávez, abstained from taking part at a parade organised on that occasion.

Why such a lack of interest? The reason is simple: Chávez’s “twenty-first century socialism” is no longer a source of inspiration for Latin American leaders.

Venezuela ranks dismally low in terms of economic performance and, according to forecasts made by the UN Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), will be the continent’s sole country in recession in 2014.

Thus, noting that stringent foreign exchange controls have brought about soaring inflation (57 percent on annualised basis) and dramatic, communist-like shortages of essential goods in Venezuela, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa has kept the dollarisation of his country’s economy – although he had in the past denounced it and promised to abolish it.

Noting that fiscal profligacy has obliged Venezuela to pay double-digit interest rates for its public debt, Bolivia’s president Evo Morales has taken the path of fiscal prudence.

Noting that expropriations have brought Venezuela’s industrial sector to a standstill, Daniel Ortega has opened his country’s economy to foreign investment, in particular to U.S. firms.

For sure, these heads of State continue to be allies – indeed, accomplices – of the Venezuelan regime, not only because that regime lends them petrodollars on advantageous terms in return for their support, but also because they share with Caracas the same anti-USA rhetoric, a similar willingness to muzzle the opposition and the independent press and, not the least, a common desire to perpetuate themselves in power, by dubious means if need be.

Yet, in the economic realm, they all look at Venezuela as a counter-model to keep away from.

In Latin America, to manifest affinity with Chavismo used to win votes. No longer. This was first understood by Peru’s president, Ollanta Humala, who, in the 2011 presidential contest that brought him to power, buried past slogans and ceased to advertise himself as his country’s Hugo Chávez.

Conversely, in Costa Rica’s presidential elections this year, the candidate identified with Chavismo, José María Villalta, arrived third with merely 17 percent of the ballot.

Pursuing the analogy with Monicelli’s film it can be said that, in a manner similar to the bureaucrat’s son, the Venezuelan youth has emancipated itself from the incantation of “twenty-first century socialism” and is playing a leading role in the protracted wave of street protests. Doing so has taken a heavy toll, which is counted in hundreds of detainees and tens of youngsters tortured and killed.

Like the film’s bureaucrat, who went all out to get his son’s presumed murderer, the Venezuelan regime looks for a culprit of the disenchantment of the youth. It recurrently puts the blame on conspiracies orchestrated by the so-called “fascist opposition” and the “American empire” – without ever producing a single piece of evidence to validate its accusations.

Venezuela’s military and paramilitary forces, for their part, are forbidden to question the brutal methods that the regime instructs them to use against street protestors. Like the bureaucrat’s wife in the film, they have to shut up. For infringing that rule, 30 officers have been jailed on “conspiracy” charges and more than 15 have been accused of “disobedience” in the past two months.

And just as the retired bureaucrat spent his days making silly comments in a park, so the “twenty-first century socialism” enters its phase of decay under the leadership of someone, President Nicolás Maduro, who is fond of making desultory decisions and announcements.

These include: creating an ill-defined Minister for the Supreme Happiness; expelling embassy officers of the “empire” (read: the U.S.) and then, all of a sudden, calling upon the “empire” to restore bilateral relations at the ambassador level; and accepting to hold a dialogue with the opposition in the presence of external mediators, while lambasting the opposition for expecting the dialogue to “yield results”.

Notwithstanding their multiple similarities, there is a stark difference between Monicelli’s bureaucrat and Chávez’s socialism: the former left no imprint on this world, whereas Venezuela’s socialism will be durably remembered as an archetype of economic failure, political repression and ludicrous leadership.

Fabio Rafael Fiallo is an economist and a former UN official. The author of four books, he writes on issues related to international politics and the world economy

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