by David Paulin
A desperate regime goes into propaganda overdrive.
What does Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro have in common with history's worst leftist monsters? Like many narcissistic socialists before him – from Hitler and Stalin and Mao to Pol Pot and Castro and Kim Jong-un – Maduro is aloof to the suffering around him. He blames imagined enemies and ideological foes in Venezuela and abroad for severe food shortages, hyperinflation, and out-of-control crime. Above all, he pontificates about marching toward a socialist ideal, even as oil-rich yet impoverished Venezuela slides toward failed-nation status. He is a True Believer. The fantasy land Maduro inhabits has been especially evident over the Christmas holidays – holidays that never arrived because nobody could afford to buy the ingredients for traditional holiday meals.
That the holiday spirit eluded Venezuelans was utterly lost on Maduro, a former bus driver-turned politician. This was underscored by a government-sponsored television spot that ran over the holidays, and that featured Maduro and wife Cilia Flores together with dozens of happy, well-dressed and well-fed Venezuelan adults and children. Maduro, incidentally, does not call his wife First Lady but prefers a title for her in line with his revolutionary ideology: “First Combatant.”
Maduro, the True Believer, puts political ideology above grim reality. He is thus clueless about the fact that his rosy television spot shows holiday scenes that no longer exist in Venezuela -- not after decades of bread-and-circuses populism culminating in what the late Hugo Chávez, the firebrand socialist and Maduro's mentor, called “21st century socialism.” Now as in communist Cuba, Venezuela has achieved true social equality: everybody is poor. Cuba and Venezuela are close allies.
In the television spot, Maduro speaks over Venezuela folk music. “After so much struggle and sacrifice this people deserves a peaceful Christmas, where there is love and joy,” he said. He also referred to Venezuela's holiday traditions, specifically: preparing hallacas, a traditional Venezuelan dish similar to burrito. But with severe food shortages, it's unlikely many Venezuelans enjoyed hallacas this year.
Maduro added that “2017 will be the year of our Venezuela victorious and indestructible.” There's not much chance of that, however. Besides severe food shortages, socialist-run Venezuela now suffers severe shortages of medicines and even toilet paper – a result of command-and-control economic policies, epic levels of mismanagement, and wide-spread nationalizations. Oil-exporting Venezuela imports most of its goods, a result of its dependence on petrodollars which can no longer pay for social programs due to slumping oil prices.
Maduro, meanwhile, has found time to play disc jockey on a daily four-hour salsa radio show. It's a let-them-eat cake moment – playing DJ as his people starve.
It's not as if Maduro has not made an effort to give Venezuelans their traditionally long Christmas holiday. Two months before the holidays, he declared an “early Christmas” by announcing that workers would receive the first two-thirds of their bonuses and pensions. But with inflation roaring (hyperinflation has officially arrived) the extra cash was virtually worthless by the Christmas season.
In addition, Maduro ordered that toys be confiscated from a major toy retailer who was supposedly “hoarding them.” They were supposed to be redistributed to children. And in the run-up to the holidays, officials ordered retailers to lower their prices. Television stations showed scenes in which Maduro's officious price-control cops and soldiers entered stores and ordered discounts.
Hunger, of course, is one of the worst deprivations of socialist rule along with currency that's now virtually worthless. Many Venezuelans now scavenge for food in dumpsters or trash heaps, including those from the middle-class. One of them is Julio Noguera who recently spoke with an Associated Press correspondent at a trash heap on a sidewalk in downtown Caracas. "I come here looking for food because if I didn't, I'd starve to death," Noguera said as he picked through moldy potatoes. "With things like they are, no one helps anyone and no one gives away meals." The article noted that a survey by three leading Caracas universities reported that 76 percent of Venezuelans are now below the poverty line.
Corruption also is an old problem in Venezuela, with corruption watchdog Transparency International rating Venezuela over the years as one of the world's most corrupt countries. Under socialist rule, corruption has reached record levels. The most recent example is a bombshell report from the Associated Press detailing how Venezuela's military, which is in charge of food distribution, is engaging in epic levels of food trafficking. As the AP reported: “With much of the country on the verge of starvation and billions of dollars at stake, food trafficking has become one of the biggest businesses in Venezuela, the AP found. And from generals to foot soldiers, the military is at the heart of the graft, according to documents and interviews with more than 60 officials, business owners and workers, including five former generals.”
Venezuela's military and other senior officials also are suspected by U.S. officials of having turned Venezuela into a global hub for drug trafficking and money laundering.
How long before Venezuela suffers a full-blown social explosion? Days before the holiday season kicked off, Venezuela in fact witnessed a mini-explosion. Reacting to the collapse of their currency and unable to obtain new bank notes, thousands of Venezuelan went on a rampage. Hundreds of banks and stores were looted or vandalized in scenes of anarchy. Some of the worst looting occurred in El Callao and Ciudad Bolivar, cities in the southern state of Bolivar named after Venezuelan independence hero Simón Bolivar. Some 350 businesses were ransacked, including 90 percent of food outlets. Police reportedly arrested more than 300 people, including leaders of opposition parties. Speaking on state television, President Maduro declared: "Don't come and tell me they are political prisoners ... They are the two parties of the 'gringos' in Venezuela."
The sacking of food outlets was understandable, to be sure, as Venezuelans have endure one calamity after another. Blame it on socialist rule: bumbling command-and-control economic planning, draconian currency exchange and price controls, and widespread nationalizations.
Don't expect Maduro, the True Believer, to ever figure out that his socialist policies have destroyed Venezuela – a country that was once a Latin American success story.
David Paulin, an Austin, TX-based freelance journalist, covered Hugo Chavez's rise to power while based in Caracas as a foreign correspondent. He also reported from the Caribbean while based in Kingston, Jamaica.
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