Construction worker Pedro Pirela and his neighbors heard a water truck that supplies nearby hotels coming down the road. They rushed to block the street, stopped the driver, and siphoned off the prized liquid. "Water is gold now," Pirela told the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, saying he and his fellow plotters had no choice but to steal. In fact, Pirela admitted he had ambushed another water truck on a separate occasion. Venezuela’s nationwide water shortage has devastated the country to the point that citizens have had to mimic Pirela’s actions just to stave off dehydration.
When the late Hugo Chávez established a new constitution in 1999, nationalized key industries, and implemented a series of laws redistributing land and wealth, few people anticipated committing acts like Pirela’s to get basic necessities. And when Chávez’s handpicked successor, current President Nicolás Maduro, continued these policies as leader of the United Socialist Party, he probably didn’t see it coming either.
Today, the country’s opposition is holding a mass rally to try to force the president to hold a referendum on his rule—a vote that polls indicate will lead to Maduro’s ouster. The opposition hopes to draw at least one million people to the streets of the capital city Caracas. The government has responded by cracking down on the opposition before the rally, an event that could signal a new stage in the country’s ongoing political battle. Journalists have been denied entry if not detained and expelled from covering the protests as thousands have already flooded the streets.
The new energy for the opposition makes sense. Venezuela faces a food shortage driven in part by an outbreak of crime in rural areas that has devastated farmers. Parts of the country are starving, with people literally killing each other for food. Dying infants have become a staple of hospitals that are unable to get the medicine and other supplies they need. There have been widespread electrical blackouts. Venezuela’s currency, the bolivar, is worthless, with inflation over 700 percent and expected to top 1,640 percent in 2017. President Maduro has launched a repressive crackdown in this environment of intense unrest, leading to a human rights crisis.
The chaos that has embroiled Venezuela this year has caused U.S. intelligence officials to fear that the country could collapse if major changes are not made.
"These challenges cannot be blamed on external forces," Luis Almagro, head of the Organization of American States, told the 34-nation council in June. "The situation facing Venezuela today is the direct result of the actions of those currently in power."
Many of Maduro’s advisers, though strong leftists themselves, have urged him to take more conventional, moderate steps to address Venezuela’s economic problems, like liberalizing the bolivar, over which the state has tight control. But Maduro has ignored this pragmatic advice, instead listening more than anyone else to a 40-year-old Marxist professor from Spain, Alfred Serrano, whom he calls "the Jesus Christ of economics," the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month. The president has largely heeded Serrano’s calls for further state control of food supply and manufacturing, according to party officials.
"All the attempts to reform, to coordinate with the private sector, have been blocked by him," a senior ruling-party lawmaker told the Journal. In one example showing Serrano’s influence, Maduro rejected an economic reform plan from the Union of South American Nations that he had himself requested. Serrano reportedly said the plan took away too much state power.
Serrano wrote a book in 2014 in which he called Hugo Chávez a "virtuoso planner." The professor believes revolutionary communes should replace government bureaucracy to handle state business and that inflation is caused by class struggle. He blames an "inefficient distribution system in the hands of speculative capitalism" for Venezuela’s food shortages–not expropriations and price controls, as most economists argue.
Maduro has implemented much of Serrano’s advice, including by "ordering community councils and soldiers to distribute basic food directly to families," as the country slides into an increasingly worse, more volatile situation. Venezuela, it seems, is doubling down on socialism with Marxism.
It is worth taking a moment to recognize that a country only three hours from Miami by plane thus currently represents something like a case study of actual Marxism.
Many commentators have an array of explanations for why Venezuela is failing–the global drop in oil prices chief among them. Yes, oil makes up about 95 percent of all the country’s revenue from exports and about half its annual income, but no oil-dependent country–even one like Iraq–is suffering in the same purely economic way as Venezuela is. The corruption, the inefficiencies, the price controls, the industry nationalization, the projected 20.7 percent unemployment rate for 2017–these are the products of a totally centralized state-run system.
Moving away from an unsustainable socialist model is the only way to fundamentally help Venezuela. One cannot fix the food or currency problems without addressing this basic reality. Somehow socialism, with its goal of fostering a truly egalitarian society, always ends up creating a small elite of government officials and their friends who maintain total control while the broader population suffers from oppression and inferior basic services.
Does Venezuela need to face total collapse for people–paging Bernie Sanders supporters!–to realize that socialism and Marxism only aggravate the very problems they seek to remedy?