Maduro’s trampling of the law has dealt a fatal blow to the socialist model

After the controversial Venezuelan election, Sholto Byrnes asks: was the Latin American dream of governments prioritising the fight against inequality while still providing growth and defending civil liberties a realistic one?
CORRECTION / TOPSHOT - Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (C) his wife Cilia Flores (R) and Constituent Assembly president Delcy Rodriguez arrive at the Congress in Caracas for the Presidential inauguration ceremony, on May 24, 2018.   / AFP / Federico Parra

After Nicolas Maduro won Venezuela's presidential election just over a week ago on a paltry 46 per cent turnout and having lost 1.5 million votes since the last contest in 2013, there is no doubt that the "pink tide" of left-wing governments that swept much of Latin America at the beginning of this century is seriously receding.

Fierce ideological opponents such as Britain’s late Margaret Thatcher would have approved. “The problem with socialism,” she once said, “is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.”

That’s no joke in Venezuela, where the International Monetary Fund estimates inflation is now at more than 13,000 per cent, unemployment is about 30 per cent and GDP has contracted so alarmingly that it has been suggested the country has “lost” half its economy since 2013.

Even Mr Maduro – whose victory has been rejected as illegitimate by a long list of countries – recognises there is a problem.

“Let’s not lie to ourselves,” he told the (illegally constituted) constituent assembly last week. “We need to drastically relearn things and do them better.”

He will get no help from western politicians keen to impose further sanctions, which they hope will force Mr Maduro to return to democratic norms, even if ordinary Venezuelans have to suffer in the process. While he takes no pleasure in that, the UK’s foreign secretary Boris Johnson will not be alone in thinking this is “an absolutely tragic story of a people kept in hostage to a defunct ideology – state socialism”.

But this would be far too simplistic an explanation for the dimming of the leftist star across Latin America and a failure to understand its appeal in the first place.

For decades, the US had supported a series of repressive dictatorships in the region. So long as they were staunch anti-communists, all sorts of violations were overlooked. If they were prepared to enact the kind of market-friendly deregulatory economic policies that benefited big business, so much the better.

General Augusto Pinochet, for instance, was credited with “the miracle of Chile” by the late economist Milton Friedman, whose “Chicago Boys” helped achieve a big reduction in inflation and increase in growth of exports during nearly two decades as the country’s leader until 1990.

For ordinary Chileans, however, life was not so good. Unemployment tripled (in comparison to the rule of his predecessor, Salvador Allende). Real wages decreased while the numbers living in poverty doubled from 20 per cent in 1970 to 40 per cent in 1990.

Other countries had similarly unhappy stories of their time under the generals – and this is not even to go into the torture, kidnappings and assassinations that took place under many CIA-backed operations.

In the years after the dictators fell and after many subsequent centre-right governments proved too avaricious, too incapable or too distant from the masses, it was no surprise that from Brazil to Uruguay, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile and Venezuela, left-wing parties swept the board. Many had charismatic and inspirational leaders. Evo Morales was Bolivia’s first indigenous president. Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was a former union leader whose parents were illiterate farm workers. He became so globally admired and renowned that he is still one of the few politicians known around the world by simply one name – Lula.

One did not have to be a socialist to wish them well. If the anti-Washington rhetoric was a little over the top at times, well, they were often fighting against an insistence on the American way that came close to a form of neo-colonialism and in the case of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, US sanctioning of an attempted coup against a democratically elected leader.

Because they were elected, time and again, with many instituting vast social and health spending plans that improved the lives of millions of people, they seemed to be examples of a “socialism that works” and during an era of backlash against globalisation and markets, wouldn’t one want to cheer them on – for who could doubt there would not be a great appetite for such a model?

This only makes what has happened since all the more unfortunate. Brazil's Lula is now in jail, with a 12-year conviction for bribery after being caught up in a wide-ranging corruption inquiry which has snared so many politicians in the region. Bolivia's Morales is now free from presidential term limits, despite a referendum, after the country's highest court decided to overrule the constitution, a decision that many have found disturbing.

Venezuela’s is the saddest case of all. For while the late Chavez long had his detractors who warned against an erosion of civil liberties under his rule, his election victories were genuine. He is still enormously popular today and his achievements, such as lifting millions out of poverty, cannot be denied. True, his successor, Mr Maduro, has not had the benefit of the high oil prices that enabled much of Chavez’s “Bolivarian revolution”.

But Mr Maduro’s blatant trampling of the rule of law, his failure to lead, let alone inspire and the staggering ineptitude of his government – which now faces an explosion of malaria infections in a country that had once almost wiped the disease out – has dealt an almost mortal blow to the model that seemed to offer a genuinely left-of-centre politics that could deliver.

The left's candidate in Colombia's ongoing presidential elections, Gustavo Petro, can certainly no longer point to its successes – not when one million Venezuelans have crossed the two countries' border since 2016, fleeing the economic and political chaos the hapless Mr Maduro has unleashed. Indeed, Mr Petro has actively distanced himself from Mr Maduro, calling him a dictator.

Was it ever sustainable, the Latin American dream of governments that would prioritise the fight against inequality while still providing growth and defending civil liberties? Tiny Uruguay bucks the trend. It is still managing it. But it is completely overshadowed by the disaster of Venezuela – which is a nightmare that will be held against every leftist on the continent for years to come.

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National