Imagine if, one fine day, everything you own and take for granted simply disappeared. That’s how it feels to be a young person today in Venezuela, a once prosperous country where 96% of the population now live in poverty.
In an effort to determine what caused this catastrophe, many libertarians may immediately ascribe it to the rise of Hugo Chavez’s regime in the late 1990s. Although this is true to an extent, I would argue Venezuela’s ills began decades ago. The rise of Chavez was actually a consequence of tolerance for the far-left, alongside the notable absence of any prominent libertarian alternative in the country.
Previous generations have not adequately addressed the challenges of a rising socialist threat, repeating the same mistakes for decades. If history is the best teacher, then Venezuelans have been distracted students.
After Socialism, Liberty, an attempt by the younger generation to chronicle Venezuela’s long standing problems, explains the country’s downfall in a concrete manner: destruction of institutions, faulty implementation of social control mechanisms, and the establishment of a quasi-religious disposition towards authoritarian leaders.
Mirroring the insights of Shang Yang, the leaders of Chavismo made sure that it is impossible to live outside the control of the state. Nevertheless, many young Venezuelans propose libertarianism as a viable alternative. They believe individual freedom is the fundamental pillar for progress in any nation, and that the key to a country’s prosperity lies in the hands of the individual.
There have been many forms of collectivism in Venezuela
With the arrival of the Spaniards in Venezuela in 1498 came the concept of divine right, whereby the power of monarchs came from the authority of God. Henceforth, a new form of collectivism was cemented in the minds of the populace, wherein the value of the individual lay in how much he contributed to the king.
Everyone became a function of the leader rather than of themselves, and what could be more resilient than an idea that is deeply rooted in society.
Over the next few centuries, the idea of independence from the king began to take shape, not for greater individual liberty but instead a different kind of collectivism in Venezuela. It was ultimately through weapons and warfare that this ideal materialized. On July 5, 1811, the head of the military became the new almighty leader.
Thus, the desire for independence coincided with the cult of personality of the caudillos, the “strongman leader.” The newly established republic was not founded on ideas that held the individual at the center of the nation. Rather, it revolved around whichever military man formed the government of the day.
While Venezuela did eventually experience some level of industrialization and prosperity, largely due to the discovery of crude oil in 1914, the character of its rulers was still marked by the caudillista tradition and restriction of civil liberties. This resulted in the emergence of various social movements, the most prominent of these being led by university students.
As such, the “generation of ’28” became particularly influential as a group of students who managed to popularize their message within civil society. In later years, many of those involved would go on to form the main political parties in the country, with most of them belonging to the Communist Party of Venezuela.
It was not until 1958 that the era of caudillos and dictators in Venezuela came to an end with the flight of dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez and the adoption of the Puntofijo Pact: a governance agreement intended to lay the foundations for the newly established democracy to be sustainable and equitable.
However, it is important to note that the Communist Party of Venezuela was excluded from the agreement because its radical ideas were considered incompatible with democratic values. From that moment on, communist militants were displaced from the political space. In response, they took up arms, training guerrillas to try to force acceptance of their ideas.
This armed struggle failed, and the radicals subsequently took refuge in the public education system instead, plaguing universities and turning the spaces of free thought into centers of indoctrination. They realized that the most lethal weapons are ideas, and that by monopolizing education they could shape the thought process of citizens at will.
Chavez continued the road to serfdom
Hugo Chávez began his first mandate with the promise that “on this moribund Constitution, I will enforce and promote the necessary democratic transformations so that the new Republic may have a Magna Carta adequate to the new times…”
In 1999, a National Constituent Assembly, a mechanism not previously used, was called with the purpose of shaping the state and legal system. According to Article 2 of the new constitution, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela became a Democratic and Social State of Law and Justice, which explicitly placed the collective above the individual.
This provision has served as a basis to ensure the legality of civil rights abuses, state monopolies of any industry or sector that may be considered of a strategic nature, price controls, exchange controls, expropriations, printing money, and unsustainable welfare programs.
Antecedents, such as the nationalization of the oil industry in 1976, were used by Hugo Chavez, and subsequently Nicolás Maduro, as a basis for social aid programs. These programs, operating under the populist premise of economic and social equality, would end up devastating the country’s economy and expanding the functions of the state.
Social assistance programs became the main mechanism of social control for 21st century socialism. Indeed, by becoming the sole source of satisfaction of people’s needs, the state effectively takes control over individuals.
In turn, the socialization of health, education, and food as policies of submission made individuals dependent on the state for access to certain goods and services, such as emergency medical services. Those who do not support the socialist regime are pushed into a position of being effectively second-class citizens.
After socialism, freedom
In 2019, Rand Paul warned that, “Mao, Stalin, or Hitler did not come to power by promoting tyranny. They came to power by promising equality.” It would be wise to add Hugo Chavez to that list. The deception of the populist promise that all will, somehow, become economically, socially, and politically equal can never materialize.
Monarchy, caudillismo, dictatorship, puntofijismo, and 21st century socialism are all different names for the same collectivist evil, with only varying levels of intensity separating them.
Venezuela’s youth belong to a generation that has never had the opportunity to know freedom first hand within our borders. Despite this, many young Venezuelans fight tirelessly to bring about freedom. It is necessary that we reflect on the mistakes that were made and are still being made, not with the intention of pointing fingers, but for the sake of changing the course of history towards a freer future.
We have witnessed how the Venezuelan opposition’s leadership has been unable to recognize the real nature of the regime or, at least, has not been able to admit it openly. Along with the repeated “collective” attempts to negotiate a change for Venezuela, this has only resulted in the continued suffering Venezuelan population and a generalized feeling of hopelessness.
Only when we all understand that each one of us can decide between being victims or acting to change things will we be able to build freedom after socialism.
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