“With the benefit of hindsight, we know that many lives could have been spared in bloody revolutions, if only these reformers were taken more seriously.”
For Venezuelans like me, oil is much more than just a fossil fuel. Oil is one of our most important national symbols. As children, we were taught to be proud that our country was blessed with this resource (though I always wondered why we should be so proud if we had oil by luck of the draw rather than through merit). For too long—so we were told at school—foreigners took what had belonged to us. We should be grateful to live at a time when that is no longer the case, we were told. We finally had Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), our own national oil company.
This was the narrative in Venezuela ever since Carlos Andrés Pérez’s government nationalized the oil industry in 1976. When Hugo Chávez was elected to power in 1998, this narrative was drilled into our brains even further. In fact, Chávez developed a strategy of fear-mongering regarding PDVSA. He did not miss any occasion to tell his followers that—were he to lose an election—his political opponents would privatize the national oil company.
Under Chávez’s tenure, PDVSA became a hub of rampant corruption. But, even with that state of affairs, opposition leaders were extremely careful not to suggest any plan of privatization because they knew that the oil industry was too sacred a national symbol to be tampered with.
Chávez is gone now, yet his hand-picked successor, Nicolás Maduro, has driven the country into chaos. Very much as Chávez did, Maduro alleges that there is a massive international conspiracy against him. However, Maduro has no one to blame but himself for the current state of Venezuela. Chávez’s aggressive socialist policies drove the country to ruin, but he was fortunate enough to die on time so as to avoid being directly associated with the economic collapse of the following years. Maduro stubbornly refused liberal reforms, and, even worse, made dictatorial moves that Chávez himself never did.
And yet, after all those years of fear-mongering regarding PDVSA, Maduro is now contemplating its privatization as a desperate measure to increase productivity and wipe out corruption. Any reasonable person should see this as a cautionary tale of the dangers of socialism. It all begins with highly idealistic enthusiasm. Then, things get ugly with scarcity, and the only way for the ruling elites to survive is by doing an about-face. This can take the form of embracing ruthless capitalist schemes so as to generate wealth. Some preserve the façade of socialism (as Deng Xiaoping did in China); others simply become rampant capitalist countries run by oligarchs (as post-Soviet Russia).
Then, when everything collapses, these one-time supporters morph into St. Peter denying Jesus. So, once Venezuela’s collapse became evident, the same people who sang the praises of Chávez began trashing Maduro. Bernie Sanders also was on that wagon.
In that highly idealistic phase when things have not gotten ugly yet, everybody wants a piece of that pie. So, it comes as no surprise that—during Chávez’s initial years—he received praise from all over the world. Bernie Sanders was on that wagon. Then, when everything collapses, these one-time supporters morph into St. Peter denying Jesus. So, once Venezuela’s collapse became evident, the same people who sang the praises of Chávez began trashing Maduro. Bernie Sanders also was on that wagon.
As Sanders emerges as the possible Democratic nominee for the 2020 election, he is taking heat for his positions on Venezuela. And, even if he disavows the Venezuelan model, his opponents very frequently bring up the Venezuelan example as a reminder of where the United States might be headed, if this “maniac” (as President Trump calls him) gets elected.
I fled from Venezuela, so I know what the critics are talking about. But, I think Sanders deserves better. For starters, he is not a fake. He is not making up ethnic ancestries to please crowds in this age of identity politics (something Elizabeth Warren is very apt at doing). He is not playing the race card—or the gender card (again, Warren’s record is not very bright on this); in fact, he has courageously suggested that, “America is tired of hearing about liberals’ damn bathrooms.” Sanders’ concern is with the huge economic inequality that dominates the United States (a reasonable worry), and he is not hypocritically hiding his money in some Caribbean tax haven.
Sanders is not the only politician to be criticized for expressing sympathies for Chávez, however, and then later trying hard to disavow his legacy. In Spain, Vice-President Pablo Iglesias received massive amounts of funding from Chávez’s government (this indisputably facilitated Iglesias’ rise to power). And, after singing the praises of Venezuela’s socialism for some years, now Iglesias is trying to save some face by criticizing Maduro. We see the same pattern with Uruguay’s Pepe Mujica, as well as Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, both of whom received huge amounts of money from Venezuela and now have harsh words for Maduro. Yet, Sanders never received any funding whatsoever from Venezuela. If he expressed admiration for Chávez, it was for the same reason that he went to the Soviet Union for his honeymoon (i.e., he really believed in and practiced what he preached).
But, of course, honesty is not enough. Few people doubt Sanders’ honesty, but the argument by his critics is that—if elected—Sanders is bound to turn the United States into a nightmarish Venezuela. Again, I think some moderation is needed when it comes to these criticisms.
In his State of the Union address, President Trump praised Juan Guaidó, the politician who is internationally recognized as the legitimate President of Venezuela (and who is on a world tour gathering support in his quest to remove Maduro from power). Yet, little is it known that Guaidó’s own political party, Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) is a member of the Socialist International. In fact, Guaidó’s political agenda is basically a return to the kind of ideology that prevailed in Venezuela prior to Chávez’s ascendency: social democracy. This is basically a sort of “third way” that encourages private enterprise (privatization of big industries is contemplated but never PDVSA), with some regulation and a safety net for all citizens.
As far as I can see, this is not too dissimilar from Sanders’ approach. Single-payer healthcare was present in Venezuela long before Chávez came to power, and, again, no opposition politician has ever proposed eliminating it. In the years before Chávez, my parents went to college for free (as did I during Chávez’s tenure), so they never had to worry about student debt. Again, virtually all opponents of Maduro in Venezuela agree that gratuity in education should not end with high school.
As it is often argued, these are mainstream policies in countries that are not really socialist but, rather, capitalist with robust regulations and a safety net. Perhaps Sanders has been clumsy in calling himself a “democratic socialist” when, in fact, his proposals are rather tenuous. Socialism is about collectivizing private property and shutting down the media, as Chávez did in Venezuela. Sanders is not proposing any of that.
Venezuela’s collapse certainly has had much to do to with socialism, but it was also the result of other realities that are simply not present in Sanders’ approach. Maduro is above all a ruthless pragmatist, who has played through every trick in the book to stay in power. He has armed paramilitary bands to crush opposition, and he has imprisoned political dissidents. He may be in business with drug cartels (there is no definitive proof of this), and he certainly has fallen under the influence of Cuban and Russian agents operating in Venezuela. I don’t think Sanders represents any danger when it comes to these sorts of things that further damaged Venezuela; if anything, it is President Trump himself who might be suspected of being under the influence of Putin.
Admittedly, Chávez as a candidate was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and he constantly lied about his intentions. He always eased journalists by telling them that he would never nationalize any industry, when, in fact, he did become a collectivist “maniac” (to use President Trump’s term) once he reached power. Perhaps, the case could be made that Sanders is also a wolf wearing the sheepskin, waiting his turn to devour the flock. But, I find it unlikely. Let’s remember that his honesty is not in doubt. Nobody really knew much about Chávez, except that he was a military figure who had attempted a coup. By contrast, Sanders’ career has been a long one, and he has been very clear from the beginning as to who he is and what he wants.
Critics might argue that perhaps the danger in Sanders is that he may pave the way for the real nightmare of socialism to come. Sure, that is a strong argument. Sanders does have an air of naïveté, and the old man may become the useful idiot of those who—after him—may want to lead the United States into the rabbit hole of Soviet-style socialism. In fact, this is the slippery-slope argument that critics of socialism have always made, ever since Friedrich Von Hayek wrote The Road to Serfdom.
But, I would argue that it may, very well, be the opposite. Sanders might just be the figure the United States needs in order to avert the prospect of going down that rabbit hole. The inequality gap is already too large in the United States, and it is expanding. Whether or not this inequality is legitimate is not the issue. The issue is that, psychologically, inequality breeds resentment. For now—in the Trump era—this resentment has not been leveled against millionaires but, rather, against immigrants, intellectual elites, and so on. Yet, if inequality keeps increasing, this resentment could turn against any next-door neighbor who makes a little bit more; in that case, things could get ugly.
As I see it, Sanders is not so much a Chávez-like figure but, rather, a reformer who could prevent the rise of blood-thirsty revolutionaries.
This is precisely how Chávez rose to power in the first place. By the 1980’s, Venezuelan politicians had given in to pressures from the International Monetary Fund, and the inequality gap was very large. Chávez capitalized on the resentment that this inequality bred. Once in office, he managed to remain by continuously exploiting a message of social resentment. As I see it, Sanders is not so much a Chávez-like figure but, rather, a reformer who could prevent the rise of blood-thirsty revolutionaries.
With the benefit of hindsight, we know that many lives could have been spared in bloody revolutions, if only these reformers were taken more seriously. For example, nobody could accuse 18th century philosopher Edmund Burke of being a socialist (he is a founding father of modern conservatism). But, he was fully aware that the British avoided revolutionary tribunals and guillotines because—unlike the French—they carried out needed reforms on time. Czar Nicholas II could have saved his family if he only continued the legacy of his grandfather, the reformer Alexander III.
Perhaps Sanders is too radical and his nomination would be a disaster for the Democratic Party’s hope of defeating President Trump. I do share the view that the only hope for Democrats in 2020 is to appeal to President Trump’s own base; and that can only be done by nominating someone who might still bear some resemblance to President Trump. Some argue that—for this reason—Democrats need someone more centrist than Sanders. Yet, it seems to me that—of all Democratic candidates—Sanders is the one who might appeal the most to swing voters. Those who wear a MAGA hat may hate the cheap shots of identity politics, and Bernie isn’t in the business of saying, “Vote for me because my great-great-great grandmother is Cherokee.” President Trump does not care much about neocon interventions abroad, and Bernie is no liberal hawk. People in the Rust Belt are concerned about automation and overseas outsourcing, and Bernie wants to prevent jobs going to China. President Trump is loved, not so much because of the content of his ideas but, rather, because of his populist style. Bernie may have a bookish air, but, essentially, he is also a populist.
If I were American, I don’t know if I would vote for Sanders. Should someone like Bernie be elected, as a Venezuelan, I would exhort Americans to keep him in check, especially if he ever goes on a spending spree that might dramatically increase the public debt (the cartoon depicting Bernie wearing a “Make America Greece Again” hat is not entirely off the mark). But, also as a Venezuelan, I do not want my country to be used as a cheap political talking point. I am afraid that by comparing Sanders to Chávez and Maduro, that is exactly what is being done: invoking my home country as a political prop—but as an inaccurate comparison to boot.
Dr. Gabriel Andrade is a university professor. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post. His twitter is @gandrade80