“And one particular author, Vicky Osterweil, has shamelessly written a book entitled In Defense of Looting.”
he word “Venezuela” arouses strong emotions in American political debates. The Right loves to use it as a boogeyman in its scare tactics, as took place during the recent Republican National Convention. The Left gets very defensive whenever the word is tossed around, frequently appealing to the tired old mantra, “That wasn’t real socialism.” To be fair and, as I have argued previously, Senator Bernie Sanders may be naïve in many respects, but he simply cannot be compared to the likes of Hugo Chávez. This is why, in my view, most discussions about Venezuela in the context of American politics make just for cheap talk.
However, the recent death of George Floyd—and the subsequent fallout—now makes me think otherwise. As a result of that particular incidence of police brutality, looting and violent riots have ensued. CNN outrageously describes some of them as “fiery but mostly peaceful.” And one particular author, Vicky Osterweil, has shamelessly written a book entitled In Defense of Looting. One might be tempted to think that Osterweil is a fringe figure. But when NPR gives her a platform to defend her vicious views, then perhaps she is not as fringe as might be first believed. If Osterweil and other radical leftists who defend looting become more mainstream, then the word “Venezuela” does deserve to be brought to the table.
Looting has been a key aspect of Venezuela’s collapse. At one point in the 1970’s, Venezuela was a promising country. It was a democracy in a region full of military dictatorships. It had a high standard of living and a functional welfare state; and, though crime has always been a problem in Venezuela, the homicide rate then was far lower than in the years following Chávez’s rise to power.
But, as it is typically the case in oil-rich countries, Venezuela had an acute corruption problem, which, in turn, caused economic ruin. By 1989, large sectors of the population were impoverished, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) engaged in negotiations with the recently elected president, Carlos Andrés Pérez. The IMF would provide loans, but Venezuela would have to implement neoliberal policies, including the privatization of state companies, the removal of subsidies, and the reduction of the welfare state.
In the wake of these changes, on February 27th and 28th 1989, mobs from Caracas’ impoverished barrios sacked and looted hundreds of businesses. Pérez’s response was draconian: Military forces were deployed in the streets, and order was eventually restored. However, this came with a sizable death toll. According to some estimates, more than 300 people were killed by the military.
These events sent shockwaves throughout the Venezuelan population. Chávez had been conspiring in military barracks for many years, but the events of 1989 were apparently the straw that broke the camel’s back. So, in 1992, he organized a failed (but bloody) military rebellion. He was held in prison but was eventually released in 1994. And, in 1998, he was elected President of Venezuela.
The Caracazo (as the events of 1989 came to be known) was a constant talking point in Chávez’s discourse, both as presidential candidate and as the leader of Venezuela. In his populist version of Venezuelan history, the 1989 looting was justified because poor people were simply reclaiming what they had been denied for so many years. His rhetoric was very similar to what Osterweil argues in In Defense of Looting: Property is theft. (Strangely, neither Chávez nor Osterweil seemed to realize that their view goes back to that of the French anarchist philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and that Proudhon’s position is self-contradictory, as Karl Marx himself pointed out).
Chávez also constantly justified the 1992 coup by saying that—after the 1989 massacre—the Venezuelan people had no option but to respond to violence with violence. Once in power, Chávez continued his defense of looting. He was not concerned that the incitement of looting might turn against him because he very skillfully diverted any enthusiasm for looting towards his political opponents. Chávez’s socialist bent made him very unpopular among the business-owning (both large and small) class. He did his best not to be perceived as a repressive autocrat (precisely the very same accusation he had leveled against Pérez because of his handling of the 1989 crisis), so he opted not directly to confront business owners. However, he provided logistical and financial support to armed paramilitary groups that would do the dirty work for him, and, for these groups, looting businesses was a common tactic. This had a snowballing effect, and other unorganized groups also resorted to looting. They felt justified, given Chávez’s thinly veiled public defense of looting. And when looting took place, government forces stood idly by.
Looting became even more frequent after Chávez’s death in 2013. As oil prices fell, Venezuela’s economy collapsed. The ensuing economic failure heightened a sense of chaos, and looting became rampant. Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s successor, tried to control the situation; however, this was only the case when the looting extended to government property. Whenever looters targeted private businesses, government forces again just allowed it. Predictably, in a country providing no security to business owners, the economy further stagnated. Today, as a result of Chávez and Maduro’s massive mismanagement of their country, Venezuela has become one of the greatest exporters of refugees in the world.
The sad and long history of looting in Venezuela ought to be a twofold cautionary tale for Americans. Those on the Left must reckon with the fact that, though the redistribution of wealth is a legitimate goal, the ends do not justify the means. Looting, ultimately, leads to economic collapse. In the first phases of looting, radical extremists such as Osterweil might be thrilled. However, after a while, there is nothing left to loot, as is now the case in Venezuela.
All the while, however, those on the Right must also take note that the response to looting must not be militarized—or be left in the hands of armed vigilantes who would kill demonstrators with gusto. In 1989, Pérez brutally repressed looters with disproportionate force, and this fed the narrative that a socialist messiah was needed to vindicate Venezuela’s poor. Whenever critics would point out the unwisdom of many of Chávez’s policies, he would revert back to his talking point that the massacre of 1989 justified everything that he did.
As with many political issues, a more moderate position is welcome. Nothing can justify the savagery of looting. For this reason, Osterweil deserves to be shamed into silence. However, one needs to be able to begin to understand why people are tempted to loot in the first place. More importantly, the response to looting must be sufficiently measured, as any disproportionate response may easily lead to a spiral of even more chaos, looting, and, ultimately, the realization of the boogeyman that everyone would be wise to avoid: Venezuela.
Gabriel Andrade is a Venezuelan-born university professor. His Twitter is @gandrade8o.