A reck­on­ing for the Chavez-lov­ing left

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - James Kirchick is fill­ing in for Doyle McManus. He is a vis­it­ing fel­low with the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion. By James Kirchick

Pun­dits should have fixed terms,” left-wing au­thor Naomi Klein re­cently told the BBC. Awarded “jobs for life,” most pro­fes­sional com­men­ta­tors — whether opin­ing in news­pa­per col­umns like this one or blath­er­ing on tele­vi­sion — suf­fer no con­se­quence for mak­ing pre­dic­tions that turn out “spec­tac­u­larly wrong.” Klein’s (partly tongue-incheek) so­lu­tion? Hold our pun­dits to ac­count by mak­ing them reap­ply for their sinecures ev­ery four years, ban­ish­ing those whose prog­nos­ti­ca­tions prove most wide of the mark.

The so­cial­ist Klein’s em­brace of mar­ket forces, how­ever se­lec­tive, is wel­come. Might I of­fer the un­fold­ing hor­ror in Venezuela as the first lit­mus test of her pro­posal?

On Sun­day, Venezue­lan Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro claimed vic­tory in a ref­er­en­dum de­signed to re­write the coun­try’s con­sti­tu­tion and con­fer on him dic­ta­to­rial pow­ers. The sham vote, boy­cotted by the op­po­si­tion, was but the lat­est stage in the “Bo­li­var­ian Revo­lu­tion” launched by Maduro’s pre­de­ces­sor, the late Hugo Chavez. First elected in 1998 on a wave of pop­u­lar good­will, Chavez’s legacy is one of ut­ter dev­as­ta­tion.

Thanks to Chav­ismo’s vast so­cial wel­fare schemes (ini­tially buoyed by high oil prices), crony­ism and cor­rup­tion, a coun­try that once boasted mas­sive bud­get sur­pluses is to­day the world’s most in­debted. Con­trac­tion in per capita GDP is so se­vere that “Venezuela’s eco­nomic catas­tro­phe dwarfs any in the his­tory of the U.S., West­ern Europe or the rest of Latin Amer­ica” ac­cord­ing to Ri­cardo Haus­mann, for­mer chief econ­o­mist of the In­ter-Amer­i­can De­vel­op­ment Bank. Trans­parency In­ter­na­tional lists Venezuela as the only coun­try in the Amer­i­cas among the world’s 10 most cor­rupt.

So­cial­ist eco­nomic poli­cies — price con­trols, fac­tory na­tion­al­iza­tions, gov­ern­ment takeovers of food dis­tri­bu­tion and the like — have real hu­man costs. Eighty per­cent of Venezue­lan bak­eries don’t have flour. Eleven per­cent of chil­dren un­der 5 are mal­nour­ished, in­fant mor­tal­ity has in­creased by 30% and ma­ter­nal mor­tal­ity is up 66%. The Maduro regime has met protests against its mis­rule with vi­o­lence. More than 100 peo­ple have died in anti-gov­ern­ment demon­stra­tions and thou­sands have been ar­rested. Loyal po­lice of­fi­cers are re­warded with rolls of toi­let paper.

The list of West­ern left­ists who once sang the Venezue­lan gov­ern­ment’s praises is long, and Naomi Klein fig­ures near the top.

In 2004, she signed a pe­ti­tion head­lined, “We would vote for Hugo Chavez.” Three years later, she lauded Venezuela as a place where “cit­i­zens had re­newed their faith in the power of democ­racy to im­prove their lives.” In her 2008 book, “The Shock Doc­trine,” she por­trayed cap­i­tal­ism as a sort of global con­spir­acy that in­sti­gates fi­nan­cial crises and ex­ploits poor coun­tries in the wake of nat­u­ral dis­as­ters. But Klein de­clared that Venezuela had been ren­dered im­mune to the “shocks” ad­min­is­tered by free mar­ket fun­da­men­tal­ists thanks to Chavez’s “21st Cen­tury So­cial­ism,” which had cre­ated “a zone of rel­a­tive eco­nomic calm and pre­dictabil­ity.”

Chavez’s un­timely death from can­cer in 2013 saw an out­pour­ing of grief from the global left. The caudillo “demon­strated that it is pos­si­ble to re­sist the neo-lib­eral dogma that holds sway over much of hu­man­ity,” wrote Bri­tish jour­nal­ist Owen Jones. “I mourn a great hero to the ma­jor­ity of his peo­ple,” said Oliver Stone, who would go on to re­place Chavez with Vladimir Putin as the ob­ject of his twisted af­fec­tion.

On the Venezue­lan regime’s in­ter­na­tional pro­pa­ganda chan­nel, Te­lesur, Amer­i­can host Abby Mar­tin — who used to ply her du­plic­i­tous trade at Rus­sia To­day — takes cred­u­lous view­ers on Potemkin tours of su­per­mar­kets fully stocked with goods. It would be in­ac­cu­rate to la­bel the thor­oughly un­con­vinc­ing Mar­tin, who com­bines the jour­nal­is­tic ethics of Wal­ter Du­ranty with the charm of Ul­rike Mein­hof, a use­ful id­iot. She's just an id­iot.

Most of Chav­ismo’s ear­lier ad­her­ents have main­tained a con­spic­u­ous si­lence in the face of the Venezue­lan calamity. Those who do speak up, rather than apol­o­gize for get­ting things so wrong, blame col­laps­ing oil prices for the coun­try’s fate. Yet the de­cline in the value of petroleum has not led to ri­ot­ing on the streets of Oslo. The tragedy of Venezuela is the pre­dictable re­sult of what hap­pens when a strong­man wages, in Chavez’s own words, “eco­nomic war on the bour­geoisie own­ers,” cracks down on me­dia, prints money with aban­don and im­ple­ments all man­ner of hare­brained so­cial­ist schemes.

In the age of Trump, Brexit and a wider back­lash against glob­al­iza­tion, left-wing eco­nomic pop­ulists are en­joy­ing a resur­gence in main­stream cred­i­bil­ity by rail­ing against free trade and “ne­olib­er­als.” This is a scan­dal. For in the form of the Bo­li­var­ian Repub­lic of Venezuela, the world has a petri dish in which to judge the sort of poli­cies en­dorsed by Jones, Klein, Bri­tish La­bor Party leader Jeremy Cor­byn, home­grown so­cial­ist Sen. Bernie San­ders and count­less other de­luded utopi­ans.

There, the ghastly fail­ures of their ideas are play­ing out for ev­ery­one to see; a real-time re­buke, as if an­other were needed, to so­cial­ism. That these peo­ple are con­sid­ered au­thor­i­ties on any­thing other than pur­chas­ing Birken­stocks, much less run­ning a coun­try, is ab­surd.

So yes, let’s put term lim­its on pun­dits. And let’s start with any­one who praised the Venezue­lan model.

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