Lessons from Liberia and Venezuela: Leadership matters
I’ve covered elections in many countries — from Britain to Bolivia, Egypt to Zimbabwe. But never have I seen longer lines of citizens eager, even desperate to vote than in two nations that are roughly at the same latitude but an ocean apart, in more ways than one: Liberia and Venezuela. You’d expect a backward nation like Liberia to be on the skids. But it’s not. Resource-rich Venezuela is. There’s a lesson here.
Liberia was founded by freed American slaves on the western rim of Africa. It is a poor country even in the best of times. But the aftermath of the election I covered there almost a dozen years ago has been a slow but steady build.
Venezuela, by contrast, was rolling in oil. But as we see every day in news reports, the aftermath of what I covered there — around the same time as Liberia — is a slow and suicidal bleed.
Liberia’s election followed a decade-and-a-half of civil war that wrecked the nation. Depraved despots went on killing sprees. Survivors endured a living hell. Its only hydroelectric dam destroyed, the war left Liberia with no electricity, running water or sanitation. Most people in the capital, Monrovia, squatted in the shells of buildings that were burned out or bombed out. Potholes swallowed cars on warravaged roads. Citizens swallowed food we wouldn’t feed our dogs.
Yet on election day in Liberia, thousands of people from all over the countryside walked for hours, many barefoot, through the bush.They lined up all night, then stood all day in the broiling sun, to vote. To be part of their own future. To rise from their own ashes.
What they got was a stable government. Not strong, not rich, and not without corruption. But they chose a president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf — the first female leader on the continent — who has attracted foreign investors and, although a dispiritingly plodding process on a bedrock of wretchedness and ruin, she is getting the country rebuilt. She will not run for re-election this November, but her successor will inherit her achievements.
Juxtapose that with Venezuela, which had it all. The world’s biggest reserves of petroleum. The U.S. as its biggest customer. It was South America’s richest nation.
Today? Food is short. So is medicine. Electricity too. Sounds more like Liberia.
But Liberia’s war is over. Venezuela’s is not. Although more than a hundred dissidents have died, it’s not really a shooting war. It’s actually a war about economics, politics and democracy. On one side are the loyalists of Nicolas Maduro, the socialist successor of populist president Hugo Chavez. On the other side are the citizens who forced the election I covered, an effort to recall Chavez for squandering the nation’s riches.
Venezuela’s election day was like Liberia’s. People stood in the blazing sun for 14 hours. Some lines stretched for ten city blocks. It was a bellwether of the people’s passion. But Chavez blatantly bought votes, giving away so many spoils to the estimated 80 percent of the population who are poor, they voted to keep the freebies flowing. The recall narrowly lost. But he paid for this political protection out of revenues from the nation’s oil. Little was reinvested in its industry. When Chavez resigned before dying of cancer, his vice president, Maduro, took his place and perpetuated his policies.
The worst thing isn’t Maduro’s policies; it’s his politics. Last month, he staged a sham election for a constitutional convention where the opposition wasn’t allowed on the ballot. If you want to know the role democracy will play, heed the words of one of Maduro’s military comrades: “There is no possibility that the opposition will govern this country. Mark my words — no possibility.”
President Donald Trump is right to ratchet up sanctions against influential supporters of the regime, although, when Maduro defiantly declares, “Keep up your sanctions, Donald Trump,” it doesn’t bode well for a return to democracy. What it bodes is higher gas prices here in the U.S.
Staggering, isn’t it? A nation with nothing has promising prospects. Another endowed with affluence is on the road to ruin.
It’s not just about who governs, but how.