What Trump Has in Common With Venezuela’s Maduro

Towards the end of his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, Trump said this:

We stand with the Venezuelan people in their noble quest for freedom — and we condemn the brutality of the Maduro regime, whose socialist policies have turned that nation from being the wealthiest in South America into a state of abject poverty and despair.

Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country. America was founded on liberty and independence –- not government coercion, domination, and control. We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.

You won’t find a better example of the combination of Trump’s ignorance and malfeasance. It is clear that he doesn’t know the first thing about Venezuela, but chose to use the unrest in that country as an attack on his opponents in this country. Based on what we’ve been hearing from the president and his enablers lately, those attacks won’t be limited to those who identify as Democratic Socialists. They plan to paint any member of the Democratic Party as a socialist, while pointing to Venezuela as the end product of their policies.

What I find most interesting is that Trump is actually the one who has a lot in common with the Venezuelan leader. Keep in mind that Maduro is the successor to Hugo Chavez, who was elected president at least in part on a promise to rid his country of control of their assets by corporate America. Recently, Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton suggested that it was time to return to the policies that led to Chavez’s election in the first place.

In addition to his promises to socialize Venezuela’s assets, Chavez appealed to the people of his country with promises to help those who were suffering. But due to his incompetence and narcissism, his efforts failed miserably. In response to dissent, he simply grabbed more power and attempted to shut it all down.

After enacting a new constitution with ample human rights protections in 1999 – and surviving a short-lived coup d’état in 2002 – Chávez and his followers moved to concentrate power. They seized control of the Supreme Court and undercut the ability of journalists, human rights defenders, and other Venezuelans to exercise fundamental rights.

By his second full term in office, the concentration of power and erosion of human rights protections had given the government free rein to intimidate, censor, and prosecute Venezuelans who criticized the president or thwarted his political agenda. In recent years, the president and his followers used these powers in a wide range of prominent cases, whose damaging impact was felt by entire sectors of Venezuelan society.

As dissent continued to grow, Maduro has cracked down even harder.

Faes – the special action force – has earned notoriety since the uprising against Maduro began last month. Graffiti artists have daubed Caracas’ walls with messages denouncing its operatives as “murderers of the people”.

But little is known about the elite group’s inner workings or even who exactly commands it. In a recent report, the Venezuelan human rights group Provea said Faes was created by Maduro in 2017 to fight “organized crime and terrorism” and was part of Venezuela’s national police force, although some stories in state-run media outlets describe it as being under the command of the Venezuelan military. By last year it boasted almost 1,300 agents…

Provea’s coordinator, Rafael Uzcátegui, said: “What the government is trying to do is contain the discontent, to contain the anger – not by addressing the citizens’ concerns but by instilling terror and fear.”

Uzcátegui said his group had counted 43 killings linked to the protests. It had not been possible to identify the perpetrators of each death but he believed Faes was the number one culprit, followed by the pro-government paramilitary groups known as colectivos. Faes’ role appeared to be “neutralizing the greatest possible number of people”, not bringing criminals to justice.

None of that from Chavez or Maduro has anything to do with socialism and everything to do with autocracy. In other words, those leaders have attempted to do in Venezuela what Trump admires about leaders like Putin in Russia, Kim Jong-un in North Korea, and Duterte in the Philippines.

When it comes to defending actual socialism, a lot of Americans like to point to the social democracies in Scandinavia. But in this case, Bolivia is probably a better point of comparison. Evo Morales has served as that country’s socialist president since 2006. Francisco Toro draws the comparison with Venezuela.

Since 2006, Bolivia has been run by socialists every bit as militant as Venezuela’s. But as economist Omar Zambrano has argued, the country has experienced a spectacular run of economic growth and poverty reduction with no hint of the chaos that has plagued Venezuela. While inflation spirals toward the thousand-percent mark in Venezuela, in Bolivia it runs below 4 percent a year. Shortages of basic consumption goods — rampant in Caracas — are unheard of in La Paz. And extreme poverty — now growing fast in Venezuela — affects just 17 percent of Bolivians now, down from 38 percent before the socialists took over 10 years ago, even asinequality shrinks dramatically. The richest 10 percent in Bolivia used to earn 128 times more than the poorest 10 percent; today, they earn 38 times as much.

While Toro goes on to point out that Bolivia has its own challenges, he suggests that the success of socialism in that country is because of its fiscal prudence. I would simply add that making sound decisions is grounded in the fact that Evo Morales is neither incompetent nor a narcissist.

That is why, when we look at what is happening in Venezuela, the chaos there has nothing to do with socialism and everything to do with incompetent narcissists who resort to autocracy when their failure becomes obvious. Sound familiar?

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.