Thirty years ago, when I was a graduate student in Caracas, I met a young Venezuelan socialist who introduced himself as Stalín.
“Yes, after the Russian,” he told me rather condescendingly – hoping to shock an American with the news that the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin was his namesake.
I didn't take the bait. But I did think of Stalín recently when Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro expressed his own admiration for “Comrade Stalin, who defeated Hitler.”
Comrade Stalin – who was also every bit as homicidal as Hitler. Even if Stalin hadn’t been a psychopath who murdered millions in his communist purges, he’d still be the five-year-plan madman whose collectivist economic policies killed millions of others by starvation.
Yet Stalin worship remains a badge of honor for Maduro, Stalín and so many of the leftists I met all those years ago who now run Venezuela’s ruling revolution.
And that helps explain why – in spite of the admirable work it did early on to alleviate poverty – it’s now a wrecked revolution.
Venezuela is the western hemisphere’s most oil-rich country. But collapsed oil prices and gross government mismanagement have produced South America’s worst economic downturn, its highest inflation rate, scariest violent crime rates and eye-popping corruption.
Shortages of food, medical supplies and other basic goods are critical. And despite – or because of – illusory currency controls, the Venezuelan bolívar has been practically in free fall on the black market recently.
“The worst kind of economic environment you could have,” says Steve Hanke, an economist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore who put together this year’s “misery index” for the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.
People expect conservative think tanks like the Cato to dump on socialist regimes. But it seems anybody who compiles macroeconomic data right now is handing Venezuela this year's title of Most Miserable Economy On Earth. The Bloomberg news service just put Venezuela way at the bottom of its own misery index, as did the online business news site Quartz.
This didn't happen just because the Venezuelan revolution’s policies are leftist. It’s because – from reckless social spending to the senseless nationalization of businesses – they’re blindly ideological.
Like, say, the dogmatically right-wing economic agenda here – from reckless financial deregulation to the senseless concentration of wealth – which shot down the U.S. during the 2000s as blindly as Dick Cheney fired birdshot on quail hunts.
Ideologues are always right, everyone else is always wrong – and the results are almost always catastrophic, from the Great Recession of 2008 to the Venezuelan Meltdown of 2015.
Ask Venezuelans like Bernardo Gómez. The 34-year-old engineer spends just about all his free time these days in long, hot lines outside grocery stores hunting down scarce food products. Those queues are as common a sight in Caracas these days as mini-skirts on the metro.
“Here in this supermarket [on this day] you can find milk and butter,” says Gómez. “But then you have to go to another supermarket to find, I don’t know, coffee. And to another supermarket to find [cooking] oil, or diapers or toilet paper, you know?
“And those are basic things. I mean, it’s not like you’re asking for caviar or champagne.”
Maduro, whose approval ratings have sunk to almost 20 percent, blames a U.S.-led economic conspiracy for dashing Venezuela’s champagne-and-caviar dreams. After President Obama designated Venezuela a “national security threat” to the U.S. this month, Maduro ordered two weeks of military exercises to get his country ready for what he says is an imminent yanqui invasion.
But Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian governance suggests he knows he needs more than war-games distractions to remain in power. Especially as the economic crisis empties medicine cabinets as well as grocery shelves.
OUT OF ANESTHESIA
Emil Kizer is an oral surgeon. His wife, Gaby Puigbo, is a dentist. They say the spiraling shortage of medical supplies in Venezuela made it impossible for them to run their practices in Caracas. So last fall they joined Venezuela's epic brain drain, emigrated to Miami and opened a physical rehab clinic, Associates Rehabilitation, in Tamiami.
“We couldn’t find anesthesia anymore in Venezuela,” says Emil. “Simple local anesthesia like lidocaine. That’s when I started telling Gaby there’s no more future in Venezuela.”
For Gaby the turning point came when she got mugged outside her office. She realized her practice was a target for thugs who wanted to sell what supplies she had on the black market.
“That danger makes you afraid to open the door for any patient you don’t know well,” she says.
In fact, the Venezuelan Association of Clinics and Hospitals estimates more than three-quarters of the items that Venezuela’s healthcare system needs are in scarce supply. Life-saving surgeries often can’t be performed.
Here in Doral, just west of Miami, the large Venezuelan expatriate community is starting to confront that emergency. A group called Ayuda Humanitarian para Venezuela – Humanitarian Aid for Venezuela – packs up donated medical supplies, everything from bandages to EKG machines. An anonymous network of air cargo companies gets them through Venezuelan customs and into facilities for the poor.
“One of the most recent email requests I got was for emergency tracheotomy instruments for infants,” says Ayuda director Marisol Dieguez, who is an outspoken Maduro opponent but insists her work "has nothing to do with anybody’s politics.”
Back in Venezuela, the government is installing fingerprint scanners now at both state-run and private stores as a sort of rationing system. In the Caracas barrio of Petare, María Roble scrapes by ironing clothes. But the more she stands in line for food, the fewer hours she can work – and so the less food she can afford amid Venezuela’s inflation and profiteering.
“It’s robbery,” Roble calls the latter. Maduro may be preparing for a war, but she says it feels to Venezuelans like her that they’re already fighting one.
It’s something I’d like to discuss with Stalín today. This time I’ll tell him I’m shocked.
Andrew Rosati contributed to this report from Caracas.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.