The Venezuela Bogeyman, How Fear Of Socialism Thwarts Latin American Progress
Like fears of communist subversion during the Cold War, claims that the Left will destroy the economy and end freedom persist in Latin American elections, in spite of their ridiculousness.
BOGOTÁ -- It must be Latin America's favorite warning. Every time there's an election, conservatives warn "socialism" is coming — and not just any socialism, but the Venezuelan variety! A vote for this or that candidate, they say, will turn the country into a land bereft of freedoms and prosperity.
Claims like these helped thwart a first presidential bid by Mexico's Andrés Manuel López Obrador in 2006. The opposition said he had contacts with Venezuela's then-ruler, Hugo Chávez, and even forceful denials could notdampen the fear of a communist president. The warnings were repeated in 2018 , to little effect as López Obrador was elected, and again in 2021, when former president Vicente Fox called him López Chávez.
In Colombia, the same has been said of President Gustavo Petro — who, admittedly, has visited Caracas several times since his election and seems to have cordial relations with President Nicolás Maduro. Indeed, we've heard these claims so often in Colombia that many must think it is a matter of time before we morph into our neighbor. But we never hear the right question: how many countries have in fact "turned into Venezuela?"
Well, none perhaps, even if most Latin American governments are leftist now. Some of their leaders are making mistakes and others are despots, like the ruler of Nicaragua Daniel Ortega. But to turn your country into Venezuela requires mistakes and vileness on a galactic scale.
Pedro Castillo Terrones, presidential candidate for Perú Libre.
Venezuela's unique disaster
I am not dismissing the fear, mind you. Venezuela is corrupt and dictatorial. It bans criticism and jails opponents, manipulates and fakes elections and has provoked the flight of seven million Venezuelans. Most of the country's people live in poverty, and it boasts the highest inflation rate on the continent and second highest in the world. Chávez and Maduro have failed abysmally. But how many countries have reached such extremes of mismanagement? If the danger is real and imminent, there should have been other examples by now.
Yet the threat persists. Even Donald Trump keeps saying the Democrats will turn the United States into Venezuela. Conservatives in Colombia use it to discredit opponents. The threat has served to dissuade the nation from policies and initiatives that are unquestioned in places like, well, Europe — policies like free healthcare and education, social housing or raising taxes on the wealthiest to assure a more equitable distribution of wealth.
Rule of law is feeble in Venezuela.
There is a chasm between that and Venezuela, and you would need two conditions to get there. First, making grave political errors and picking obsolete economic models. Countries like Bolivia and Argentina seem to be doing that. But the second condition is more difficult, consisting of Venezuela's own, specific situation. The country is almost entirely dependent on crude oil exports, and its institutions are weak, with no checks and balances. Rule of law is feeble in Venezuela, with its tradition of strongmen politicians who have shallow roots, and extraordinary corruption like few other places in the world.
Very few countries in the region combine all these conditions. Most have stronger institutional checks and balances, diverse economies, a solid judiciary or civil societies with a fighting spirit. Voters in Chile and parliament in Peru have acted, for example, to curb presidential initiatives or excesses. These make the Venezuelan scenario much less probable.
So, the Venezuelan alarum is, if not fantasy, at least improbable. It might be time to let it go.