In order to understand the disaster that is unfolding in Venezuela, we need to journey through the most recent century of our history and look at how our institutions have changed over time.
What we will find is that Venezuela once enjoyed relatively high levels of economic freedom, although this occurred under dictatorial regimes.
But, when Venezuela finally embraced democracy, we began to kill economic freedom. This was not all at once, of course. It was a gradual process. But it happened at the expense of the welfare of millions of people.
And, ultimately, the lesson we learned is that socialism never, ever works, no matter what Paul Krugman, or Joseph Stiglitz, or guys in Spain like Pablo Iglesias say.
It was very common during the years we suffered under Hugo Chávez to hear these pundits and economists on TV saying that this time, socialism is being done right. This time, the Venezuelans figured it out.
They were, and are wrong.
On the other hand, there was a time when this country was quite prosperous and wealthy, and for a time Venezuela was even referred to as an “economic miracle” in many books and articles.
However, during those years, out of the five presidents we had, four were dictators and generals of the army. Our civil and political rights were restricted. We didn’t have freedom of the press, for example; we didn’t have universal suffrage. But, while we lived under a dictatorship, we could at least enjoy high levels of economic freedom.
A Brief Economic History of Venezuela
The economic miracle began a century ago, when from 1914 to 1922, Venezuela entered the international oil race. In 1914, Venezuela opened its first oil well. Fortunately, the government did not make the mistake of attempting to manage the oil business, or own the wells. The oil wells were privately owned, and in many cases were owned by private international companies that operated in Venezuela. It wasn’t totally laissez-faire, of course. There were tax incentives and other so-called concessions employed to promote exploration and exploitation of oil. But most industries — including the oil industry — remained privatized.
Moreover, during this period, tax rates in the country were relatively low.
In 1957, the marginal tax rate for individuals was 12 percent. There was certainly a state presence, and the public sector absorbed 20 percent of GDP. But, government spending was used mainly to build the country’s basic infrastructure.
The area of international trade was relatively free as well — and very free compared to today. There were tariffs that were relatively high, but there were no other major barriers to trade such as quotas, anti-dumping laws, or safeguards.
Other economic controls were few as well. There were just a few state-owned companies and virtually no price controls, no rent controls, no interest-rate controls, and no exchange-rate controls.
Of course, we weren’t free from the problems of a central bank, either. In 1939, Venezuela created its own central bank. But, the bank was largely inactive and functioned primarily defending a fixed exchange rate with the US dollar.
Moving Toward More Interventionism
Despite the high levels of economic freedom that existed during those years, government legislation started to chip away at that freedom. Changes included the nationalization of the telephone company, the creation of numerous state-owned companies, and state-owned banks. That happened in 1950. The Venezuelan government thus began sowing the seeds of destruction, and you can see the continued deterioration in the level of economic freedom in the decade of the 1950s.
In 1958, Venezuela became a democracy when the dictatorship was overthrown. With that came all the usual benefits of democracy such as freedom of the press, universal suffrage, and other civil rights. Unfortunately, these reforms came along with continued destruction of our economic freedom.
The first democratically elected president was Rómulo Betancourt. He was a communist-turned-social democrat. In fact, while he was in exile, he founded the Communist Party in Costa Rica and helped found the Communist Party in Colombia as well. Not surprisingly, as president, he started destroying the economic institutions we had by implementing price controls, rent controls, and other regulations we hadn’t had before. On top of that, he and his allies created a new constitution that was hostile to private property.
In spite of this — or perhaps because of it — Betancourt is almost universally revered in Venezuela as “the father of our democracy.” This remains true even today as Venezuela collapses.
Of course, compared to today, we had far greater economic freedom under Betancourt than we do in today’s Venezuela. But, all of the presidents — with one exception — who came after Betancourt took similar positions and continued to chip away at economic freedom. The only exception was Carlos Andrés Pérez who in his second term attempted some free market reforms. But, he executed these later reforms so badly and haphazardly that markets ended up being blamed for the resulting crises.
The Rise of Hugo Chávez
Over time, the destruction of economic freedom led to more and more impoverishment and crisis. This in turn set the stage for the rise of a political outsider with a populist message. This, of course, was Hugo Chávez. He was elected in 1998 and promised to replace our light socialism with more radical socialism. This only accelerated the problems we had been facing for decades. Nevertheless, he was able to pass through an even more anti-private-property constitution. Since Chávez’s death in 2013, the attacks on private property have continued, and Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, promises only more of the same. Except now, the government is turning toward outright authoritarian socialism, and Maduro is seeking a new constitution in which private property is almost totally abolished, and Maduro will be allowed to remain in power for life.
A Legacy of Poverty
So, what are the results of socialism in Venezuela? Well, we have experienced hyperinflation. We have people eating garbage, schools that do not teach, hospitals that do not heal, long and humiliating lines to buy flour, bread, and basic medicines. We endure the militarization of practically every aspect of life.
The cost of living has skyrocketed in recent years.
Let’s look at the cost of goods in services in terms of a salary earned by a full college professor. In the 1980s, our “full professor” needed to pay almost 15 minutes of his salary to buy one kilogram of beef. Today, in July 2017, our full professor needs to pay the equivalent of 18 hours to buy the same amount of beef. During the 1980s, our full professor needed to pay almost one year’s salary for a new sedan. Today, he must pay the equivalent of 25 years of his salary. In the 1980s, a full professor with his monthly salary could buy 17 basic baskets of essential goods. Today, he can buy just one-quarter of a basic
And what about the value of our money? Well, in March 2007, the largest denomination of paper money in Venezuela was the 100 bolivar bill. With it, you could buy 28 US dollars, 288 eggs, or 56 kilograms of rice. Today, you can buy .01 dollars, 0.2 eggs, and 0.08 kilograms of rice. In July 2017, you need five 100-bolivar bills to buy just one egg.
So, socialism is the cause of the Venezuelan misery. Venezuelans are starving, eating garbage, losing weight. Children are malnourished. Anyone in Venezuela would be happy to eat out of America’s trashcans. It would be considered gourmet.
So, what’s the response of our society? Well, it’s the young people who are leading the fight for freedom in Venezuela in spite of what the current political leaders tell them to do. They don’t want to be called “the opposition.” They are the resistance, in Spanish, “la resistencia.” They are the real heroes of freedom in our country, but the world needs to know that they have often been killed by a tyrannical government, and all members of the resistance are persecuted daily.
Nevertheless, a new pro-market leadership must emerge before we can expect many major changes. Our current political opposition parties also hate free markets. They don’t like Maduro, but they still want their version of socialism.
This is not surprising. As Venezuelans, our poor understanding of the importance of freedom and free markets has created our current disaster. We Venezuelans never really understood freedom in its broader dimension because when we enjoyed high levels of economic freedom, we allowed the destruction of political and civil rights, and when we finally established a democracy, we allowed the destruction of economic freedom.
But there is reason for hope. Along with the Mises Institute we do believe that a revolution in ideas can really bring a new era to Venezuela. On behalf of the resistance and millions of people in our country, we thank the Mises Institute for this opportunity to briefly tell the full history of Venezuela. Thank you very much.