Can a Beauty Queen’s Murder Bring Down Socialism?

1389123169_monica-spear-467Beauty queens are revered in Venezuela, none more so than those crowned “Miss Venezuela.” So when a beloved former “Miss” named Mónica Spear and her ex-husband were murdered by highway bandits, the crime sparked national outrage — touching off street protests, non-stop media coverage, and an ongoing national conversation about the socialist government’s failure to stop a runaway murder epidemic.

Now, outrage over the murders is prompting many Venezuelans to confront the contradictions of Venezuela-style socialism. One of the biggest ironies: violent crime has exploded since President Hugo Chávez, a firebrand leftist, took office 15 years ago. This has happened, moreover, as capitalism has increasingly been dismantled – supposedly replaced by more economic equality and “social justice” in the oil-rich yet impoverished South American nation.

Chávez, who died last March of cancer, coined the term “21st Century socialism.” He contended it would reverse corruption-riddled Venezuela’s long economic decline, as would his strategy of pursing anti-American alliances. But as fallout continues over the high-profile murders, many Venezuelans are becoming more cynical about President Nicolás Maduro’s socialist agenda as tens of thousands of Venezuelans are being murdered annually. Maduro, Chávez’s hand-picked successor, is grappling with food shortages, falling oil prices, and annual inflation topping 50%. He rules a politically polarized country where just over 50 percent of voters support his leftist agenda. He possesses neither Chávez’s charisma nor mystical connection to Venezuela’s poor majority.

Spear, crowned “Miss Venezuela” in 2004, died in a hail of gunfire on a dark highway on Monday, January 6, with ex-husband Henry Thomas Berry, a 39-year-old British citizen who specialized in adventure tourism at a local travel agency. Their 5-year-old daughter suffered a leg wound.

Police said several bandits laid sharp objects on the road that flattened the car’s tires; other reports said the car was disabled after hitting a pothole — a common problem on poorly maintained roads. The couple locked themselves in their car as the bandits showed up, but to no avail: Six shots were fired as a tow-truck arrived. The couple’s ill-fated holiday in the spectacular mountains and plains of western Venezuela had been intended to give them a new start together.

With Spear and Berry’s murders, Venezuela’s skyrocketing murder rate suddenly has human faces – and President Maduro is on the defensive. He’d been focusing on deepening “21st Century socialism.” This included an “economic offensive” against the commercial class: from owners of supermarkets to electronics stores to car dealerships – all were being ordered to offer government-set “fair prices.” And before November’s make-or-break municipal elections, he’d won votes by taking bread-and-circuses populism to new heights, tacitly giving Christmas shoppers, as some observers saw it, a green light to loot electronics stores. “We’re doing this for the good of the nation,” he said. “Let nothing remain in stock!” A number of retailers were jailed — accused of speculating, hoarding, and unfair lending.

Now, sensing political trouble over Spear and Berry’s murders, Maduro is shifting his attention away from his “economic offensive.” He’s instead calling for an unprecedented anti-crime program, and he recently met with big-city mayors, governors, and administration officials to come up with a plan. Details remain sketchy. But hopefully, Maduro will focus on improving the nation’s often corrupt and inefficient police forces and criminal-justice system. In the past, he and Chávez had believed socialism would address what they believed were crime’s root causes: capitalism and class-conflict; poverty and economic inequality — and even violent American movies shown on Venezuelan television and movie theaters.

Venezuela suffered the world’s fourth highest murder rate in 2010 after Honduras, El Salvador, and Jamaica, according to United Nation’s statistics. Official Venezuelan crime statistics are non-existent: the government stopped providing them ten years ago. But sociologist Roberto Briceño León, president of the Venezuelan Observatory on Violence, a watchdog group, estimates that yearly homicides have increased 427% since Hugo Chávez was elected president in 1998, after campaigning on a platform to seek a “third way” between socialism and capitalism, and to reverse rampant corruption and declining living standards. “In 1998, we had 4,550 homicides in the country, but we closed the past year with 24,000,” Briceño León recently told Globovision, a Caracas television channel, in a segment about the Spear and Berry murders. To put those grim murder numbers into perspective: war-torn Iraq’s population is comparable in size to Venezuela’s, yet it suffered 7,800 killings in 2013 — about one third of Venezuela’s homicides. “A third of our murders, and yet the international community says absolutely nothing about the violence in Venezuela. Shame on them,” wrote Juan Cristobal Nagel, an opposition blogger at Caracas Chronicles.

To outraged Venezuelans, the couple’s murders were especially tragic because their lives were caught up with the rise and fall of the Venezuelan dream – an ideal that existed from the 1970s to mid-80s, the era of “Saudi Venezuela” when oil prices were soaring. Berry’s British parents had immigrated to Venezuela more than 40 years ago, when Caracas was a charming place known as the “city of red roofs.” His father was a mathematics professor at Simón Bolívar University. Spear, a fifth runner-up in the Miss Universe pageant, went on to because a successful soap-opera actress for the Spanish-language Telemundo network. In 2011, she had moved to Florida, one of more than 500,000 Venezuelan now living aboard to escape Venezuela-style socialism. Many are members of the business and professional classes, people whom class-warrior Chávez saw as part the problems ailing Venezuela.

Police investigating Spear and Berry’s murders quickly rounded up nine suspects who were part of a gang that preyed on motorists; they were carrying credit cards and a digital camera that belonged to the couple. It was splendid police work. But to most Venezuelans it underscored that their country, even under “21st Century socialism,” has two standards of justice: one for the well-connected and famous, and the other for ordinary Venezuelans, observed Briceño León, the sociologist. Indeed, most Venezuelans doubt that police would have expended such an effort for ordinary Venezuelans, he explained. “People can commit crimes without any consequences,” sociologist Luis Cedeño, director of civic group Active Peace, told Globovision.

Whatever crime-reduction plan President Maduro implements will face a major problem: Venezuela is broke. Draconian currency exchange and price controls have left many supermarket shelves empty; even toilet party is in short supply. Attracting significant foreign investment is not an option — not after Chávez nationalized large swaths of the economy. Recently, Bloomberg News reported that Venezuela’s “economic distress is so acute that the central bank stopped releasing regular statistics for the first time ever, threatening to increase borrowing costs further as the nation faces $10 billion of financing needs.” Benjamin Wang, a money manager at PineBridge Investments LLC, was quoted as saying: “There’s no transparent data to measure the risk.”

As the fallout over the death of a beauty queen plays out, cynicism is likely to grow toward Venezuela-style socialism. So will murder, corruption, and economic decline. How ironic that a beauty queen’s death may serve as a catalyst for positive change that opposition candidates have been unable to achieve by defeating Hugo Chávez or Nicolás Maduro at the polls.

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  • Jason P

    These killers were just free-lance socialists. Instead of destroying the lives of productive people through the machinery of the state, they cut the red tape. Emboldened by feelings of entitlement, they take to the street in a spontaneous redistribution of wealth. It’s socialism without the mask of an orderly governmental process. If it’s “yours for the taking” why wait for some official to rob the rich when you can hurry the process along? Socialism is socialism. A is A.

    • royw

      As I have often said, politicians are thieves in Armani suits instead of masks.

  • Omar

    Good article on the huge corruption that is destroying Venezuela from within, but there are a few issues to correct. Do not refer to Nicolas Maduro as “President”. There are two reasons to why he is not Venezuela’s legitimate president. First of all, Maduro stole the presidential election last April by having his (and Chavez’s) cronies rig the election by hiding and/or destroying ballots from voters that supported the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles; registering people that didn’t exist; intimidating voters at the polls with violence; and other undemocratic measures. Second, Maduro is not a legitimate president of Venezuela because he is not eligible to serve such a position. In case people are not such, Maduro is not Venezuelan. He is Colombian, both by birth and by heritage (his entire family is from Colombia). One of Panama’s former ambassadors to the Organization of American States, Guillermo Cochez, has found evidence that Maduro was born in Colombia. The former ambassador obtained copies that showed that the illegitimate leader was born in the Colombian town of Cucuta, near the border with Venezuela. The Venezuelan Constitution (created by Chavez himself) states that a person can only be a natural born citizen if 1. he/she was born in Venezuela or 2. he/she became a citizen of the country by age 7. Since Maduro became a Venezuelan citizen at age 11 and he has refused to show his birth certificate to the public (despite multiple requests from the opposition to do so), it is obvious that Maduro is ineligible to serve as president of Venezuela. In a moral world, he would be thrown in prison for lying about his nationality on official documents. Anyway, the real legitimate president of Venezuela is Henrique Capriles. He needs our help in getting rid of Cuban Communist domination of Venezuela and to restore democracy to the South American country.

  • Sheik Yerbouti

    Maybe someone will get the clue that the “elections” there have not been above board. We’ll probably see a revolution there.

    • A Z

      That Maduro is only around 50% after many people have left Venezuela is damning. Much of the opposition has left with their talent and money making it harder to find resources to fight the socialists.

    • XCSX

      Fabulous name.

      • Sheik Yerbouti

        Borrowed it from Zappa

  • antisharia

    Don’t hold your breath. Only violence will rid the world of the totalitarian twins, socialism and Islam

  • Donald J DaCosta

    A case of a corrupt, incompetent government run by despotic, socialist fanatics elected by a majority of the people. Sounds familiar.

    • Race_Dissident

      Democracy ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

      • Donald J DaCosta

        Because it requires an informed, educated electorate. Unfortunate given the realities of human nature. Winston Churchill purportedly once said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conservation with the average voter.”

    • Drakken

      We in the US have now come to critical mass, I am afraid that our Republic as we know it is over. I truly believe that Heinlein had it right.

  • A Z

    “Now, sensing political trouble over Spear and Berry’s murders, Maduro is shifting his attention away from his “economic offensive.” He’s instead calling for an unprecedented anti-crime program,”

    Maduro just lacks good PR people.

    He needs to say that he is pivoting to tackle jobs or crime. It doesn’t matter how many time he pivots to solve the same problem year after year just so long as he is seen pivoting like Obama.

  • A Z

    “Attracting significant foreign investment is not an option — not after Chávez nationalized large swaths of the economy.”

    “Venezuela seizes control of Mexican cement plants”

    “It entered Venezuela in 1994 after purchasing a local cement maker, and today has 3,000 employees.”

    Because we all know that Mexico is considered one of those 1st world imperialistic countries that are always trying to put one over on the 3rd world!

    /sarc off

  • Lysander Spooner

    Socialism is the government stealing people’s assets, keeping most of the loot, and justifying their predations by distributing what’s left of the loot to accomplices. It’s inevitable that those at the bottom of this criminal food chain will realize they can do much better if they bypass the government middle-men and steal and kill for themselves.

    • Drakken

      Socialism is nothing more than communism with a smiley face. It still in the end, ends up with a stack of dead bodies.

  • Paratisi

    As long as they continue to own the Voting Machine Co. The Socialsists WILL NOT BE VOTED OUT! #OperationAmericanSpring #Benghazi #BringBoweHome #PJNET

    God Bless America!

  • Godagesil Rex

    This is not different than the failed state known as Mexico…how could Mexico not top the list of murderous failed states with its annual narco related bloodbath? I guess they don’t count murdered criminals. Rolling in petro dollars, both Venezuela and Mexico cannot fix themselves because the ruling class, relicts of Spanish colonial rule cannot bring themselves to make the social changes needed to improve the lives of the average citizen. I am not talking socialism, but using the state petro $$ to fund education and business opportunities for the average citizen. They don’t because that would threaten the status quo. I worked in Bolivia and other places and the local rich resented us Gringos being there working. The would look at us as if to say, “What are you doing here! Its our job to exploit the local underclasses, not yours!” The ruling oligarchy families will always stand in the way of improving these countries. The only thing that will change it is someone with the honesty to do it, but sadly by the time they reach the level where they have the power they are already compromised corruption. You cannot swim in a sewer without getting covered with shiite. It will never change. The people do not have the will and the rich will not allow it. So the corruption continues.

    • Drakken

      The Spanish ruling class back then had the backbone to put down any type of insurrection since the natives are too ignorant to know what is good for them. If you think those places are going to change your on crack, it takes a strong man to keep the natural order of things in line. Democracy down there south od our border? Are you kidding?