Hugo Chávez must be rolling over in his grave -- convulsed with laughter. Bread-and-circuses socialism has hit new heights in Venezuela as Chávez's hand-picked successor Nicolás Maduro ordered the military occupation of electronic chain stores – and forced them to offer "fair prices.” Prices had been rising, but not anymore.
Under President Chávez, bread-and-circuses populism also was the rage: nationwide stores were set up to sell food at below-market prices – an effort that, ironically, led to food shortages. Now, Maduro is taking Venezuela's entitlement culture a step further -- putting government-set prices on things like plasma television sets, refrigerators, and washing machines.
Venezuelans are overjoyed.
Since Saturday, thousands have been mobbing electronic stores to get a bargain. Prices are so low that even anti-government opponents have joined the mob that's enjoying the temporary fruits of Chávez so-called "21st Century socialism." A number of store managers and owners have been arrested, accused by Maduro of illegal price gouging, speculating, and unfair lending. "We're doing this for the good of the nation," said Maduro. “Let nothing remain in stock …We're going to comb the whole nation in the next few days. This robbery of the people has to stop."
Critics called it "state sponsored looting." Store shelves were cleaned out. But Maduro, who faces make-or-break municipal elections in a month amid a deteriorating economy, vented his fury at Venezuela's allegedly unscrupulous retailers – the "parasitic bourgeoisie” as he called them, and lumped them together with Yankee imperialists and his political opposition.
It was right out of Chavez playbook, but taken to new heights – or lows. Bread-and-circuses populism, to be sure, has existed in Venezuela long before Hugo Chavez, along with ample amounts of authoritarianism, statism, and corruption.
The chaos among bargain hunters – caught on the YouTube clip below -- continued through Monday; and so the government sent out thousands of members of its security forces and civilian militia to ensure crowd control at electronics shops – those not already cleaned out or, in some cases, looted by shoppers who didn't want to pay even the government's dirt-cheap prices. Next on Maduro's hit list are clothing stores and automobile dealerships.
Venezuela is an oil-rich yet impoverished country. But it wasn't always poor. During the 1970s, it was dubbed “Saudi Venezuela” as oil prices soared and petro-dollars trickled down to most everybody. Those days are long gone -- yet many Venezuelans persist in their belief that oil wealth ought to make them rich; and so they're quick to accept Maduro's conspiracy theories about why consumer goods are unaffordable. To them, dirt-cheap electronics and appliances are part of their birthright by virtue of their oil wealth.
Venezuela's rising prices and food shortages reflect the economic realities of Venezuela’s command-and-control economy – a 54 percent inflation rate and shortages of dollars caused by draconian currency exchange controls.
Dollars, of course, are needed to import goods, but they're hard to come by. On the currency black market, a greenback sells for nearly 10 times the official rate. Mismanagement and currency controls are blamed for the shortages of basic goods, including toilet paper and cooking oil.
Venezuela's slide into mob rule has been brewing for years. Earlier into President Chávez's first term, 14 years ago, he had suggested that people who rob could be excused; they were only hungry and poor, after all. And then there were a number of instances of squatters occupying empty apartment buildings, with tacit government approval. The concept of private property, the cornerstone of a vibrant economy, was whittled way little by little – from squatters taking over apartment complexes to Chávez's nationalizations of large swaths of the economy, after declaring himself a socialist.
With Venezuela's economy in a tail spin, the government has become increasingly paranoid, as underscored by the recent detention of Miami Herald Jim Wyss whom the National Guard and military intelligence held for three days. His crime: asking questions about chronic food shortages and upcoming municipal elections. He was released on Saturday as Venezuela drifted into mob rule.
What's next for Venezuela? Cuba at one point had an answer on how to rev up its cash-strapped economy: drug trafficking. Those days appear to be over thanks to the Reagan administration's vigilance; but drug trafficking has also been a source of revenue for Venezuela, enriching Venezuelan narco-generals, high-ranking officials, and in particular Lebanese-born businessman Walid Makled, who ultimately had a falling out with the Chávez administration and is now in a Venezuelan prison.
Venezuela's government has never demonstrated a great interest in stopping drug trafficking within its border; and so the recent destruction of 13 civilian airplanes, allegedly for drug smuggling, suggest that corrupt Venezuelan military men and officials may be waging a turf war for control of Venezuela's drug trade; the country is a transshipment point for Colombian cocaine. Reports vary as to whether the planes were shot down on destroyed on the ground after being forced down; and that includes the fate of a Mexican business jet whose recent destruction has drawn protests from Mexico's government. Venezuela claimed the Hawker 25 was loaded with cocaine.
In the go-go days of high oil prices, Venezuela was considered a beacon of democracy for the region. Caracas was a charming place -- the "city of red roofs." Venezuela's long decline has accelerated under socialism and anti-Americanism. The worst is yet to come; or as Venezuelan economist Jose Guerra said in a tweet: “Food today, hunger tomorrow."
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