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It is truly heartbreaking to watch what is occurring in Venezuela. After the calamity has swept through, the history of events will be explained by a narrative that mostly will be wrong. All kinds of things will be blamed: socialism, communism, capitalism, Chavezism, and a host of other misdiagnoses. The combination of actual causes will be outlined below.
A personal look back in time is helpful. My father, mother, brother and I moved to Caracas in the fall of 1961. Excitement was in the air. It was a very invigorating time in the capital city. Located at 3200 feet above sea level, bordered by spectacular 8500 feet mountains, the climate was and is nearly the land of perpetual spring. During the 1950’s a gigantic burst of world class architecture had blossomed in the city, spearheaded by a diverse collection of European designers. Wide boulevards, traffic circles and monuments were pervasive, bearing romantic and inspiring names: Sabana Grande, Avenidas Francisco Miranda, Urdaneta, Andres Bello, Libertador, and El Silencio.
Despite the enormity of the gut wrenching barrios, you felt that this was a country that had a real chance, like an Argentina starting all over. The last dictator, Jimenez, had been deposed in 1958. In 1963 despite his imperfections, Romulo Betancourt, founder of Accion Democratica party, had become Venezuela’s first ever elected President, and for many became an almost mythical champion of change and hope. Optimism was palpable. Living for expats was easy. The city oozed European charm and world class cosmopolitan flair.
I arrived in Venezula as a seventen year old, about as wide eyed and uniformed as could be imagined. I was truly overwelmed by the gradeur of the city, its energy, its people, its setting and its glamour. Flower sellers and flower stalls, some a half a block long, seemed everywere. I doubt they are still there. On foot, by car and by taxi, I roamed every nook, cranny and section of the long diverse Caracas valley and foothill towns, never worrying about my personal safety.
Due to various factors, for such a young person, I got a pretty good look at the workings of the society beyond the physical surface. Dumb, naive, and frankly as uninterested as I was, I saw and felt things that I now recognize in retrospect were very disturbing. A lethal combination of factors has brought Venezuela to its present state, and I witnessed first hand all of those elements 55 years ago.
Among the factors is corruption, good old fashioned corruption that has nothing to do with politics or “isms”. Corruption exits in all socieites at all times; it becomes a question of degree, however. In Latin America, corruption has existed in extreme form since the beginning. The chief problem with corruption is that itcreates inefficiency in societal functioning. Things and systems don’t work well when they are corrupt. It’s that simple and that complicated. It colors everything. Once embedded, corruption takes a long, long time to eradicate.
Another factor does spring from politics. The ‘Haves’ in societies don’t really want to share much with the “Have Nots”. It understandable. It will probably always be that way. At times however, certain leavening societal institutions incubate, creating forces that militate toward spreading some wealth and income to the middle and lower economic groups. This waxes and wanes. In Venezuela, these instituions, lacking historical gravitas and never strong to begin with, were strangled before reaching critical mass. Consider Evo Morales in Bolivia today, where his relative middle way is detested by the world power structure.
A final factor discussed here is the role of the United States. Even all those many years ago, as a young man I heard frequent if not constant chatter on the streets and in the salons about the massive interference and influence of a certain agency of the United States. It is important to understand that Venezuela is a true treasure trove of riches: minerals, hydrocarbons, timber, and soil. It also poseses what is becoming much more scarce – water, agricultural abundance and even clean air. Its geographical position at the top of South America is ideal and potentially strategic. With the United States seeking regime change in virtually every country of the world, Venezuela is a plum far too juicy to resist.
The interplay of these factors, along with others, suggests a rough road ahead for Venezuela, barring unexpected reversal or mitigation of these forces.