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Plow the Sea

Things Are Never So Bad That They Can’t Get Worse: Inside the Collapse of Venezuela

William Neuman
St. Martin’s Press, pp. 352, $26.99


Most Americans in the United States devote very little time thinking about our neighbors in Latin America. That’s a shame: its history reads like an epic, filled with characters and nations attempting to achieve everlasting glory, and, when they dramatically fail, leading to unfortunate consequences for everyone involved. The Venezuelan general Simón Bolívar’s turbulent career is the prototypical example. It looked like a bust when he failed to liberate Venezuela in the 1810s, like a triumph a decade later when he did liberate Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, and then again (in his own view) like a bust in 1830 when he died of tuberculosis in a politically fractured Latin America.

The same year that he died, Bolívar, increasingly disillusioned with his fellow libertadores’ prospects and planning to go into exile, remarked that “all who have served the Revolution have plowed the sea.” Overthrowing the old governments in Latin America was one thing. Building new ones was an entirely different task, and dreams of Hispanic unity quickly devolved into political bickering. In the final days of Bolívar’s life, his unified state, Gran Colombia, strained due to diverging visions. And, shortly after his death, in 1831 it collapsed.

Bolívar’s successors did not cover themselves in glory either. Andrés de Santa Cruz, a libertador who worked with Bolívar in Peru and Bolivia, bungled Bolivia’s politics. Under his authoritarian rule, it was an island of stability, at least compared to the rest of Latin America. But, instead of using that stability to work towards the prosperity of his country, he leveraged it to swallow up Bolivia’s weaker neighbor, Peru, in the ill-fated Peru–Bolivian Confederation. The federation lasted three years, and it was a constant source of turmoil: the Peruvians did not want it, and, with the help of the Chilean government, they fought it and defeated Santa Cruz at the Battle of Yungay. No one mourned the confederation’s death. And the chaos in the decades following Bolívar’s death extended even to other countries that he had not liberated. Argentina was less of a country than a series of civil wars until 1860. The country was divided into two armed camps—one pro-centralization, one pro-federalism—that bickered with one another until 1861. (For nearly nine years, Buenos Aires called itself and its outlying regions an independent republic.) It is from Argentina where we get the first examples of caudillos, a rotating cast of authoritarian warlords who promised a unified Argentina, but could not quite deliver, which only led to more strife.

Bolívar still casts his long shadow on Latin American politics. Hugo Chávez, as he rose to power in Venezuela in the 1990s, dubbed his political program for the country the “Bolivarian Revolution.” And the reasons why so many of his countrymen supported him are unsurprising. In the 1980s, the regimes of Jaime Lusinchi and Carlos Andrés Pérez were plagued by economic crises and the scent of corruption. This was largely the result of the Puntofijo Pact, an agreement reached in 1958 that was intended to steer the country away from single-party rule, but soon prompted the creation of a complex system of patronage based on shared oil revenues controlled by the country’s two ruling parties. Chávez vowed to liberate the country from the system. The results of his efforts are detailed in William Neuman’s Things Are Never So Bad That They Can’t Get Worse: Inside the Collapse of Venezuela, which illustrates why Venezuelans thought that Chavismo would save their country and how their hopes were dashed.

For a time it worked. As oil prices rose in the early 2000s, thanks to China’s rapid growth and the emerging market boom, Venezuela prospered. Oil revenues surged even beyond the level of the 1970s boom years. Chávez was able to spend lavishly on social programs despite a simultaneous surge in corruption. Thanks to this spending and his admittedly charismatic personality on television, Chávez went on to win election after election. But he was not one to take any chances with his popularity. Step by step, he removed elements of Venezuela’s democratic constitution by eliminating or co-opting the media, packing the courts and rewriting the constitution. When oil prices started to drop, mismanagement of the oil sector became more obvious. Lower oil production and falling prices meant less money for social programs. And the latter were often very poorly executed and, in some cases, entirely imaginary. So Chávez’s popularity started to fall, and he found it harder to win elections without cheating.

The collapse of oil prices in 2014 combined with the succession of Chávez by Nicolás Maduro showed how badly the Bolivarian Revolution has failed. Far from delivering prosperity, it has done the opposite. Seven million people have fled Venezuela in recent years (the country used to be a destination for immigrants). For those who stay, signs of decline are everywhere: rolling power outages, hyperinflation, and gangsterism which runs amok in every part of the country. (To think that much of this could have been avoided if a lone paratrooper, Hugo Chávez, had not been treated so gently for his coup attempt.)

Venezuela is an extreme example of Latin American dreams gone wrong. There are less tragic, if stranger political projects in Latin American history. Paraguay before its liberation was a comparatively quiet place, where the major concerns were native tribes and ruinous taxes. Immediately post-independence, it was ruled by José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia y Velasco, or “El Supremo,” after he won election as supreme dictator in 1814. He was an enlightened despot inspired by the social theories of Rousseau, and he cut off Paraguay from all international trade to develop its internal industries. He also banned the marriage of Spaniards with each other and used the state to enforce miscegenation. (These days, the majority of Paraguay speaks Guarani, so the policy must have worked.) These were strange dreams, but not ruinous ones. Paraguay in the late nineteenth century was the complete opposite. From 1864 to 1870, the government fought Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay over land claims. The result? The majority of Paraguay’s adult male population died. Paraguay in the mid-twentieth century wasn’t much better. In the 1930s, Paraguay fought with Bolivia over the Gran Chaco, an arid landscape nicknamed the “green hell,” which was believed to contain bountiful natural resources. Paraguay won, but it did not find the oil deposits it sought in the region. (That only happened decades later.) And for much of the second half of the twentieth century, the country was ruled by Alfredo Stroessner, a dictator known for such remarkable cruelties as his listening on the phone to his lackeys torturing political dissidents with a chainsaw.

Farther south, in Argentina, there were more indignities. Juan Perón’s successor, his third wife Isabel, came to power in 1974, at the start of the Dirty War, a right-wing United States–backed extermination campaign against anyone suspected of having communist sympathies. Isabel was the puppet of José López Rega, the Argentine minister of social welfare. Rega was a right-wing Peronist who helped bring Perón back to Argentina. He was also an occultist nicknamed “El Brujo,” who during his time in office used right-wing death squads to kill perceived enemies, mostly leftists. When Isabel Perón was overthrown in 1976 and a military junta was instated, the Dirty War only continued. Anywhere from nine to thirty thousand people were killed over the better part of a decade. The war only ended after the Falklands War in 1982 proved that the junta was incapable of running Argentina.

Even Uruguay, comparatively the Switzerland of Latin Americat, has had its troubles. A coup in 1973 canceled elections and enacted a dictatorship. Nevertheless, compared to the troubles in Argentina, Chile, and Paraguay, far fewer people died. Still, nearly ten percent of the country did leave the country (never a good sign). Admittedly, today’s profile of Uruguay represents a possibility of a Latin America where leaders don’t pursue glorious projects that blow up in their faces. The leadership of José Mujica is refreshing in comparison to leaders promising renewed glory like Maduro in Venezuela or Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico.

Perhaps it’s because I am of Latin American descent, but I always remain hopeful about the place. In many cases, over the course of several centuries, these countries slowly and painfully transformed themselves from oligarchic republics and even empires into democracies, and then after backsliding managed to become representative democracies. The end of the P.R.I. and the rise of multiparty democracy in Mexico and the end of the Brazilian military junta are just some examples of this. The problem is when given the choice of quiet growth or the hope of making history, most Latin American leaders instinctively run for the second option, with disastrous results. It is better to work quietly towards the good than to proclaim loudly the coming of a utopia that never arrives.

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Lars Erik Schönander is a policy technologist at the Foundation for American Innovation, a tech policy think tank.