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Venezuela’s collapse and the ’useful idiots’ of the Canadian left

Venezuela’s descent into chaos was obvious years ago, but that didn’t stop Canadian social democrats from praising Hugo Chavez’s experiment in anti-reality economics and his assault on freedom
Mark Milke
Venezuelan opposition activists clash with the Bolivarian National Guard during protest against government of President Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas, on May 18, 2017. On Monday Venezuelans launched a seventh week of anti-government demonstrations by blocking roads, vowing not to budge all day in protest at a deadly political and economic crisis. (Carlos Becerra/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
(Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)
(Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

One political curse from the twentieth century that continues in this one is the praise from self-described progressives for demagogues whose policies can, in advance, be predicted to hurt the poor and destroy their freedoms.

Such “useful idiots,” as Lenin described them, were thick on the ground in the last century. Walter Duranty, a New York Times reporter, covered the Soviet Union in the 1930s and parroted the official line about Stalin’s agricultural “reforms”. Duranty wrote his dispatches just as millions were dying from Stalin’s forced collectivization in Ukraine.

In Canada, the best example of left-wing praise for poverty-creating regimes was Pierre Trudeau. He lauded multiple communist governments—the Soviet Union, Mao’s China’s and Castro’s Cuba—before, during, and after his time as prime minister.

The curse continues. Recall radical praise for the late Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan autocrat who died in 2013 and whose anti-entrepreneur policies and attacks on civil society were obvious from the start. His destructive policies are again relevant given current Venezuelan protests against his successor, Nicolás Maduro, and the government-induced poverty and repression which stem from Chavez-era policies aped by Maduro.

To wit: In 2004, Linda McQuaig glowed in her picture with and praise for Chavez. Arguing he redirected “vast sums of national wealth to the swollen ranks of Venezuela’s poor,” McQuaig mourned his passing in 2013. She called it a “sad milestone.” Likewise, Naomi Klein approvingly re-tweeted the claim that Chavez left behind “the most democratic country in the Western hemisphere.” (No surprise there: Klein long demonstrated support for Latin America’s interventionist left. She was thrilled with the “pink tide” that swept Latin America in the early 2000s; in 2004, Klein added her name to an online petition whose signatories wrote “We would vote for Hugo Chavez.”) One current Alberta NDP MLA, Rod Loyola, pre-politics, praised Chavez. And in 2013, Loyola was listed by the Marxist Leninist Daily as the media contact for an Edmonton “tribute to Chavez”.

Reality check.

Chavez, who ruled from 1999 until his death, exacerbated Venezuela’s typical Latin American problems—poverty, corruption, graft and inefficiency, with assaults on institutions necessary for a free society: the media, opposition parties, an independent judiciary and non-government organizations.

Chavez also attacked the lifeblood necessary for poverty reduction: profit. That’s the “currency” that allows businesses to hire and pay employees and to create goods and services. It is profit that allows for reasonable taxes so government programs can be financed.

An example of Chavez’s economic policies: In 2010, the Venezuelan leader launched an “economic war on the bourgeoisie owners” of food distribution chains, flour mills and grocery stores. His war and the substitution of government agencies for private sector distribution led to tragic waste: that year, a state-owned subsidiary failed to transport food from the docks. The result was 80,000 tonnes of rotting food, including meat. The ensuing stench was described as akin to “100 dead dogs.”

The Maduro regime continues Chavez’s economic policies: Just last week, it declared bakeries to be “special contributors.” One Venezuelan baker translated the regime-speak: “We have to pay double in taxes while facing shortages of milk, eggs, cheese and deli products.” Indeed, in March, 80 per cent of Venezuela’s bakeries reported having no flour.

Venezuelans face continual tragedy: eight of 10 Venezuelans are poor; a critical lack of medical supplies and money for health care contributes to infant mortality rates that soared by 30 per cent in one year. Maternal mortality is up 66 per cent. Hyper-inflation has vaporized savings and purchasing power. One economist who tracks a common food, chicken, notes, “chicken inflation” runs at 700 per cent annually.

Some blame Venezuela’s crisis on the late-2014 collapse in the price of oil, a significant export. Wrong. Alberta and Newfoundland also suffered from that decline but three years on, store shelves in Calgary and St. John’s are not devoid of food. Chavez and Maduro turned Venezuela into the 21st-century version of East Germany; it was they who created Venezuela’s dire shortages.

That this was Venezuela’s end was obvious years ago, but Canadian social democrats praised Chavez and the newest experiment in anti-reality economics, and his assault on freedom.

In 2010, three years before McQuaig and Klein offered their gushing tribute and supportive tweet, Amnesty International wrote of the Venezuelan regime’s “attacks, harassment and intimidation of those critical of government policies, including journalists and human rights defenders, were widespread.”

Canada’s ideological left loved Chavez and his policies, the ones that destroyed a decent, second-world country. They forgot, or never learned or never cared, that granting widespread economic power to a government with existing, necessary political and military power leaves no power for citizens. That makes such regimes dangerous to core freedoms, in addition to the folly of political direction for an economy from the top down.

Or put another way: Canada’s hard left learned nothing from the twentieth century.

Mark Milke is an author and columnist. Follow him on Twitter at @MilkeMark.

CORRECTION: This commentary has been changed to reflect a mistaken tweet attributed to Naomi Klein.