Last week the socialist government of Venezuela began seizing and destroying handguns, rifles and shotguns — continuing the late Hugo Chavez’s effort to solve the nation’s crime problem by disarming the nation. However, since Chavez imposed what he and his followers proudly called “21st- Century Socialism” on one of the wealthiest nations in South America, Venezuela has been in economic, political and social free fall. Disarming the country won’t work, but one can certainly understand current President Nicolas Maduro’s desire to disarm as many Venezuelans as possible. He and his cronies are increasingly worried that an angry and frustrated populace could turn his country into a revolutionary cauldron.
Consider what he and Chavez have accomplished since Chavez came to power in 2012. The economy of this essentially middle-class democracy has collapsed with more than 70 percent of the population living in poverty. Venezuelans are dying in hospitals lacking hygiene and basic drugs, a square of toilet paper costs more than a tank of gas and people are forced to wait for hours in line for food or go hungry, Mr. Maduro has decreed a two-day work week for government employees, rolling electrical blackouts plague the country, the first lady’s nephews have been arrested by DEA agents from the United States for offering to sell wholesale amounts of cocaine to an undercover agent, and inflation is rampant and getting worse by the day. The International Monetary Fund estimates that Venezuela’s inflation rate this year will reach 720 percent and predicts 2200 percent inflation next year.
The Venezuelan collapse is perhaps the starkest modern example of just how quickly socialism can destroy a basically wealthy, democratic nation. When Hugo Chavez came to power, the left in this country celebrated him and his policies. Hollywood types and “progressive” politicians praised him and looked forward to a demonstration of just how effectively socialism could transform a country — and that’s what everyone’s witnessed since. But it wasn’t quite the sort of transformation they expected.
Meanwhile, drug gangs are running rampant, Caracas has turned into a war zone and criminals roam the streets with virtual impunity. Most are armed with weapons purchased or stole from the police and army as inflation and corruption make anyone with access to a government-provided firearm a potential seller. Gangs have even acquired heavier weapons such as bazookas by buying them from impoverished or inherently corrupt officers.
There is a move to force a recall election that to succeed would require 20 percent of the nation’s voting age population to sign a petition. Given the regime’s crackdown on its opponents one wonders if that many citizens will be willing to put their names on such a petition. If they do, and if a recall election is actually held, Mr. Maduro would be done, but few expect him to go so quietly or to even allow such an election.
Earlier this month 15 members of the Organization of American States, shocked at the unraveling of one of the most prosperous nations in the region, called on Mr. Maduro to allow the recall to go forward without intimidation. The OAS resolution makes it clear that the other nations in the region have concluded that Mr. Maduro must go:
“We call on the Venezuelan authorities to guarantee the exercise of the constitutional rights of the Venezuelan people and that the remaining steps for the realization of the presidential recall referendum be pursued clearly, concretely and without delay, and thus contribute to the quick and effective resolution of the current political, economic and social difficulties in the country.” If they expect that to happen they are dreaming.
What they realize is that if Mr. Maduro doesn’t allow a recall and things continue to deteriorate the downward spiral will continue unabated. Should that happen, the incompetent authoritarianism destroying the country will morph into a ruthless totalitarianism. Imposing such a regime is far easier if the people can first be disarmed, and that is exactly why Mr. Maduro is moving to confiscate and destroy as many guns as possible now.
The problem is that Mr. Maduro’s policies have proved so disastrous that to stay in power he may ultimately have to depend on an army that will turn their guns not on their fellow citizens, but on him and his cronies.
• David A. Keene is Opinion editor at The Washington Times.