The view from ‘Doralzuela’
How refugees at ground level describe socialism’s latest failure. Will young Americans listen?
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It’s 1,376 miles from Caracas, Venezuela, to Doral, a Miami suburb now known as Doralzuela because so many refugees from the world’s latest socialist experiment now huddle here, yearning to be free.
They come in the footsteps of refugees who fled Cuba in the 1960s, when Peter, Paul and Mary were singing in coffeehouses, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Each verse concluded, “When will they ever learn?” That question should now be addressed to fans of socialism and socialist candidates.
The 20th century was a century of education. We learned what happened when ambitious politicians from 1917 through 1949 in three of the world’s most powerful nations—Russia, Germany, and China—used socialist hopes to gain power. Soviet socialism probably killed 20 million and Chinese socialism 65 million. The butcher’s bill for Germany’s National Socialists (commonly known as Nazis) may have totaled 70 million lives.
Smaller lessons packed the second half of the 20th century. Socialism in Cambodia, North Korea, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Vietnam, and Cuba killed millions more and enslaved tens of millions. When will those who hear socialism’s siren song ever learn? Maybe listening to Venezuelans recently arrived in Doral will help.
Doralzuelans my wife and I spoke with described two common dimensions of Venezuelan socialist power: economic and paramilitary. Even Venezuelans with full-time jobs and salaries now have to scavenge for meat, cheese, and pieces of vegetables in garbage bins. Inflation of more than 2 million percent per year will do that to you.
Karen Ferrer, 34, a jewelry designer and producer who made it to the United States last June 29, said sardines with arepa (cornmeal flatbreads slit and stuffed like pitas) were a poor person’s food, but now only the very rich can afford them. Adults typically have protein-rich foods to eat only twice a month. They fill up on cheap cassava, a woody shrub. Malnutrition is common.
Ferrer’s husband, Alicelis Hurtado, 35, a systems engineer with experience in aluminum manufacturing, says the water supply is now so polluted that eyes burn while taking a shower. He and his wife have a 4-year-old daughter and a lot of foresight: They had passports and applied for a passport for her a week after she was born. They obtained U.S. visas early, and were ready to leave when necessary.
Necessity knocked after Ferrer led prayer groups at night and gave food and medicine to those peacefully resisting the government regime. Leftist paramilitary forces known as colectivos identified her as a member of the resistance. She recalls three brutes holding her in her parents’ home for three hours, threatening her along with her daughter and her 91-year-old grandma, searching every closet for something incriminating.
When Ferrer and her family walked or drove on the streets, colectivo members on motorcycles roared up behind them and threatened to shoot. Ferrer says it was “like living in hell”: Even in Doralzuela, “If I hear a motorcycle, my heart stops.” Life in the United States will not be easy for them—Hurtado said he is willing to “start from the bottom and work my way up”—but they have professional skills and some savings.
At Value Self Storage on 102nd Avenue in Doral, we met others for whom the transition may be harder. Maria Figueroa escaped Venezuela late last year after her husband, an airport worker, discovered governmental corruption. Colectivo members threatened him: “We know where you live, where your family lives.” As Maria was driving one day, a colectivo member sideswiped her, she believes intentionally. She says she finally left for the sake of their children, 6-year-old Lari (who wore a Captain America T-shirt) and 10-year-old Camila (in a T-shirt exhibiting big lips and the words “Kiss Me”).
The Figueroas were at the self-storage facility because Raices Venezolanas, a charity—“Venezuela Roots”—created and partly funded by Venezuelan immigrant Patricia Andrade, gives needy new arrivals free household furnishings, along with toys, children’s clothes, and baby items. They loaded up a large pushcart with boxes and bags, as did Jenny Morales and her three children, ages 15, 8, and 6. They had left Venezuela only two weeks before we met them on April 12, and when I first saw the children, they were clinging to one another, seemingly shell-shocked.
The Morales family came from Maracaibo, a city near the Colombia border known as the center of the oil industry. Her husband is a Venezuelan navy veteran who worked at an oil company, and she was a customs official. They had trouble with their local “communal council,” one of nearly 20,000 that Venezuela’s socialist regime created in 2006 to supervise groups of 150-400 families in urban areas or 20 in rural areas. With food now hard to find, communal council busybodies have sometimes gained life-or-death authority: Morales said those empowered in her neighborhood told her, “You are against the regime. You don’t get food.”
Life in Maracaibo was already hard. Morales said her dad needs surgery and can’t get it, and her father-in-law has diabetes and is suffering. But March brought broader trouble. Power blackouts for five days and then four more allowed mobs to break in, rob, and set fire to more than 500 stores. As The New York Times reported, “Residents stood on their porches wielding weapons to guard against looters. Dozens died in hospitals. Bodies decomposed in the morgue. And what little food remained in refrigerators rotted away as the nation went hungry.”
Other sources backed up the story Morales told. At the few Maracaibo stores that opened, long lines formed. All that remained of other businesses were shattered glass and ash. As Morales talked with us at the self-storage facility, her children scrutinized donated toys they could take to their new dwelling, a motor home—and sometimes they smiled.
Morales and more than 70,000 other Venezuelans who have come to the United States to flee socialism in the past four years are often better off than the 3 million others who—without passports, visas, and funds to come to the United States—have made it across the border to Colombia, Brazil, Peru, or to other countries. Many of them in turn are better off than most of the 27 million who remain.
But why? Why does socialism lead to mass exodus?
And why don’t leftists in suites listen to refugees’ street-level experience? Why did British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn say former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez “showed us there is a different and a better way of doing things. It’s called socialism, it’s called social justice.” Why did filmmaker Oliver Stone call Chávez “a great hero”?
The problem with socialism, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said, is that sooner or later you run out of other people’s money. Neither Chávez nor his successor, Nicolás Maduro, ran out of money: When they ran short, they printed more. The economic death spiral began: Huge deficits, print money, inflation, price controls, shortages, protests, more authoritarianism, more crime, more shortages, more refugees.
Steps along the road at first seemed reasonable from the perspective of the left. In 2007 the Chávez regime grabbed a $30 billion majority stake in four oil projects, so ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips decided to leave Venezuela. That year economist Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize winner, praised Venezuela’s economic policies and minimized risks of hyperinflation. In 2009 Chávez nationalized a rice mill run by a unit of Cargill Inc. and seized Gold Reserve Inc.’s Brisas project (on one of Latin America’s largest gold veins). That year MIT academic Noam Chomsky said Venezuela was showing “how a better world is being created.”
In 2010 Venezuelan socialists took over FertiNitro, a big producer of nitrogen fertilizer; took control of 494,000 acres owned by British meat company Vestey Foods; and nationalized operations of Owens-Illinois, the glass container maker. Many other nationalizations came over the years, with Chávez sometimes paying fairly for the privilege, and other times just doing it. From 2013 to 2017 the Venezuelan economy shrunk by about 30 percent. Now it has collapsed.
Why? Sometimes the political appointees who increasingly ran the industrial show were competent. Often they were not. Chávez paid off supporters and generals. He also paid himself and his family. Two years after Chávez died of cancer in 2013, Diario Las Américas said Chávez’s daughter María Gabriela was the richest woman in Venezuela, with a net worth of $4.2 billion.
Successor Maduro has also eaten high off the cow: Last year a video of him eating pricey steak at the Istanbul restaurant of celebrity chef Nusret Gökçe went viral, prompting U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to castigate Maduro as “the overweight dictator of a nation where 30 percent of the people eat only once a day.” The Associated Press headlined one story last August, “Maduro’s stepsons face scrutiny in $1.2 billion graft case.” Other publications detailed how stepsons Yoswal and Walter Gavidia Flores spent $45,000 on an 18-night stay at the Ritz hotel in Paris.
Even if Chávez and Maduro had been honest, the history of socialism—along with a Biblical understanding of human nature—suggests a deeper problem. Men and women work hard year after year for their families and themselves. They may work hard for a while in a spurt of revolutionary enthusiasm, but when the excitement wears off, workers wear down. Venezuelan Daniel Milán notes that “to make a truly socialist country you’d need a bunch of zombies and robots, because real human beings were not meant for socialism.”
When the going gets tough, the response of socialist politicians in country after country has been similar: Get rough. In 2013, the U.S. leftist magazine The Nation said Venezuela’s economic problems came because Chávez “wasn’t authoritarian enough. It wasn’t too much control that was the problem but too little.”
Some colectivos started as government-funded social justice organizations delivering food packages in barrios, but they are now—according to Human Rights Watch—“armed gangs who use violence with impunity.” During the electricity blackouts in Maracaibo and other cities, Maduro told colectivos to practice “active resistance [in] every barrio.” That means attacking anti-government protesters and sending death threats to journalists. This year the National Assembly of Venezuela said the colectivos are government-sponsored terrorist groups due to their “violence, paramilitary actions, intimidation, murders and other crimes.”
In some areas the community councils and colectivos have merged. Some of their leaders may have benevolent rather than criminal intent, but as C.S. Lewis wrote, “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies.”
Meanwhile, the average Venezuelan has lost 25 or more pounds. Caritas, which works in poor Venezuelan communities, reported that half of pregnant women suffer from acute malnutrition. So do children. Some fall prey to opportunistic diseases. Between 2008 and 2015 Venezuela had one case of measles and no cases of diphtheria. During 15 months in 2017 and 2018 Venezuela had 6,700 confirmed cases of the two diseases and at least 264 deaths. Seventy percent of hospitals reported water supply failures, and 95 percent were unable to do a CAT scan or MRI, according to Geopolitical Futures.
Now, Venezuelan Andres Malave wonders why many young Americans, according to polls, see socialism as the “most compassionate system.” He has seen how “socialism operates under the assumption that an insulated leader and his legion of bureaucrats are the best judges of what people are worth. Socialism … crushes ambition in pursuit of a uniform, unfulfilling and arbitrary definition of ‘equality.’ And it does all of this in the name of ‘the greater good.’”
Maybe socialist faith in government has gained standing in the United States as faith in God and confidence in current governmental leaders have declined. Michael Novak in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982) called socialism “the attempt to derive from the political sphere the direction and purpose to human life that is the traditional province of morality and culture.” But in Doralzuela, where 9 out of 10 residents speak a language other than English at home, the political language is decidedly anti-socialistic.
Some of the newcomers want to be here only until the Maduro regime disintegrates. They are hoping Venezuela will make the list of countries (including South Sudan, Yemen, Honduras, and Nicaragua) whose escapees receive Temporary Protected Status. Others are settling in. Susanna Gonzalez, who came in 2005, married an American citizen and is now a volunteer teacher of parenting classes at the crisis pregnancy center in Miami that was WORLD’s South Region Hope Award winner in 2015. One pregnant student in her class is a Cuban doctor, dispatched to Venezuela by the Castro regime, who escaped to the United States and is seeking political asylum.
The exiles remind us not to take freedom for granted. Public Interest editor Irving Kristol in 1976 called “the death of socialism … the most important political event of the 20th century.” But in the 21st century we are regaining some ancient wisdom: Old witches never die. They just change their shapes.
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