THINGS ARE NEVER SO BAD THAT THEY CAN’T GET WORSE
Inside the Collapse of Venezuela
By William Neuman
For Venezuela, 2012 was the eve of the worst national collapse in modern South American history.
Hugo Chávez, the red-bereted firebrand who’d brought his socialist Bolivarian Revolution to power in 1999, would win another presidential term that October. But by March 2013, he’d be dead of cancer, and you could feel something malignant about to lay waste to his country’s social and economic body.
Spiraling inflation, widespread corruption and ludicrous financial thinking were erasing Venezuela’s historic oil boom. Through the decade, gross domestic product would free-fall almost 80 percent and malnutrition would stalk the population. In 2015 the capital, Caracas, would suffer the highest homicide rate of any city in the world. Bitter polarization, which the populist Chávez stoked until his last breath, would morph into antigovernment street fury – and brutal regime crackdowns that UN-appointed investigators in 2020 labeled crimes against humanity.
One stark result: A fifth of Venezuela’s 30 million people would flee abroad.
The New York Times correspondent William Neuman arrived in Venezuela in 2012. He chronicled the first stage of that harrowing implosion through 2016, then returned in 2019 to watch it reach bottom. His richly reported account – “Things Are Never So Bad That They Can’t Get Worse: Inside the Collapse of Venezuela” – is a thorough and important history not just of the vast metastasis of the Bolivarian Revolution’s cancers, but also of how the oil republic’s sicknesses had spread well before Chávez, from the moment it drilled its first Lake Maracaibo well in 1914.
Venezuela possesses the world’s largest crude reserves. The surrealistically easy money they dispense, Neuman stresses, is actually a “resource curse” that all too often encouraged government profligacy, business corruption and civic complacency in the 20th century. Venezuelans would come to consider themselves model democrats; Neuman argues they “weren’t citizens so much as clients.”
In the 21st century, Chávez’s authoritarian regime, known as Chavismo, turned that Venezuelan delusion into demolition. It did steer petro-riches to the poor for once; many barrios saw their first schools, clinics and potable water pipes. But when the price of oil skyrocketed from less than $ 8 a barrel at Chávez’s inauguration to more than $ 100 a barrel shortly before he died, insane economic malpractice and malfeasance ensued.
Neuman skillfully explains just how insane. “Chávez’s socialism was all means and no production,” he writes. “It was showcialismo, ”An endless bacchanal of multibillion-dollar projects – like a national electricity monopoly, Corpoelec – that were essentially left to rot after the ribbon-cuttings. As Venezuela gorged on imports and prices ballooned, Chávez and his handpicked successor, the witless ideologue Nicolás Maduro, kept forcing price controls that further discouraged domestic industry, spawning huge shortages and extortionate black markets.
“It was a Yogi Berra economy,” Neuman wryly observes. “Stuff was so cheap that nobody could afford to buy it anymore.”
Epic graft schemes proved even more crippling, especially after oil prices went south again. Using fraudulent contracts and invoices, Chavista mandarins and their business cronies gamed the chasm between the official and black-market bolívar-to-dollar exchange rates. They reaped Mafia-grade profits; they also bled the state-run oil monopoly, PDVSA, of cash and robbed Venezuelans of urgent necessities like food, housing and energy infrastructure.
Neuman homes in on the latter – the nationwide electricity blackouts of 2019 – as an effective narrative means of introducing us to ordinary Venezuelans and what the great disintegration reduced them to. During one outage, with food running out in Maracaibo, he inspects families’ cupboards and finds them “so bare, so clean” it seemed “someone had run the palm of their hand across the shelf paper to pick up any crumbs that might have remained . “
The hand that’s left nothing remaining is that of Chavismo.