On July 31st, 2016, I boarded a flight that would take me from Caracas, Venezuela to Indianapolis, Indiana. Many Venezuelans who come to the United States do so because of terrible and life-changing events, hoping to avoid violence, kidnapping, or a government takeover of their business.
For me, I hoped to come to America — even as a young teenager — because the United States represented freedom, safety, and the promise that I would never again suffer the consequences of socialism. I worked hard, and after receiving a full merit-based scholarship was blessed with the opportunity to start my college education in the United States.
I left Venezuela behind because, despite the denial of those around me, I saw a nation that was inevitably marching towards starvation and collapse because of socialism, and I feared for my future.
The earliest memory I have of our economic crisis was when I was 9 years old. I was confused as to why we didn’t have milk at home. Next, I noticed the increasing scarcity of chicken and bread, then cheese, toothpaste, and shampoo.
Like most students in Venezuela, I would often buy empanadas from my school cafeteria during breaks. As years passed, the price of an empanada rose rapidly, from just ten bolívars (our currency), to 20, then 100, 1,000, 10,000, and much higher. Shockingly, since 2016, the overall inflation rate in Venezuela has amounted to over 50,000,000% 𑁋 that’s equivalent to a dollar store increasing prices from $1 to over $500,000 in just a few years. By 2016, I couldn’t fit enough cash in my wallet to buy one empanada or a ticket for the movie theater.
Basic necessities were rationed, and we were forced to line up for hours in the hope of purchasing what we needed. In order to enforce the government mandated quota, fingerprint scanners were set up in every supermarket and pharmacy to make sure no-one purchased more than they were allotted. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, we were told that we could only go to the supermarket two days per week. Based on my national ID number, I was only permitted to go on Mondays and Saturdays. Unfortunately, my father was also assigned the same “supermarket days,” which meant that our chances of purchasing necessities — items which were already only sporadically available — rapidly decreased.
Although it might seem relatively meaningless, I found that one of the saddest and most immediate consequences of these socialist policies was the disappearance of classic Venezuelan brands and products. The famous gummies and yogurts from my childhood — and even my favorite brand of white chocolate — became impossible to find. Venezuela, once one of the largest producers of cocoa on the planet, ran out of chocolate as the regime imposed restrictive price controls. My mother, who then started a side business making chocolate bonbons for events, had to purchase her supplies illegally at prices above those set by the authorities. We hid the chocolate she purchased in case the police stopped us, risking jail for breaking the law, as if we were dealing cocaine instead of chocolate.
I was experiencing firsthand the impact of failed socialist policies under Chavez and Maduro. With the removal of profit incentives and the absurd increase in government hiring, production rates plummeted until the state-owned enterprises went broke and shut down. In an attempt to fix the problem, the regime then imposed price controls on the few remaining private businesses, thereby making it impossible to make a profit, which only further fueled the issue of shortages.
The driving force behind this hyperinflation was the myriad of social programs created by Hugo Chávez, and maintained by his successor Nicolás Maduro. “Housing is a right!” our dictators would exclaim, while the government attempted — and then failed — to build millions of homes. No one knows how many houses were successfully built, but what we do know is that even the finished buildings were often uninhabitable. Ten-story structures would not have a functioning elevator, and some would even collapse after just a few years. This same fundamental high-level failure occurred in every area the government controlled. “Free food.” “Free natural gas for cooking.” “Free cars.” All while the government grew larger and larger.
And as the government grew, so did the levels of corruption. The military — who were placed in charge of food distribution — would steal the shipments to feed their own families. Between 2007 and 2008, for example, nonprofit organizations discovered that the regime only distributed 14% of the food it purchased for Venezuelan citizens. Some shipments were stolen, some were never purchased as the funds were stolen, and — worst of all —hundreds of thousands of tons of food spoiled due to planning and distribution failures, with shipping containers waiting at ports and storage facilities. As time went on, hunger became ever more widespread.
While Chávez’s promises knew no bounds, neither did the government’s budget. In the attempt to administer these “free” programs, Chávez and then Maduro doubled the size of the government workforce between 1999 and 2015. This meant that over one million additional government workers were hired in a country of less than 30 million people. Once employed, they were often tasked with pointless office jobs in laughable government agencies such as the “ Ministry for Ecosocialism” and the almost unbelievable “Vice Ministry for Supreme Social Happiness”.
As the bureaucracy grew larger, it also grew more oppressive. In a disgusting display of power, workers in public-facing government institutions were forced to wear red shirts, the color of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela. Framed pictures of Hugo Chávez appeared on every wall, with the ominous words “Here You May Not Speak Ill Of Chávez” engraved on the walls of public institutions.
There was a dual purpose for hiring so many workers into regime positions. It allowed the government to fulfill yet another promise, “guaranteed jobs for all,” and provided them with useful influence over these very workers come election time. Employees were offered raises — and especially food — if they attended pro-regime marches and voted in favor of the regime. If they failed, they would be threatened and ultimately fired.
And, of course, such policies are extraordinarily expensive. Even before Chávez took power, previous democratic governments of Venezuela had already expanded the size of the bureaucracy. While Venezuela was relatively developed in the 1950s, it fell behind as government grew, and by the late 1990s, just before Chávez took power, economic freedom in the country was on par with the rest of the world. This meant that raising taxes wasn’t an option for Chávez in order to fund his programs, since a large proportion of the country simply did not pay any taxes or abide by regulations due to their great burden.
In the first few years, the regime got lucky as oil prices rapidly increased from $10 per barrel to over $100. Eventually, however, even that wasn’t enough to cover the cost of all the additional government spending. So, to fill in the gap Chávez turned to the Central Bank. As the money printing press was kicked into full speed to finance welfare for the poor, it achieved the opposite. It fueled inflation and destroyed everyone’s purchasing power, especially that of poor Venezuelans.
In possibly the most graphic display of this socialist failure, the Venezuelan regime erected a large sign with a big red heart and the message “Made in Socialism” next to thousands of acres of empty greenhouses they took over and left to rot by the highway.
Despite experiencing what can only be described as an economic disaster, many people still defended the policies of the regime, and even the regime itself. While Chávez and then Maduro grew ever more unpopular, people were brainwashed into believing that — despite evidence to the contrary — socialist policies were the way forward. If prices increased, it was speculators who were at fault, not the government for controlling the price or nationalizing businesses. If people made less money, the government just had to further raise the minimum wage, causing inflation to rise again. I’d frequently hear how if the regime was ousted, we couldn’t remove price and currency controls or enable privatization because chaos would immediately follow. Arguing for private ownership of the oil sector was taboo, with shock following even a whisper of the word privatization. People had grown accustomed to massive government intervention and they couldn’t imagine a world without it.
If the economic collapse, socialist culture, and oppressive regime weren’t enough to deal with, our life was made more difficult in yet another terrible way — the prevalence of violence and crime. Birthdays were now celebrated around lunch time, as the danger was too great at night. If it got too late, people would sleep and wait until morning before heading home. If I ever had to leave at night, my parents would rush home with me as fast as they could. All of this out of fear of being kidnapped, robbed, or murdered in an increasingly dangerous country.
I didn’t even tell my friends the truth about what my parents did for a living until I left the country and neither did many middle class families. Kidnappings became so common that the term “express kidnapping” was coined, as the perpetrators would take you away for one day and return you after your loved ones paid them as little as a few thousand dollars for your life. Bizarrely, I even had to practice my own story to tell about my family in the event that I was kidnapped, to avoid criminals thinking they could demand more money.
None of this is anecdotal. My hometown of Caracas consistently has one of the highest murder rates in the world, along with other Venezuelan cities. Over 300,000 people have been murdered in Venezuela, a country with a population of approximately 29 million, since Chávez took office in 1999. This amounts to more deaths than U.S. soldiers killed in World War I, Vietnam, and Korea, combined. The number of reported kidnappings increased by nearly 800% in Chávez’s first decade in power, and armed robberies became so routine that they were subjects of casual conversations among friends.
What did the socialist government do to combat this crime? Nothing. In many ways, rampant crime was an achievement, not a policy mistake. Only after corrupting the police and the judicial system could the regime scare people into submission, with thugs willing to torture and convict those who call for freedom. Gangs known as colectivos responsible for robberies, kidnappings and murders owe their very existence to this corruption, and happily offer their criminal services to help crack down on enemies of the regime. The building where my aunt lives in Caracas has been fired upon multiple times by colectivos as they ride in motorcycles armed with large weapons.
In many cases, it isn’t just full-time criminals who assault you, but police officers for whom crime is a part time job. Many years ago, another aunt of mine was kidnapped and released after her family paid the ransom. After she went to file a report at the local police station, she recognized one of her kidnappers … wearing a police uniform. She then decided, understandably, to say that she didn’t recognize her captors in order to avoid likely retribution.
I wish that her story was an outlier, but countless other Venezuelans will confirm similar experiences. Media reports have documented multiple instances of crimes committed by Venezuelan police, including murder and police brutality, with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights recently releasing a report detailing how police forces torture and kill thousands of innocent citizens every year.
Despite this environment, Venezuelans remained inexplicably hopeful for years. I kept hearing “Next year, Maduro will leave power,” “things can’t get worse than this,” “the military will overthrow him,” “someone will do something.” I was not as hopeful and decided to focus on learning English and studying so that I could have a real hope of finding opportunities elsewhere — in America.
As the years passed, with Maduro still in power, inflation and shortages got worse. The blackouts and water outages, commonplace under Chávez, became chronic. Sometimes, my building went without water for weeks on end. Thankfully, we had a tank to store water in the community, so we at least had some reserves to ration when the government supply literally ran dry. Every day after school, I would see a white board in my building entrance with the schedule for that day’s water availability: 5:00am – 6:00am, 12:00pm – 12:30pm, 7:00pm-8:00pm.
Blackouts were much worse than water outages. After all, without electricity we wouldn’t have water or internet service either and elevators didn’t work. I was also lucky in this respect, because our kitchen had a gas-powered stove, and so we could still cook without electricity. While some days were uneventful, on others we would suddenly lose electricity for hours, or short blackouts would occur throughout the day. This was more than just an inconvenience as it would destroy our fridge, microwave, and other expensive electrical equipment. One day, after another blackout damaged our fridge, we lost all the food we had inside. While this is bad for an average American family, in food-scarce Venezuela, it was a cruel nightmare, leaving us with the task of spending a fortune on the black market and waiting in line again when we had to.
The good news is that it seems that the ever-worsening economic crisis eventually started to change people’s minds. As a young teenager, everyone but a small minority defended socialist programs and policies. By 2016, free market advocacy had become commonplace. Venezuelans were waking up. Today, the latest polls show that nearly 8 in 10 Venezuelans don’t want Venezuela to be a socialist country anymore. Clearly, living through socialism is the best way to learn what it actually means.
Unfortunately for us, free elections haven’t taken place for years, and won’t happen anytime soon. So, like myself, over five million of my fellow citizens have packed their bags in recent years and left Venezuela in search of a better future for themselves and their families. Some leave by plane to North America or Europe. Others by land, walking thousands of miles — sometimes barefoot — to Colombia, Ecuador or Peru. Others by boat to Aruba or Trinidad and Tobago. Such journeys are dangerous. Last month, 20 Venezuelans, including children, died in the Caribbean Sea trying to escape their own country.
people leave, the most visible day-to-day consequence of socialism is no longer the shortages or inflation, but the countless buildings left abandoned. Socialism ripped families like mine apart through exile, and diminished friendships with distance. I now live in Kentucky, with my family spread throughout parts of Spain, Italy and Venezuela. I can never go back to my childhood bedroom, or visit my grandparents’ house where I used to spend most weekends as a child. Neither can I go back to my beloved school where I studied ever since I was 3 years old until I left the country at 17. I have a framed picture of my high school class in my living room in Lexington, KY and half of my then-classmates have now left Venezuela. Their destinations include Colombia, Panama, Chile, America and Spain.
One of the greatest tragedies of the regime is that many of those I thought of as stubbornly hopeful are now hopeless. When I speak with my friends and family, I hear resignation, with the choice being to remain and attempt to survive, or find a way to leave. Socialism took away the most beautiful thing Venezuelans had: hope. A couple of years ago, a 75 year-old Venezuelan took his own life because he didn’t want to be a burden to his family. Like him, Venezuelans of all ages are committing suicide by the thousands, driven by hopelessness and despair. By 2017, before the country spiraled into an even deeper crisis, Venezuela already had one of the highest suicide rates on the planet.
This dark reality is a stark contrast with the Venezuela my parents and grandparents knew for most of their lives. My grandparents traveled from Spain and Italy in the 1950s to Venezuela, then the 4th richest country on the planet. Venezuela’s economy was booming thanks to relatively free markets, security, and an abundance of oil. With little formal education, my grandparents initially worked in garages, cleaning homes, and at shoe factories. Yet, their jobs allowed them to pay rent, buy food, and even save, with my maternal grandparents sending half of their monthly paychecks to their families in Spain for over a decade. All my grandparents set up small businesses, bought homes, and rose from poverty to the middle class. They also sent my parents, uncles and aunts to college in the 1980s and 1990s. Their story was the Venezuelan story. It was the American dream, in Venezuela.
Venezuela is now just a memory of what it once was. When I think of my country of birth, I think of my school playground, my friends and family, all the weekends I spent at my grandparents’ house listening to their stories and, of course, all the great typical dishes like arepas, empanadas, and pabellon.
But all of that is gone. Venezuela — which could be the richest country in the world given its resources, the Dubai of the Americas, and a free and prosperous republic — is gone. What is a nation if it is made out of empty buildings and hopeless people?
I take solace in the fact that the Venezuelan experience serves a learning opportunity for the world and that I am blessed to live in America. My former home proved yet again that, even if democratically elected at first, a government that takes away its people’s freedom, ends in disaster. You should feel encouraged by this too, with the millions of Venezuelans scattered across the world standing as potential ambassadors for freedom. Just like Cubans, Russians, Eastern Europeans, Chinese, and other victims of socialist regimes before us, those who once lost their freedom very often become freedom’s strongest advocates.
We must keep alive the idea of Venezuela because even though we can’t erase the past suffering caused by this socialist regime, we can build a free and prosperous future where no country falls under this ideology ever again, and where socialism eventually becomes extinct.
Daniel Di Martino is a Venezuelan citizen, PhD student in Economics at Columbia University, and Young Voices Senior Contributor. You can follow him on Twitter @DanielDiMartino
Sources: DailyWire: Living Through A Socialist Collapse: An Insider’s Account Of Venezuela’s Demise