It's not easy to take your country from relative prosperity to chaos and starvation. Even most of the countries that we call the "third world" are currently in a process of gradual improvements in prosperity and slow rise of the people up from their former desperate poverty. All you really need to do are to institute some modest protections for the private ownership of property, and to join the world trading system, and the next thing you know, wealth happens.
But then there are a few countries out there that have gone into accelerating economic death spirals. Venezuela! They used to be one of the richest countries in Latin America. How bad is it now? The Wall Street Journal has a report today:
By the end of the year, the economy will have contracted by 50% since 2013, hyperinflation is expected to top 13,000% and the U.S. has imposed sanctions on much of the top leadership of the government for alleged crimes, including drug trafficking.
I would only comment that the 50% shrinkage of the economy since 2013 is not a precise number, but rather a wild guess, since the Venezuelan government stopped publishing economic statistics back in 2016. The actual shrinkage could well be something closer to 60%, or even 70%.
Of course socialism has everything to do with the economic disaster. The government took control of the large companies, starting with the oil company that accounts for most exports, and then decreed that things like food and housing should be free or nearly so, all in the name of greater "equality" and social justice. But then, when the economy started to fail, the people had the opportunity to vote the bastards out and restore some sanity. Or did they? Certainly the Brits pulled back from the serious socialism of the Labor Party back in the 70s, and voted in Margaret Thatcher and the Tories. (And then saw their economy boom in the 80s.) Germany and France and Italy and Spain have all had longer or shorter periods with governments characterized as "center right," and have preserved mostly decent if not great economic performance.
So at this point, with the economy far into collapse, why don't the Venezuelans just elect somebody new? And it turns out that the main reason is that the Maduro and his government are all too willing to use all the forces of state power to disadvantage the political opposition in elections, and thus to assure their own continuance in power. As you may know, Venezuela had elections just yesterday, and Maduro declared a great landslide victory. From the Wall Street Journal article:
The state electoral board, which is allied with the government, said Mr. Maduro had won 5.8 million votes, or 67% of the total, with nearly 93% of the vote counted, compared to 1.8 million, or 21%, for his main challenger, Mr. Falcón, a leftist former governor and ex-soldier. . . . “How they underestimated me, but here we are: triumphing,” Mr. Maduro told a crowd of supporters in Caracas. He called his victory “a knockout.” Surrounded by supporters on a stage, Mr. Maduro celebrated what he called the biggest margin of victory a president had recorded here. “You have confided in me and I’m going to respond to that infinite confidence, that loving confidence,” he said. “All Venezuela has triumphed. Legitimate elections, accompanied by the only one who can decide the future, the people.”
Could Maduro really have that kind of support among the people even as the economy collapses and millions are starving? Or is something else going on here? I'm sure that many factors are in play. But clearly one of the most important factors, if not the most important, is the game of using the state prosecutorial apparatus to bring trumped-up criminal investigations and charges against the main political rivals to get them out of the way.
If you have any recollection of the last election in Venezuela (2015), you may remember the name of the main opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez. What happened to him? The answer is that he is somewhere in the early stages of serving a prison sentence of some 13 plus years. Here is a write-up on his case from a Columbia University website called Global Freedom of Expression. Excerpt:
[In 2015] political leader Leopoldo López, a member of one of the parties in opposition to the Venezuelan government, gave several speeches inviting citizens to mobilize in a peaceful protest against the government’s administration. Thousands of people were in attendance on the day of the protest and, together with López, they intended to deliver a document to the Attorney General of the Republic requesting the release of several imprisoned opposition members. However, when they reached his office, the Attorney General refused to personally receive the request and the political leader and his companions withdrew from the location. The protest continued and later a confrontation broke out between the protestors and State forces. The clashes resulted in the death of two people and considerable damage to public property.
As a consequence, the Judge issued an arrest warrant against Leopoldo López and three students who were protesting; she considered that López’s speeches incited citizens to perpetrate acts of violence against public officials and institutions. This drove the Attorney General to initiate criminal proceedings against López for the crimes of arson and criminal damage, as instigator, and the crimes of public incitement and criminal conspiracy, as author.
So, even though Lopez had explicitly called for peaceful protest, he was deemed the "instigator" of what turned into a riot, and got a prison term long enough to take him permanently out of political contention. Another veteran politician named Ledezma, who also might have turned into a serious rival for Maduro, equally got arrested and convicted. Apparently Lopez and Ledezma are under some kind of "house arrest," but the terms of their arrests prevent them from speaking out or participating in the political process.
That left only one serious candidate in the election -- a guy named Falcón, whose politics are not particularly distinguishable from those of Maduro.
Other factors figuring into Maduro's victory could well include suppression of all opposition media and/or direct manipulation of the vote count. Who knows?
Now, which is the more preposterous basis for siccing the state investigative forces on the main opposition candidate: (1) claiming "instigation" of a riot via explicit calls for peaceful protest, or (2) claiming "collusion" with Russia? Seems like a close call to me. At least our prosecutors didn't go through with an actual prosecution to take the opposition candidate out in advance of the election. But that's probably because they didn't think they had to. Next time around, I wouldn't be so sure.