The first and only time I have seen a man shot dead was in Venezuela. It was January 2010, and I was with a camera crew in a rough district on the outskirts of Caracas. A shot rang out. I spun round and saw a man lying in the street. He wasn’t moving.
“What just happened?” I asked the local fixer.
“Oh, the police shot that guy,” he replied.
“Why?” I asked.
“Well, he grabbed hold of a cop’s gun and so they shot him.”
“Oh well,” I said, my shock rendering me more than usually stupid. “I guess that’s better than if he had shot the cop.”
He looked at me with weary pity. “Niall,” he said. “In Venezuela the police are just another gang.”
Ever since, that has been my definition of the absence of the rule of law: when the police are just another gang.
At that time, Hugo Chavez was still the country’s president. He was a ubiquitous presence, his plump, pugnacious face painted on walls and blown up on billboards, his voice bawling from the television in speech after interminable speech.
Venezuela in those days wasn’t all bad. I enjoyed sipping scotch in Carabobo and boating on the Orinoco. But I could tell that things were not going to end well.
“The reality of Chavez’s regime,” I wrote at the time, “is that it is a sham democracy, in which the police and media are used as weapons against political opponents and the revenues from the country’s plentiful oilfields are used to buy support.
“Private property rights . . . are routinely violated. Chavez nationalises businesses more or less at will . . . And, like so many tinpot dictators in Latin American history, he makes a mockery of the rule of law by changing the constitution to suit himself.”
Chavez died of cancer in 2013, but things have only got worse under his successor, Nicolas Maduro. The Venezuelan economy has plummeted into hyperinflation. Despite the country’s vast reserves of oil, its power grid barely functions. There are chronic shortages of food and medicine. An estimated 3.4m people have fled the country.
Here is a salutary reminder for young people who find the term “socialism” enticing, as well as for all the useful idiots such as Jeremy Corbyn who sang the praises of Chavez’s regime. For a time, the Chavista party was known as the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. Chavez himself was a self-proclaimed Marxist. The core of the “Bolivarian revolution” was state control of the economy — the essence of socialism. The fact that these policies led to rampant corruption, spiralling violence and economic implosion was not the result of bad luck (much less US sanctions).
Throughout Maduro’s reign, outsiders have speculated that he would be ousted and a democratic government established. “Surely this can’t go on,” has been the refrain. But it has. My Venezuelan friends have learnt that the seemingly unsustainable can last a horribly long time, especially with the Chinese buying Maduro’s oil and the Cubans and the Russians providing other forms of support, including security forces. The opposition, never well organised or united, has been ruthlessly suppressed.
Last week there was a brief glimmer of hope. Early on Tuesday the opposition leader, Juan Guaido — who is recognised by the US and numerous other countries as Venezuela’s legitimate president — posted a video of himself at a military base, standing next to another Maduro opponent, Leopoldo Lopez, and surrounded by men in uniform. Lopez had been under house arrest since 2014 but was now apparently free. This was supposed to launch the “final phase of Operation Freedom”.
The glimmer was soon snuffed out. Guaido’s attempt to topple Maduro ended with protesters being brutally crushed by armoured cars in the streets of Caracas. Too few soldiers defected to his side. No big Chavista names jumped ship. Lopez hastily sought refuge in the Spanish embassy. Maduro appeared on state TV to declare victory.
The most surprising feature of this story is not that the attempt to oust Maduro failed. Such regimes can be dislodged only if a critical mass of the security forces defects to the side of the revolution. That’s why most revolutions fail.
No, the surprising thing has been the reaction of the administration of Donald Trump. In a perplexing statement on CNN, the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, made it clear that the US had been working with the opposition to get Maduro out. Indeed Maduro’s plane had been “on the tarmac”, ready to fly him to Cuba, but “the Russians indicated he should stay”. Later the national security adviser, John Bolton, named three top officials in Maduro’s government — including the defence minister — who had pledged to defect but at the last minute changed their minds.
All we know about the famously belligerent Bolton suggests that he must be itching to take military action to get rid of Maduro. For Bolton it is not so much the humanitarian disaster or the urge to restore democracy that argues for the use of force; it is the fact that a hostile regime in the Americas is being propped up by Russia, China and Cuba.
Yet, as far as I can gather, the president himself has no appetite for military action. Despite his occasional tough talk, Trump prefers trade wars to actual wars. When he hears arguments for intervention in Venezuela, he has ghastly visions of Iraq and Afghanistan. According to a Pentagon briefing, US forces would have to stay in Venezuela for at least six years and spend $80bn to re-establish order.
Unfortunately, this is the way countries learn from history: patchily. So scarred is the nation by what has come to be perceived as failure in Iraq (and, before that, in Vietnam) that successful interventions have been forgotten. No one now recalls that it was the US that ended the “ethnic cleansing” of Bosnia and Kosovo, for example, and brought Slobodan Milosevic to justice. No one today discusses the invasion of Panama in 1989, which terminated the reign of a criminal despot who had much in common with Maduro, General Manuel Noriega.
How Vladimir Putin must have enjoyed getting the credit for keeping Maduro in power — and with the tiniest of Russian contingents! How fascinated the Chinese must be to find that, even in what Bolton last week called “our hemisphere”, the American colossus has no stomach for a fight.
Some readers may remember the lighthearted Scottish film Gregory’s Girl, which ends with two sexually frustrated Glasgow teenage boys setting out to hitchhike to Caracas (in the belief that girls outnumber boys in Venezuela). Well, there are not many takers for the road to Caracas in Washington today. That not only tells us how far Venezuela has fallen since the early 1980s, when Venezuelan per capita GDP was close to 40% of the US level, as opposed to 4% today. It also tells us how far American power has diminished since those days.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford