The suddenness of Venezuela’s collapse should have come as no surprise because downfalls are inherently abrupt. Collapse is a phase change. One moment something is sailing along fat, dumb and happy and the next moment it is sinking beneath the waves. The change from two to one is a loss of 50%; but the change from one to zero is binary.
So it was in Venezuela. Imagine waiting two years to buy a car and finding just when you thought you finally buy one that there are no cars for sale at all.
Leonardo Hernandez had hoped to buy a new car this year, ending nearly two years of waiting on various lists at different dealerships throughout the country.
Those hopes were dashed last week when Toyota Motor Co. said it would shut down its assembly operations in Venezuela due to the government’s foreign exchange controls that have crippled imports and made it impossible to bring in parts needed to build its vehicles.
The country’s other car manufacturers, including General Motors and Ford, haven’t even started operations this year, while waiting for needed parts to arrive.
Think of not being able to buy soap, rice or toilet paper or order a cup of coffee, where even the rich are feeling poor. “In the serene private clubs of Caracas, there is no milk, and the hiss of the cappuccino machine has fallen silent. In the slums, the lights go out every few days, or the water stops running. In the grocery stores, both state-run shops and expensive delicatessens, customers barter information: I saw soap here, that store has rice today. The oil engineers have emigrated to Calgary, the soap opera stars fled to Mexico and Colombia. And in the beauty parlours of this nation obsessed with elaborate grooming, women both rich and poor have cut back to just one blow-dry or manicure each week.”
Imagine there’s no money to keep up the sovereign bond payments, the only source of money to keep power plants going.
Welcome to Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, a country with the fifth largest oil reserves in the world and absolutely broke. It’s a remarkable achievement for Chavismo. A just-wow moment. Socialism is useless at everything except for smashing things in record time. There it excels. It’s hard to imagine that as late as the 1980s Venezuela had the highest standard of living in Latin America. But then in 1960 Detroit was the richest city in the world in per capita income. Now it’s well … Detroit.
James Eccleton remarked on how the mighty have fallen. “Brazil is becoming Argentina, Argentina is becoming Venezuela, and Venezuela is becoming Zimbabwe.” The question that always puzzles historians about the fall of great and rich countries is: ‘why didn’t they say it coming?’ How did they let disaster sneak up on them?
Adam Smith once remarked that “there is a great deal of ruin in a nation”. That is usually understood to mean that it takes a long time to break things. And that’s probably what Leonard Hernandez thought: maybe next year things will get better and I’ll buy that car. But is more correct to say ‘a great deal of ruin’ means “it takes a long time to realize that things are breaking”.
The clue is the total finality of the crash when it comes. The victim when examined for postmortem is drained of blood; his organs are all twisted and perverted. The dead man was not ‘a little weaker than yesterday’ but in a far more fragile than was supposed. The damage was hidden as if the final day of reckoning was put off by eating the seed corn, pawning the family jewels and finally, selling the family members to buy the final meal — in a word as if everything was consumed to counterfeit the appearance of normalcy.
Thus, the collapse when it comes is unexpectedly complete. When National Intelligence Director James Clapper says Syria has become an ‘apocalyptic disaster’ it doesn’t simply mean that Syria is a little worse than in 2011, but far, far worse than we thought it was even in December 2013. The husk of Syria has not only consumed its final supplies of food, but also its reserves of comity, good will, human capital and luck.
The real damage was internal. A society can survive the loss of things, but it cannot survive without institutions or the destruction of culture. Culture is to nations what an immune system is to people. Nations under siege fall back on some atavistic condition. Thus, occupied Poland becomes more Catholic, as does Ireland, and as Egypt perhaps becomes more Muslim. They fall back on the known and the comforting. City Hall might collapse and the factory temporarily closed but if culture and identity survive these things can be reopened again.
The apocalypse of Syria means that many people don’t even want to reopen things any more. They hate their neighbors, individually and collectively.
The genius of the Left — Chavez’s for example — is that it destroys things from the inside out. They pervert religion, collapse the mores, abolish the family, shred the constitution and gradually expropriate the property. The differences from one day to the next are apparently imperceptible, but it is harder and harder to go back until finally there is no reversal of ‘progressive gains’ possible at all. The public is finally faced with the stark choice between chaos or authoritarianism. And most people will chose the Boss over the Mob.