CAMBRIDGE – There is a certain irony in recent news that Venezuela donated a half-million dollars to Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration through Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), the state-owned oil company. Venezuela, of course, is a serial defaulter, having done so more times than almost any other country over the last two centuries.
Recently, Venezuela’s despotic socialist government has been so desperate to avoid another default (which would be the country’s 11th since independence) that it mortgaged its industrial crown jewels, including the United States-based refiner Citgo, to the Russians and the Chinese. (The Citgo brand is especially famous in my hometown of Boston, Massachusetts, where the company’s iconic sign has become a landmark in the environs of Fenway Park, where the Red Sox baseball team plays.)
It is not exactly clear why Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is so desperate to avoid defaulting on the country’s foreign debt that he is starving his own people, much the way Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu did in the 1980s. With such severe shortages of food and basic medicines, there is little doubt that if and when the autocrat is finally deposed, there will be some eerily familiar horror stories.
It is simplistic to portray the Venezuelan tragedy as an apocryphal tale of what happens when a country is taken over by left-wing populists. The right-wing governments of the 1980s and 1990s were also corrupt; and, while national income rose, income distribution was among the most unequal in the world. But it is true that Venezuela’s current horror show is very much a product of two decades of left-wing misgovernment.