Now that Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign is finally over, maybe he’ll have time to read the news from Venezuela, a country where Sanders’ proudly proclaimed “democratic socialist” ideas are in full flower. Venezuela’s latest innovation: slavery. Not rhetorical or metaphorical slavery, but actual we-own-you-and-you’ll-do-what-what-we-say involuntary servitude.
In an executive order that bypassed the muss and fuss of congressional approval, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro decreed that both public- and private-sector employees (that is, anybody at all) can be forced to work in farm fields for up to 60 days at a time — or longer, “if circumstances merit.”
If Maduro’s decree tells you something about how socialists define “democracy,” the problem it’s intended to address — the complete implosion of Venezuelan agriculture, to the point where millions of citizens have literally nothing to eat — tells you a lot about socialist economics.
Maduro’s predecessor and mentor Hugo Chávez, convinced that food prices would be cheaper if crops were grown by the government rather than private farmers, confiscated nearly 7.5 million acres of agricultural land between 2004 and 2010.
Predictably, farms in the hands of ideologically minded bureaucrats and political cronies produced less food, not more.
And when production fell, Chávez clamped on price controls, which only made matters worse. Soon it was cheaper to import food than to produce it locally.
Because Venezuela sits on the world’s biggest ocean of proven oil reserves, that strategy seemed to work, more or less, for a while. But agriculture wasn’t the only economic sector being hollowed out by socialist termites.
The government used its gargantuan petrodollar revenues for giveaways to its supporters rather than reinvesting them in the industry. Even before oil prices crashed two years ago, production was falling as the drilling infrastructure sputtered and failed.
Venezuelan officials, when they’re not blaming everything on their all-purpose scapegoat the CIA, claim nearly all their problems stem from the fact that a barrel of oil that used to sell for $100 now goes for $41.
While the lower prices affect every oil-producing country, you don’t see food riots in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait.
In Venezuela, you do. Milk, eggs, flour, rice, chicken, beef: If it can be eaten, it’s vanished from the country’s supermarkets.
When the government opened up a single border crossing with Colombia for 24 hours last month, more than 100,000 citizens streamed across in search of basic staples — which Colombia, mysteriously, manages to produce without resorting to slavery. Food is so scarce that 50 animals in the Caracas zoo have starved to death this year.
Venezuela’s isn’t the first socialist government to use slave labor to cover up its economic failings.
Fidel Castro ordered a million urban workers into the Cuban cane fields in 1969 to bolster a floundering sugar industry. And Cuba still practices something very close to slavery today with laborers that it sends to friendly countries to help pay down its foreign debt. (They’re paid only pennies.)
And the biggest slaveholder in world history was Joseph Stalin, who employed an estimated 18 million forced laborers to bring about his dream of an industrialized Soviet Union.
The Gulag, his network of politcal prison camps, functioned as a vast reservoir of slave labor. “Prisoners worked in almost every industry imaginable — logging, mining, construction, factory work, farming, the designing of airplanes and artillery,” wrote historian Anne Applebaum, in her horrifying chronicle “Gulag: A History.”
I doubt if Maduro, whose regime is marching double-time toward — to use a beloved socialist phrase — the dustbin of history, will last long enough to cycle 18 million Venezuelans through his slavery.
But he may yet rival Stalin in terms of creative use of slaves. Because nearly everything is in short supply in Venezuela these days. Can slaves make deodorant and condoms and toilet paper? Car batteries and surgical tubing and hypodermic needles? Medicine for malaria and epilepsy and AIDS?
Maybe enslaved economists could be put in charge of Venezuela’s central bank.
They surely couldn’t do any worse than the 2,200 percent inflation forecast for the country in 2017.
As Lenin once said, sometimes history needs a push.