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If it really happens that the socialist government of Venezuela is upended sometime during the next few months, the question will look bigger and bigger: Who gets to shape the government of Venezuela’s future?
It’s not a binary choice. Every student of foreign affairs should be reminded that the disappearance of one bad dude doesn’t necessarily mean he’s been replaced by an angel from heaven.
Go back 30 years, for a very different example, to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. (Fascinating, isn’t it, that we were talking about walls way back then?) This column asked: “What if hundreds of thousands of people from communism’s eastern bloc, pressed and bruised for generations by an iron heel, dash to the wall’s free side only to discover nothing ultimately worthy of so dramatic a journey?”
A possible key is the word “ultimately.” Certainly, refugees from one bleak and bankrupt totalitarian state will find much in the free world’s storehouse of riches to make them accept what are often long, long waiting periods. And they will discover a variety of freedoms they never dreamed of—a commodity much more important than having a chicken in every pot. The right to decide is at the core—whether it will be chicken or beef or fish, or something altogether different.
The issue is not really whether Marxist communism can survive. We already know it can’t.
But after Venezuelans have discovered how to restock their supermarkets and begun to digest the richness of a free market in dozens of other facets of their economic lives, what then? Will they find a substance deeper than that of some exotic perfume they’ve never breathed before? After they’ve begun to participate in a genuine multiparty system and tested the incredible liberties of a free press, what then? Will they explore with confidence a freedom of spirit that made the struggle worthwhile?
The issue is not really, in the end, whether Marxist communism, or a watered-down substitute called socialism, can survive. We already know it can’t. The issue is instead whether what replaces those communistic and socialistic governments is ultimately any more durable.
Abraham Lincoln asked the more profound question (at least for us) in his Gettysburg Address, when he noted that the war in progress then was to test “whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” The Civil War ended, and in it the United States passed one notable test. But the test of which Lincoln spoke remains immeasurably bigger. It is finally a test of whether government “of the people, by the people, for the people”—fallen people, mind you—can survive on planet Earth.
If some kind of constitutional democracy comes in the weeks and months ahead to Venezuela (and to other nations that have been made abjectly miserable by evil government), we should and will rejoice. But after all these years of unruliness from the top down, what promise is there that Venezuela’s people will cooperate, from the bottom up, with even a thoughtful new government?
Here in the United States, we’ve been blessed for more than two centuries with a rugged Constitution to balance the whims and fancies of a popular democracy. And yet, even with such a carefully crafted harness, there’s almost always been a tendency to run frighteningly wild.
And although Venezuela has incredible natural resources, nothing remotely like the U.S. Constitution exists in Venezuela. No such restraints are in place. Nor is there any pattern or model for the nation’s new leaders to follow.
Which means Abraham Lincoln would probably be asking the very same questions there, too.