Other sources backed up the story Morales told. At the few Maracaibo stores that opened, long lines formed. All that remained of other businesses were shattered glass and ash. As Morales talked with us at the self-storage facility, her children scrutinized donated toys they could take to their new dwelling, a motor home—and sometimes they smiled.
Morales and more than 70,000 other Venezuelans who have come to the United States to flee socialism in the past four years are often better off than the 3 million others who—without passports, visas, and funds to come to the United States—have made it across the border to Colombia, Brazil, Peru, or to other countries. Many of them in turn are better off than most of the 27 million who remain.
But why? Why does socialism lead to mass exodus?
And why don’t leftists in suites listen to refugees’ street-level experience? Why did British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn say former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez “showed us there is a different and a better way of doing things. It’s called socialism, it’s called social justice.” Why did filmmaker Oliver Stone call Chávez “a great hero”?
The problem with socialism, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said, is that sooner or later you run out of other people’s money. Neither Chávez nor his successor, Nicolás Maduro, ran out of money: When they ran short, they printed more. The economic death spiral began: Huge deficits, print money, inflation, price controls, shortages, protests, more authoritarianism, more crime, more shortages, more refugees.
Steps along the road at first seemed reasonable from the perspective of the left. In 2007 the Chávez regime grabbed a $30 billion majority stake in four oil projects, so ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips decided to leave Venezuela. That year economist Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize winner, praised Venezuela’s economic policies and minimized risks of hyperinflation. In 2009 Chávez nationalized a rice mill run by a unit of Cargill Inc. and seized Gold Reserve Inc.’s Brisas project (on one of Latin America’s largest gold veins). That year MIT academic Noam Chomsky said Venezuela was showing “how a better world is being created.”
In 2010 Venezuelan socialists took over FertiNitro, a big producer of nitrogen fertilizer; took control of 494,000 acres owned by British meat company Vestey Foods; and nationalized operations of Owens-Illinois, the glass container maker. Many other nationalizations came over the years, with Chávez sometimes paying fairly for the privilege, and other times just doing it. From 2013 to 2017 the Venezuelan economy shrunk by about 30 percent. Now it has collapsed.
Why? Sometimes the political appointees who increasingly ran the industrial show were competent. Often they were not. Chávez paid off supporters and generals. He also paid himself and his family. Two years after Chávez died of cancer in 2013, Diario Las Américas said Chávez’s daughter María Gabriela was the richest woman in Venezuela, with a net worth of $4.2 billion.
Successor Maduro has also eaten high off the cow: Last year a video of him eating pricey steak at the Istanbul restaurant of celebrity chef Nusret Gökçe went viral, prompting U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to castigate Maduro as “the overweight dictator of a nation where 30 percent of the people eat only once a day.” The Associated Press headlined one story last August, “Maduro’s stepsons face scrutiny in $1.2 billion graft case.” Other publications detailed how stepsons Yoswal and Walter Gavidia Flores spent $45,000 on an 18-night stay at the Ritz hotel in Paris.
Even if Chávez and Maduro had been honest, the history of socialism—along with a Biblical understanding of human nature—suggests a deeper problem. Men and women work hard year after year for their families and themselves. They may work hard for a while in a spurt of revolutionary enthusiasm, but when the excitement wears off, workers wear down. Venezuelan Daniel Milán notes that “to make a truly socialist country you’d need a bunch of zombies and robots, because real human beings were not meant for socialism.”