Dispatches from Venezuela: chavismo, dogs and economic war

From the notebook of Marketplace correspondent Scott Tong, on the ground in Venezuela.

A woman lining up for free pet vaccines in the Venezuelan shantytown of Macarao outside Caracas (Jorge Galindo/Marketplace)

The mother waited in line in the poor barrio shantytown with a couple young kids and three dogs. She pointed to each hound.

“This is Tiny, this is Quira, and this is ….” Her voice trailed off.

“Kiara,” her young daughter reminded.

“Yes, Kiara.” Small, embarrassed giggle, then an infectious smile of anticipation. In the midst of what may be the worst shortages and hyperinflation Venezuela has ever seen, the ruling Socialist Party came to the slum this morning to give away things for free: pet vaccines, birth control pills, condoms.

(Jorge Galindo/Marketplace)

This is the winning political formula of Hugo Chavez, the country’s late president and leftist hero to the barrios. Pump oil, sell it, get petrodollars in return, spend it on the poor, juice a political power base. Even now, when the price of dog food has skyrocketed 400 percent annually, the government is the good guy. This is how so-called chavistas here frame the story: Their hardships arise from an “economic war” waged by enemies on the outside.

Here, it is a convincing, simple narrative: them against us. Sound familiar?

It’s easy to parachute with a notebook full of cynicism. U.S.-based analysts of Venezuela — historians, economists, bankers, journalists, expats (many of whom fled the Chavez regime years ago) — explain in eloquent, empirical, bullet-point format how Chavez broke this place: The government overspent its oil money. On entitlements, giveaways, free gasoline. It ruined a world-class oil company and drove talented engineers out. Price controls killed the profit motive and drove companies out, thus the shortages. Come on, it’s socialist.

Representatives of Venezuela’s ruling Socialist Party providing free services in the shantytown of Maracao outside Caracas (Jorge Galindo/Marketplace)

“What they’re missing is that they never suffered here,” my translator Yesman said. My cameraman Jorge nods in agreement. Their point: the chavismo model truly improved people’s lives in the slums, in many cases for the first time.

There is no eye-rolling about this. Years ago when I was based in China, I learned quickly that hardly anyone there has faith in Marxist ideology; a friend told me Marxist theory was the most frequently cut class in college. Socialism lost. The market won. Not here.

OK, time to snap out of it. That’s what my wife Cathy would say right around now. Get over the first impression. This is the Kool-Aid talking. Or perhaps the cute dogs. Or the free birth-control someone just stuck in my hand.