To be Venezuelan in the United States is to be constantly reminded of crisis and displacement. It is to have a very real human tragedy of which many have first-hand experience reduced to a prop on a TV show or a cautionary tale in the nation’s increasingly bitter culture wars.
Parties and leaders gain power by mobilizing negative sentiments like fear of or anger at certain cultural or social issues. Perhaps the most recently popular culture war screeds attack transgender young people, the history of racism in the country, and even wearing masks to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. The term “socialism” appears in this culture war, but there is no actual debate over socialist policies, as there are no major political parties institutionally promoting or espousing any. Instead, references to “socialism” are primarily intended to rile up a factional base, such as the right-wing, in the same manner as decrying the wearing of masks. Socialism, therefore, is seen as a threat to freedom, a battle that has a long history in the United States — and Venezuela is currently at the center of it.
Contributing to Venezuela’s appearance in this front of the culture war, Venezuela appears on TV exclusively as a chaotic tragedy, a backdrop for an American hero’s fantasy intervention. The country is the setting of the entire second season of “Jack Ryan,” in which a CIA agent must “bring stability to a country on the brink of chaos,” unbelievably involving nuclear weapons. Two episodes of “Burn Notice” occur in Venezuela, a dusty, violent place where an American ex-spy might rescue luckless farmers or capture a despotic criminal. In the second season of “True Detective,” a protagonist evades corrupt lawmen and the mob by fleeing to Venezuela. These depictions of Venezuela reduce its inhabitants to victims, bystanders, and bad guys that a valiant American must act on to advance his personal story. “Mad Max of the tropics,” a cousin once put it.
Policy toward Venezuela — and toward Latin America more generally — must recognize that the kleptocratic mode of government prevails where it does regardless of stated political ideology.
Political figures actively reinforce — and perhaps helped inspire — this cultural obsession with a broken, desperate Venezuela. Republican Party leaders frequently pontificate on Venezuela’s crisis, speaking about the “victims of socialism,” and generally arguing that socialism has destroyed Venezuela and Democrats are seeking to do the same here. Some go so far as to promote the conspiracy that long-dead Hugo Chávez helped elect Joe Biden as president. This deployment of Venezuelan pain serves to fire up the base and so fan the flames of the culture wars; the insanity of this rhetoric tempered only by its apparent electoral efficacy in Florida.
While the two camps — Hollywood screenwriters and Republicans — might, at first glance, appear to have nothing to do with each other, the effects are in concert and reinforce the image that Venezuela is a uniquely desperate, broken place. It is the frequent broadcasting of this conclusion that makes Venezuela a touchstone in the US culture war. It makes money for studios, helps the right-wing win elections, and certainly aids the kleptocrats themselves by distracting attention from them. Yet, even a cursory glance at the facts on the ground shows a much different picture.
SOCIALISM VS. KLEPTOCRACY
This “crisis” of “socialism” in Venezuela is curious, given the strong similarity of the country’s systemic corruption to Central America’s Northern Triangle countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras), all of which have self-consciously right-wing governments. Corruption in these countries is so institutionalized within the government so as to be an “operating system,” to use the model of corruption scholar Sarah Chayes. As Chayes explains, the dynamic of state capture is the hallmark of this operating system, where interlocking networks of criminal, business, and political actors infiltrate the government to repurpose its powers to plunder and extract. Despite the partisan clamoring, this pattern of kleptocracy takes an almost identical shape across the four countries (and others), regardless of political ideology.
Honduras’ conservative foreign minister recently denounced Venezuela for seeking to “impose its agenda and interfere with countries that have maintained democracy,” specifically highlighting the country’s “institutionalized drug trafficking activities.” But his own government’s involvement in drug trafficking — currently being investigated by US prosecutors — bears striking resemblance to the criminal infiltration of Venezuela’s corrupt government. In Venezuela, the nation’s own armed forces are battling Colombian guerrillas for control of drug smuggling routes in the southeastern province of Apure. One day after the release of the Biden administration’s landmark policy memorandum on anti corruption, El Salvador’s conservative president Nayib Bukele ended the Organization of American State’s US-backed anti-corruption mission in his country, because of its work with a political rival whom he had accused of corruption. In Venezuela, the country’s anti-corruption agency primarily uses its powers to bar opposition figures from political office, most prominently opposition leader Juan Guaidó. Guatemala witnessed the involvement of its own president and vice president in a customs fraud and bribery scheme, and in Venezuela, Maduro’s government awarded an ally a massively inflated contract for the country’s CLAP food distribution program. Yet, only Venezuela is subject to crippling sanctions, even though the State Department has its own list of corrupt officials of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — of whom many have ties to their countries’ presidents.
By contrast to US politics, many Venezuelans understand the problem to be kleptocracy. Moisés Naím, the country’s former trade minister, has observed that Venezuela suffers from a “racketeering network clumsily hidden behind the façade of a government.” Antonio José Monagas, writing in an independent media outlet, argues that the “decomposition” of Venezuela’s state and democracy arises from drug trafficking enabled by “repression, imposed as a criterion of government” — not socialism. Naím, certainly no socialist, has even said that “refugees aren’t fleeing ‘socialism’; they’re escaping from a hellishly broken country.” It must be noted, however, that the culture war fear-mongering may have worked. Doral, the city with the country’s largest Venezuelan-born population, supported Trump overwhelmingly in pre-election surveys and voted accordingly.
UNDERSTANDING KLEPTOCRACY IS ESSENTIAL
Policy toward Venezuela — and toward Latin America more generally — must recognize that the kleptocratic mode of government prevails where it does regardless of stated political ideology, and that no one country is especially guilty of subverting democracy. The Biden administration’s new anti-corruption policy memorandum provides just such an opportunity, and its suggested practices could well be effective. But a lack of specific naming of kleptocracy as a non-ideological operating system may result in missing the forest of kleptocracy for the trees of corrupt activities. Kleptocratic governments can easily capture aid disbursed to them, as Chayes details extensively in the case of Honduras, and so such government-to-government aid can be suspect. The memo vaguely encourages “partnerships with the private sector and civil society to advocate for anti-corruption measures and take action to prevent corruption,” while focusing mostly on institutional capacity building efforts in partner governments and multilateral institutions.
If US policymakers want to formulate effective programs under the auspices of the Biden memorandum, they should start by developing a thorough institutional understanding of kleptocracy. Only with this strategic understanding can US policy begin to make a difference in Venezuela and elsewhere, and finally extricate the real human tragedy of Venezuelans from the crisis that is our internal culture war. Perhaps alleviating Venezuela’s crisis might pacify, however slightly, our own.
Gustavo Berrizbeitia an incoming first-year student at Yale Law School. Prior to that, he worked in civil rights litigation at a public interest law firm and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His family is from Caracas, Venezuela.