Mark Penn: Could the US end up like Venezuela? It might if we don't learn these three critical lessons

Every American should get behind the Trump administration’s efforts to free Venezuela and its 30 million people. Venezuelans have waited too long to be liberated from Nicolás Maduro – an illegitimate despot who has bankrupted and corrupted the nation.

Venezuela was once an oil-rich nation that could have lifted its people out of poverty and become a shining example of progress and development in Latin America. It was a vibrant democracy that had everything going for it.

I know because several decades ago I worked with two of Venezuela’s presidents, helping them understand the aspirations of their people through polls. The country enjoyed universal voting, a free press, and oftentimes a million people would turn out for a political rally.

DEMOCRATS NOW PUSHING MANY OF THE SAME SOCIALIST POLICIES THAT DESTROYED VENEZUELA

It was1958 when Venezuelans last overthrew a dictatorship and took control of their destiny. After that experience with military rule, the country, like many in Latin America, passed safeguards including no consecutive re-election, and abolished the death penalty.

The idea was to prevent those who crept into power through democracy from entrenching themselves and replacing democracy with caudillos – military strongmen who often had their opponents not just arrested but executed.

Democracy flourished with two major parties, AD and COPEI, dominating (much like Democrats and Republicans dominate in American government). In 1978, Luis Herrera Campins won the presidency with the slogan “Ya Basta,” which translated means “enough.” The intractable problems of crime, poverty and lack of education had mounted up, and the Copeyanos (Campins’ party) were swept into office.

But it was not long before Carlos Andres Perez from AD would return to office as “el president,” promising a glass of milk every day to every school child.

While the presidency rotated among these two major parties, conditions for the poor did not improve, and allegations of corruption swirled around the parties. I was there to brief the administration when Hugo Chavez, then in the military, tried to overthrow Perez in 1992. The president showed me the bullet holes above his desk. He had barely escaped the coup attempt, hiding in a safe room.

Chavez was jailed but not executed for attempting to kill the president. He was released a few years later as part of a program of national reconciliation.

Chavez then entered politics, capitalizing on the discontent with the major parties. In 2002 he won the presidency, running as a third-way alternative.

Once elected, he wasted no time undermining all of the institutional safeguards so that he would be able to rule even after his support had evaporated. Human rights were curtailed, political opponents had their businesses nationalized, and he aligned with Cuba and Castro, declaring a socialist revolution.

Despite continued economic decline and dwindling support, Chavez’s hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, won a term in the wake of Chavez’s death. During his term, the country became even more crime-ridden, lost 3 million people, faced widespread shortages of food and medicine, and some in the military turned to drug smuggling on a massive scale.

Given these conditions, the recent legislative elections produced a legislature with super majorities of the long-suppressed opposition. Maduro’s response was to hold an unscheduled fake national election, jam the Supreme Court, and try to defrock the legislature.

Facing death, the head of the National Assembly, Juan Guado, stood up last week and used what was left of the constitution to declare himself interim president until fair elections can be held.

[The crisis in Venezuela] demonstrates that both of our major political parties need to beware of gridlock and failure to solve the people’s problems. That is what spawns evermore radical choices by dissatisfied voters. People everywhere want results, not resistance.

It was a brave stance against corruption and oppression, and the U.S. is not alone in supporting him. Brazil and Colombia quickly recognized Guado as the legitimate leader; Europe is offering support.

The state actors backing Maduro include Russia, Syria, Iran, Turkey, China and Cuba. Some of them have invested billions in the regime.

Helping Venezuela recover its self-determination is squarely in our national interest and the right thing to do. For one thing, it’s a country in our own hemisphere, and Maduro has let Venezuela become a client-state for most of America’s global enemies, creating a source of regional instability. In addition, the economic collapse is creating millions of refugees, and the basic human and economic rights of an entire nation have been suppressed.

Venezuelans did not choose this outcome – their system that was designed to prevent the return of self-perpetuating strongmen was systematically destroyed.

Few Americans will likely be interested in what’s going on in this small country the size of New York state, and yet it offers major political lessons for our country. First, it demonstrates that both of our major political parties need to beware of gridlock and failure to solve the people’s problems. That is what spawns evermore radical choices by dissatisfied voters. People everywhere want results, not resistance.

Second, it shows how our policy toward Latin America needs fundamental rethinking. Our problems at the border are the result of the tremendous economic disparity between the U.S. and the deteriorating countries in Central America. Today, we spend billions of dollars in Europe, yet we neglect our own backyard and fail to find constructive policies to lift these countries up. We have all but abandoned them since President Reagan focused on Nicaragua and President Bill Clinton sent aid to Colombia.

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And third, it underscores that socialism is not the way forward for us or for Latin America, especially when accompanied by the politics of self-perpetuating strongmen.

This is a chance for all Americans to put aside their political differences and unite with Latin America behind a just cause to restore freedom, democracy, food and medicine to a neighbor that has suffered for too long. It is a good fight. We can’t fix all the wrongs of the world, but there are brave Venezuelans standing up for their people today and we must help them.

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