There is a strange, embarrassed silence from Moscow about how it intends to celebrate the red letter year of 2017, the centenary of the Bolshevik revolution. One reason is this: left-wing populist uprisings have been faring so badly in Latin America that the communist founding myths, the storming of the Winter Palace, and the execution of the Romanov dynasty, just seem like the beginning of a grisly experiment that is still going devastatingly wrong.
When Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, the Russians were immensely proud. Marxism-Leninism, it appeared, had been successfully exported to the American continent, to the backyard of the Yankee superpower. The end of the Cold War gave new headwind to Fidel’s disciples: Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela all came up with blends of socialist policies, anti-Americanism and strongman bluster. One by one, however, those swept up in the so-called “pink tide” have driven their societies into a state of desperation.
Russia has drawn its conclusions from this spreading misery: it no longer focuses on exporting revolution and concentrates instead on exporting military hardware. Over a decade it has sold $14.5 billion of weapons to its friends in Latin America, the great bulk of them to Venezuela, first to Castro’s favourite ally Hugo Chavez and then to Chavez’s successor, the former bus driver Nicolas Maduro. The hapless Maduro says he needs the guns because the US is plotting to overthrow him. He was taking a similar line yesterday in denouncing the intentions of his neighbour Colombia to start co-operation with Nato; proof positive, he believes, that Washington is preparing the ground for an invasion.
That is the paranoia of a leader at bay. Maduro still has his admirers on the European left but they have become less vocal even in Islington North. For his part President Obama plainly has no intention of mounting the kind of coup that pushed the Chilean Marxist Salvador Allende out of power in 1973. He has put his chips on detente with Cuba rather than tackle left-wing populists head-on. A pro-Washington Cuba would, he calculates, rob the other autocrats of popular legitimacy. That is turning out to be little more than legacy-hunting. Dissidents are still denounced as spies; the great liberalisation has yet to come.
Donald Trump looks to be focusing on Mexico and curbing cross-border immigration rather than on speaking out in favour of democratic change. Latin America, he could argue, does not need expensive US diplomacy to come to reasonable decisions. Brazil after all shed Dilma Rousseff without a nudge from outside; Latin America will be an early test of how, when and if Trump is ready to intervene politically in foreign parts.
The US can’t get into the coup-plotting business again; that has driven too many people into anti-American posturing. There are teenagers in Venezuela who have been given the middle name Melor — standing for Marx, Engels, Lenin, Organisers of the Revolution — and who have never read a single word in praise of the US. But neither can the new president just treat the rapid disintegration of these leftist regimes as a spectator sport, as did the Obama administration. Humanitarian disasters looming on the doorstep of the US will propel more migration northwards.
Venezuela, with the world’s largest proven oil reserves, was one of the wealthiest countries in Latin America; the revenue stretched to cover Chavez’s education and health reforms and keep Cuba afloat. Its mismanagement, its swollen bureaucracy, deep corruption and crazy price controls have run it into the ground. Inflation rose to 785 per cent this month; the International Monetary Fund sees it rising to 2,200 per cent in 2017. In September there were 6.6 trillion Bolivars in circulation, now there are 9.4 trillion.
The once excellent hospital system is a microcosm of societal corruption. Soldiers guarding the entrances are in cahoots with barrio thugs who call themselves Defenders of the Revolution. Everything a patient needs — food, bandages, antibiotics, even water — is bought by relatives on the black market run by these revolutionary defenders. When the family returns the soldiers either confiscate the meds or demand a back-hander.
Christmas brought the social tensions to a head. The government demanded that distributors of toys cut their prices and grabbed their stock. Now companies cannot afford to produce or import toys. The annual bonus for workers is usually spent on Christmas festivities; this year it did not cover even basic foodstuffs. A month’s salary has to be immediately converted into a handful of US dollars before it loses value. Billions of 100 Bolivar notes (once the most useful denomination, today worth only a few US cents) have to be surrendered to banks by January 2. That will be a flashpoint, a trigger for more rioting and looting.
The Vatican is brokering talks between the opposition and the regime yet it has become dazzlingly clear that Maduro is just trying to buy time. His citizens scrambling to find food haven’t got the luxury of waiting for his term to expire in late 2018. The Trump administration should declare the current negotiations to be a sham and demand that Maduro moves towards an election by mid-2017. The new president’s friend Vladimir Putin won’t like it but he too has to see the crisis as familiar territory: the total collapse of an economy and a society, another failed revolution.
Roger Boyes is a British journalist and autor.