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What happens when a society loses its faith in free enterprise? In a word: Venezuela.
Seeing the deplorable conditions in Venezuela today, it’s easy to forget that this was once the richest country in South America – and a place where U.S. companies had significant commercial ties. Before the turn of the century, it seemed that all the ingredients were there for Venezuela to join the ranks of the First World: a stable democracy; the largest proven oil reserve on planet earth; and a growing free market economy. But somewhere along the way, something went disastrously wrong.
Riding a wave of anti-business sentiment, populist leader Hugo Chávez became Venezuela’s president in 1999. He wasted no time remaking the Venezuelan economy, dramatically expanding entitlement programs, seizing means of production, and nationalizing entire industries. Thus began the country’s decades-long experiment with socialism. And what are the results of this experiment 20 years later? An economy in shambles, a government on the brink of collapse, and a poverty rate above 80%.
Rather than correcting course, current President Nicolás Maduro has only buckled down on the socialist policies that have driven his country to the brink of ruin. He stands today among the most maligned dictators in the world, with a long history of human rights abuses against his own people. The riches-to-rags story in Venezuela is a powerful reminder that free enterprise is not just an engine for economic growth but, perhaps, the greatest bulwark we have against tyranny.
The time has come for the Venezuelan people to be afforded the opportunity to once again pursue free enterprise – and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is here to help. With the Maduro regime teetering on the edge, the Trump administration has asked the Chamber to marshal the private sector to help deal with the crisis and the recovery when and if the government changes.
Our Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) is advising senior Department of Commerce officials on steps Venezuela can take immediately after a government change to start the recovery process through investment and reconstruction. CIPE is also making recommendations to the National Assembly – the last remaining democratic institution in the country. Meanwhile, the Chamber’s Americas team is mobilizing the private sector through our hemispheric network of AmChams. And the U.S. Chamber Foundation is highlighting humanitarian aid for the private sector to support Venezuelan refugees in surrounding countries.
If abandoning free enterprise led to Venezuela’s collapse, then restoring it will lead to the country’s return. At the Chamber, we will continue standing up for free market principles – both at home and abroad.