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Venezuela, France, and Soon America? Perspectives from Two Asylum Seekers

When we see recent photos in the news of French police confronting protestors, we think of riots that occurred in Venezuela three decades ago this year. Like France today, our native Venezuela was once a wealthy country. In February 1989, riots broke out in Caracas over attempted cuts in government spending. These riots were the first dramatic sign that Venezuela could no longer sustain the extensive government programs it had promised.

Today, after 20 years of ever-increasing government spending, Venezuela’s gross domestic product per capita has declined to roughly 1989 levels. It currently suffers from countrywide food and medicine shortages. Once middle-class citizens now search through trash hoping to find food for their hungry children or aged parents. Both of our families have gone through incredible hardships just to have food for a few days — including waiting in lines for eight hours at a time, or having to stop eating three regular meals per day.

At the same time, almost everyone is living in fear of the regime. The “colectivo” gangs are known to spread terror among the neighborhoods in order to keep everyone at bay. These government-protected and government-funded thugs pay no attention to human dignity. In fact, they use starvation as a tool to keep everyday Venezuelans from speaking out against them.

Social scientists argue whether former President Hugo Chávez, current President Nicolás Maduro, falling oil prices, or America’s embargo are most to blame for the current situation. France will learn that while all of these are factors in Venezuela’s demise, none are the real reason. The fundamental problem is that government spending far exceeded its ability – or even the ability of the private sector – to pay for promised social programs. As Margaret Thatcher once famously said, “the trouble with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.”

Similarly, the French pension system is also extremely generous but broke. Yet, as in Venezuela, dependency on the French system is so extensive, reforming it is a political impossibility. Hence the riots.

However, the riots are not the only sign that France’s “socialist-lite” government is not delivering on its promises. The unemployment rate in France has consistently remained above 8 percent since 2008’s Great Recession, with youth unemployment hovering around 20 percent. The New York Times has reported on France’s “stagnating wages and dwindling living standards.” French families also have the highest tax burden among OECD nations, with roughly half of family income going to pay for bureaucracies and government-controlled benefits.

As in Venezuela, France will try to cobble together reforms that will stop the riots. However, the rioters have the numbers and power. They, along with much of the French population, are dependent on the government pension system as well as other government programs.

In both countries, fiscal conservatives who have tried to reign in spending have quickly been deemed villains by those who have truly become dependent on government. Their demands to continue government largess continue to win political support – again, because there are in the majority. In Venezuela, the government tried to pay for new benefits by taking more and more from the private sector. Chávez regularly confiscated private businesses after the oil industry was nationalized. This continued until the economy could no longer take it. Venezuela, like Greece and Spain, truly ran out of other people’s money.

Once this happened, the decline came fast and furious. That we are now living as refugees in the U.S. is a testament to Venezuela’s demise. At home, we saw our economy fail and the regime grow ever more oppressive. As freedom fighters, we both fear imprisonment and torture if we return to Venezuela. Under present conditions, it would be impossible to build a future there.

Hopefully, France can institute adequate reforms and prevent further decline. Our recommendation to the French people (especially to those trying to deliver well-intended reforms to restore some fiscal responsibility) is to look to the story of Venezuela.

Americans should do the same. The U.S. must not follow in Venezuela’s example of promising more free programs. In fact, seeing presidential candidates promise free education and free healthcare is an eerie reminder for us of Venezuela, before our nation’s recent decline. But it isn’t too late. If Americans learn from the examples of Venezuela and France, they can help put this great country — which has taken us in as refugees from our own homeland — back on the right course towards future prosperity.

The authors are currently traveling and speaking about their personal experiences with The Fund For American Studies.