In February, 20-year-old Venezuelan expat Daniel Di Martino penned an op-ed for USA Today, titled, "Venezuela was my home, and socialism destroyed it. Slowly, it will destroy America, too."
On Wednesday, I spoke with Daniel about his experience living in socialist Venezuela, the corruption he witnessed, and the parallels he sees between his home country and progressive political ideology in the United States.
The following is part one of our interview. Part two will be published on Saturday.
DW: What was life in Venezuela like prior to leaving?
DI MARTINO: You don't see how different it is until you actually get out of the country. I couldn't really lead what would be considered in the United States a normal life, especially because of crime and shortages. I could not, for example, walk alone in the street without fear of being kidnapped, robbed, or murdered. Caracas, where I lived, is actually the city with the highest murder rate in the world, and kidnappings were very common. My aunt had been kidnapped already – and the worst part about the crime in Venezuela is that the police are actually a number one perpetrator of it. They are criminals in the day or criminals at night, and then police the other times of the day.
My aunt had been kidnapped, and then when she was released and went to report it at the police station, one of the police officers that she saw in the station was one of the kidnappers. So, she actually didn't go ahead and report it. She just left. That was a huge shock for us. So, that's one thing.
Then, shortages were really pervasive. For example, when I was a child, milk was very hard to find, so we had to sometimes buy a lot of milk cans and save them. Sometimes the same thing would happen with meat, like beef or chicken. At the beginning, it was sporadic, though. I'm talking mid-2000s, almost 2010, 2011. But then, as the government put more price controls on more products, the shortages became worse and worse.
The best example I can think of right now is about eggs. So, a carton, 12 eggs, were priced, I don't know, 100 bolivares, which is our currency. And the government just halved the price. So instead of being 100, it's 50. And since that happened, you couldn't buy anymore eggs in the supermarkets because no supermarket could make a profit. Then you could only buy them on the black market, in shops that were hidden, and they were actually being sold for like 200 instead of 100, like before.
So, the price controls created shortages in the supermarkets, and at the same time increased the price on the black market. Life was really hard because you had to go to many different places to buy what you needed, and you spent a lot of time just finding food.
DW: Did you come to the United States in order to escape that?
DI MARTINO: Yes. I did not want to live in a country where my best case scenario was being in a top school in Venezuela, graduating, getting a good job, and only being able to afford to eat. That would have been the best case scenario for me graduating college in Venezuela and living there. So I worked very hard, even from when I was in middle school, studying English, studying for the SAT. I got involved in Model United Nations. I actually became president of the Model United Nations club in my school; we competed around the city. And with that, I applied to colleges in the U.S., and I was blessed by God that I was able to find this university that gave me a huge scholarship, and I was able to come here.
DW: And you are studying economics?
DI MARTINO: That's right. Yeah. That's the craziest thing. Venezuela is what pushed me to study economics. Seeing hyperinflation – not everybody in the world gets to see hyperinflation, and that's really an intriguing, although terrible, phenomenon that pushed me to want to learn more about why this happens, and how we can prevent this from happening.
DW: Do you see things in the United States politically that you witnessed in Venezuela?
DI MARTINO: Yes. I mean this really from the bottom of my heart, I especially see it in Bernie Sanders, and I see it in Elizabeth Warren, and I see it in many, many Democrats increasingly that use a "class war" argument. For them, it's not about lifting up the poor. For them, it's about taking away from the rich because they despise success, economic success. And I think it's an argument that comes from jealousy, that comes from resentment, and it's very dangerous because our society cannot prosper if we punish success. We need to allow our economy to reward success. We do need to help the poor, but not by punishing success. That also punishes the poor who will become successful.
That’s what really scares me here, that we're seeing not only that rhetoric against success, and against economic empowerment and prosperity, but also proposals that the country just cannot afford. The country is already on a fiscally unsustainable path, and all these proposals would create a huge economic crisis.
DW: What would you tell someone who favors a politician like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, or some of the other Democratic candidates running for president in 2020?
DI MARTINO: What I would tell them is that I also want to lift up the poor, but I think that to do it, we don't have to punish success. I think the current welfare system, and the economic system, with the government subsidies and regulations, really rigs the economic system in favor of big corporations. I want to eliminate those regulations and those subsidies that benefit those institutions so that everybody gets a shot at success. But the solution is not to implement new taxes or give away everything for free. The solution is to allow people to get jobs that empower them to prosper by themselves.
So, I think about solutions such as deregulating the housing market, and solutions such as eliminating the welfare cliff by simplifying all these programs. There's a new study that came out very recently and there was an op-ed today about how the Medicaid expansion created these huge fraud problem where so much money is being wasted. I think there are many common sense solutions that, if you explain them to people, they will agree with you no matter whether they are Left or Right, and we can and should focus on those kinds of solutions.
Stay tuned for part two of this interview, which will be published on Saturday, in which Di Martino and I further discuss the impact of socialism in the United States, how to best educate American voters about the perils of bad policy, how the "Nordic model" spoken about by progressives is misleading, and the incorrect notion that what’s occurring in Venezuela is not "true" socialism.