How the murder of a former Miss Venezuela is threatening the post-Chavez regime.
By David Paulin
Originally published at The American Thinker blog and FrontPage Magazine
Beauty queens are revered in Venezuela, none more so than those
crowned “Miss Venezuela.” So when a beloved former “Miss” named Mónica
Spear and her ex-husband were murdered by highway bandits, the crime
sparked national outrage — touching off street protests, non-stop media
coverage, and an ongoing national conversation about the socialist
government’s failure to stop a runaway murder epidemic.
Now, outrage over the murders is prompting many Venezuelans to
confront the contradictions of Venezuela-style socialism. One of the
biggest ironies: violent crime has exploded since President Hugo Chávez,
a firebrand leftist, took office 15 years ago. This has happened,
moreover, as capitalism has increasingly been dismantled – supposedly
replaced by more economic equality and “social justice” in the oil-rich
yet impoverished South American nation.
Chávez, who died last March of cancer, coined the term “21st
Century socialism.” He contended it would reverse corruption-riddled
Venezuela’s long economic decline, as would his strategy of pursing
anti-American alliances. But as fallout continues over the high-profile
murders, many Venezuelans are becoming more cynical about President
Nicolás Maduro’s socialist agenda as tens of thousands of Venezuelans
are being murdered annually. Maduro, Chávez’s hand-picked successor, is
grappling with food shortages, falling oil prices, and annual inflation
topping 50%. He rules a politically polarized country where just over 50
percent of voters support his leftist agenda. A former bus driver and union leader, he possesses neither
Chávez’s charisma nor mystical connection to Venezuela’s poor majority.
Spear, crowned “Miss Venezuela” in 2004, died in a hail of gunfire on
a dark highway on Monday, January 6, with ex-husband Henry Thomas
Berry, a 39-year-old British citizen who specialized in adventure
tourism at a local travel agency. Their 5-year-old daughter suffered a
Police said several bandits laid sharp objects on the road that
flattened the car’s tires; other reports said the car was disabled after
hitting a pothole — a common problem on poorly maintained roads. The
couple locked themselves in their car as the bandits showed up, but to
no avail: Six shots were fired as a tow-truck arrived. The couple’s
ill-fated holiday in the spectacular mountains and plains of western
Venezuela had been intended to give them a new start together.
With Spear and Berry’s murders, Venezuela’s skyrocketing murder rate
suddenly has human faces – and President Maduro is on the defensive.
He’d been focusing on deepening “21st Century socialism.” This included an “economic offensive”
against the commercial class: from owners of supermarkets to
electronics stores to car dealerships – all were being ordered to offer
government-set “fair prices.” And before November’s make-or-break
municipal elections, he’d won votes by taking bread-and-circuses
populism to new heights,
tacitly giving Christmas shoppers, as some observers saw it, a green
light to loot electronics stores. “We’re doing this for the good of the
nation,” he said. “Let nothing remain in stock!” A number of retailers
were jailed — accused of speculating, hoarding, and unfair lending.
Now, sensing political trouble over Spear and Berry’s murders, Maduro
is shifting his attention away from his “economic offensive.” He’s
instead calling for an unprecedented anti-crime program, and he recently met with
big-city mayors, governors, and administration officials to come up
with a plan. Details remain sketchy. But hopefully, Maduro will focus on
improving the nation’s often corrupt and inefficient police forces and
criminal-justice system. In the past, he and Chávez had believed
socialism would address what they believed were crime’s root causes:
capitalism and class-conflict; poverty and economic inequality — and
even violent American movies shown on Venezuelan television and movie
Venezuela suffered the world’s fourth highest murder rate in 2010
after Honduras, El Salvador, and Jamaica, according to United Nation’s statistics.
Official Venezuelan crime statistics are non-existent: the government
stopped providing them ten years ago. But sociologist Roberto Briceño
León, president of the Venezuelan Observatory on Violence, a watchdog
group, estimates that yearly homicides have increased 427% since Hugo
Chávez was elected president in 1998, after campaigning on a platform to
seek a “third way” between socialism and capitalism, and to reverse
rampant corruption and declining living standards. “In 1998, we had
4,550 homicides in the country, but we closed the past year with
24,000,” Briceño León recently told Globovision,
a Caracas television channel, in a segment about the Spear and Berry
murders. To put those grim murder numbers into perspective: war-torn
Iraq’s population is comparable in size to Venezuela’s, yet it suffered
7,800 killings in 2013 — about one third of Venezuela’s homicides. “A
third of our murders, and yet the international community says
absolutely nothing about the violence in Venezuela. Shame on them,”
wrote Juan Cristobal Nagel, an opposition blogger at Caracas Chronicles.
To outraged Venezuelans, the couple’s murders were especially tragic
because their lives were caught up with the rise and fall of the
Venezuelan dream – an ideal that existed from the 1970s to mid-80s, the
era of “Saudi Venezuela” when oil prices were soaring. Berry’s British
parents had immigrated to Venezuela more than 40 years ago, when Caracas
was a charming place known as the “city of red roofs.” His father was a
mathematics professor at Simón Bolívar University.
Spear, a fifth
runner-up in the Miss Universe pageant, attended junior college in Florida before graduating from the University of Central Florida in 2004. "She was a powerhouse. She really wanted to be an actress," said one of her acting teachers, John DiDonna. In an interview with the Orlando Sentinel, DiDonna recalled having Spear confront a student portraying the devil. "She just went off... she had an incredible argument with Satan right in the classroom. She was just fabulous."
The devil, of course, is capable of wearing many attractive disguises. Socialism is one of them.
Spear went onto because a successful
soap-opera actress for the Spanish-language Telemundo network. In 2011,
she had moved to Florida, one of more than 500,000 Venezuelan now living aboard to
escape Venezuela-style socialism. Many are members of the business and
professional classes, people whom class-warrior Chávez saw as part the
problems ailing Venezuela.
Police investigating Spear and Berry’s murders quickly rounded up
nine suspects who were part of a gang that preyed on motorists; they
were carrying credit cards and a digital camera that belonged to the
couple. It was splendid police work. But to most Venezuelans it
underscored that their country, even under “21st Century
socialism,” has two standards of justice: one for the well-connected and
famous, and the other for ordinary Venezuelans, observed Briceño León,
the sociologist. Indeed, most Venezuelans doubt that police would have
expended such an effort for ordinary Venezuelans, he explained. “People
can commit crimes without any consequences,” sociologist Luis
Cedeño, director of civic group Active Peace, told Globovision.
Whatever crime-reduction plan President Maduro implements will face a
major problem: Venezuela is broke. Draconian currency exchange and
price controls have left many supermarket shelves empty; even toilet
party is in short supply. Attracting significant foreign investment is
not an option — not after Chávez nationalized large swaths of the
economy. Recently, Bloomberg News reported
that Venezuela’s “economic distress is so acute that the central bank
stopped releasing regular statistics for the first time ever,
threatening to increase borrowing costs further as the nation faces $10
billion of financing needs.” Benjamin Wang, a money manager at
PineBridge Investments LLC, was quoted as saying: “There’s no
transparent data to measure the risk.”
As the fallout over the death of a beauty queen plays out, cynicism
is likely to grow toward Venezuela-style socialism. So will murder,
corruption, and economic decline. How ironic that a beauty queen’s death
may serve as a catalyst for positive change that opposition candidates
have been unable to achieve by defeating Hugo Chávez or Nicolás Maduro
at the polls.