Venezuela’s problems are not the result of the government issuing money and using it to hire people to build infrastructure, provide essential services and expand economic development. If it were, unemployment would not be at 33 percent and climbing. Venezuela has a problem the U.S. does not, and will never have: It owes massive debts in a currency it cannot print itself, namely, U.S. dollars. When oil (its principal resource) was booming, Venezuela was able to meet its repayment schedule. But when the price of oil plummeted, the government was reduced to printing Venezuelan bolivars and selling them for U.S. dollars on international currency exchanges. As speculators drove up the price of dollars, more and more printing was required by the government, massively deflating the national currency.
It was the same problem suffered by Weimar Germany and Zimbabwe, the two classic examples of hyperinflation typically raised to silence proponents of government expansion of the money supply before Venezuela suffered the same fate. Professor Michael Hudson, an actual economic rock star who supports MMT principles, has studied the hyperinflation question extensively. He confirms that those disasters were not due to governments issuing money to stimulate the economy. Rather, he writes, “Every hyperinflation in history has been caused by foreign debt service collapsing the exchange rate. The problem almost always has resulted from wartime foreign currency strains, not domestic spending.”
Venezuela and other countries that are carrying massive debts in currencies that are not their own are not sovereign. Governments that are sovereign can and have engaged in issuing their own currencies for infrastructure and development quite successfully. I have discussed a number of contemporary and historical examples in my earlier articles, including in Japan, China, Australia and Canada.
Although Venezuela is not technically at war, it is suffering from foreign currency strains triggered by aggressive attacks by a foreign power. U.S. economic sanctions have been going on for years, causing the country at least $20 billion in losses. About $7 billion of its assets are now being held hostage by the U.S., which has waged an undeclared war against Venezuela ever since George W. Bush’s failed military coup against President Hugo Chávez in 2002. Chávez boldly announced the “Bolivarian Revolution,” a series of economic and social reforms that dramatically reduced poverty and illiteracy as well as improved health and living conditions for millions of Venezuelans. The reforms, which included nationalizing key components of the nation’s economy, made Chávez a hero to millions of people and the enemy of Venezuela’s oligarchs.
Nicolás Maduro was elected president following Chávez’s death in 2013 and vowed to continue the Bolivarian Revolution. Recently, as Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi had done before him, he defiantly announced that Venezuela would not be trading oil in U.S. dollars following sanctions imposed by President Trump.
The notorious Elliott Abrams has now been appointed as special envoy to Venezuela. Considered a war criminal by many for covering up massacres committed by U.S.-backed death squads in Central America, Abrams was among the prominent neocons closely linked to Bush’s failed Venezuelan coup in 2002. National security adviser John Bolton is another key neocon architect advocating regime change in Venezuela. At press conference on Jan. 28, he held a yellow legal pad prominently displaying the words “5,000 troops to Colombia,” a country that shares a border with Venezuela. Clearly, the neocon contingent feels it has unfinished business there.
Bolton does not even pretend that it’s all about restoring “democracy.” He blatantly said on Fox News, “It will make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela.” As President Nixon said of U.S. tactics against Salvador Allende’s government in Chile, the point of sanctions and military threats is to squeeze the country economically.
Killing the Public Banking Revolution in Venezuela
It may be about more than oil, which recently hit record lows in the market. The U.S. hardly needs to invade a country to replenish its supplies. As with Libya and Iraq, another motive may be to suppress the banking revolution initiated by Venezuela’s upstart leaders.
The banking crisis of 2009–10 exposed the corruption and systemic weakness of Venezuelan banks. Some banks were engaged in questionable business practices. Others were seriously undercapitalized. Others still were apparently lending top executives large sums of money. At least one financier could not prove where he got the money to buy the banks he owned.
Rather than bailing out the culprits, as was done in the U.S., in 2009 the government nationalized seven Venezuelan banks, accounting for around 12 percent of the nation’s bank deposits. In 2010, more were taken over. Chávez’s government arrested at least 16 bankers and issued more than 40 corruption-related arrest warrants for others who had fled the country. By the end of March 2011, only 37 banks were left, down from 59 at the end of November 2009. State-owned institutions took a larger role, holding 35 percent of assets as of March 2011, while foreign institutions held just 13.2 percent of assets.
Over the howls of the media, in 2010 Chávez took the bold step of passing legislation defining the banking industry as one of “public service.” The legislation specified that 5 percent of the banks’ net profits must go toward funding community council projects, designed and implemented by communities for the benefit of communities. The Venezuelan government directed the allocation of bank credit to preferred sectors of the economy, and it increasingly became involved in private financial institutions’ operations. By law, nearly half the lending portfolios of Venezuelan banks had to be directed to particular mandated sectors of the economy, including small business and agriculture.
In a 2012 article titled “Venezuela Increases Banks’ Obligatory Social Contributions, U.S. and Europe Do Not,” Rachael Boothroyd said that the Venezuelan government was requiring the banks to give back. Housing was declared a constitutional right, and Venezuelan banks were obliged to contribute 15 percent of their yearly earnings to securing it. The government’s Great Housing Mission aimed to build 2.7 million free houses for low-income families before 2019. The goal was to create a social banking system that contributed to the development of society rather than simply siphoning off its wealth. Boothroyd wrote:
… Venezuelans are in the fortunate position of having a national government which prioritizes their life quality, wellbeing and development over the health of bankers’ and lobbyists’ pay checks. If the 2009 financial crisis demonstrated anything, it was that capitalism is quite simply incapable of regulating itself, and that is precisely where progressive governments and progressive government legislation needs to step in.
That is also where, in the U.S., the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is stepping in—and why Ocasio-Cortez’s proposals evoke howls in the media of the sort seen in Venezuela.
Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution gives Congress the power to create the nation’s money supply. Congress needs to exercise that power. The key to restoring our economic sovereignty is to reclaim the power to issue money from a commercial banking system that acknowledges no public responsibility beyond maximizing profits for its shareholders. Bank-created money is backed by the full faith and credit of the United States, including federal deposit insurance, access to the Fed’s lending window, and government bailouts when things go wrong. If we the people are backing the currency, it should be issued by the people through their representative government.
Today’s government, however, does not adequately represent the people, which is why we first need to take our government back. Thankfully, that is exactly what Ocasio-Cortez and her congressional allies are attempting to do.