Episode 39: The New Man

 Audio Link

Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we discuss what life is really like for those unfortunate enough to live under communist or socialist governments.    Recording from the suburbs of Wichita, Kansas, this is Erik Seligman, your host, with co-host Manuel Castaneda dialing in from Oregon.

Today we’re going to be catching up with Nelson Rodriguez Chartrand, the Cuban dissident who we last spoke to a few years ago, back in episode 12.   You may recall that he was a Cuban lawyer who had the audacity to start teaching free market economics to his friends and neighbors, about a decade ago, when it looked like government controls might be loosening a bit.   As you can guess, that didn’t last, and after being arrested and beaten by the police, Nelson managed to flee to Brazil.   As he adapts to his new capitalist life, he’s still trying to fight for freedom in his homeland, most recently by publishing a new book, “La Revolucion de Las Promesas”, or in English, “The Revolution of Promises”.    

By the way, one slight difficulty we had interviewing is that Nelson isn’t fluent in English, and I’m not fluent in Spanish.   But my co-host Manuel was able to act as translator.   To make the audio flow more smoothly, I won’t play Manuel’s Spanish translation of my questions, but I will include Nelson’s Spanish answers as well as the English, so you can hear our interviewee’s real voice.

<Listen to audio of event>

Again, Nelson’s new book is titled “La Revolucion de Las Promesas”, and if you can read Spanish, you can order it on Amazon, using the link in the show notes at storiesofcommunism.com.   Hopefully an English translation will be coming one of these days as well.

And this has been your Story of Communism for today.


Episode 38: The Reality of Chinese Organ Harvesting

 Audio Link

Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we discuss what life is really like for those unfortunate enough to live under communist or socialist governments.    Recording from the suburbs of Wichita, Kansas, this is Erik Seligman, your host.   Today we’re doing something a little different:  our friends at the Anticommunism Action Team recently held an excellent online webinar on the issue of organ harvesting by the Chinese Communist government, and have given us permission to share audio highlights.

In case you’re not familiar with the issue, it’s been rumored for many years that China kills political prisoners in order to use their organs for transplant.   Evidence and testimony uncovered in recent years has moved this terrifying concept from the realm of rumor to reality.    Today you will hear from Jennifer Zeng, a former political prisoner (who we interviewed in an earlier episode), and author of “Witnessing History:  One Chinese Woman’s Fight for Freedom”.   She’ll talk about how close she came to being killed for her organs.    Then we’ll hear from David Kilgour, a former member of the Canadian Parliament, 2010 Nobel Peace Prize nominee, and active member of the International Coalition to End Transplant Abuse in China.    He has done extensive research on this topic, and as you will hear, believes it has now been firmly established that forced organ harvesting is really happening.   The moderator of the discussion is Christopher Wright of the Anticommunism Action Team.

<Listen to audio of event>

If you want to learn more, you can find links in the show notes at storiesofcommunism.com to Jennifer’s book and to the Coalition to End Transplant Abuse in China.   You can also find a link to the Anticommunism Action Team’s site spider-and-the-fly.com, where you can find lots of additional related info, in addition to information on supporting current action the U.S. Congress is considering on this issue.

And this has been your Story of Communism for today.


Episode 37: A Strange Zoo

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Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we discuss what life is really like for those unfortunate enough to live under communist or socialist governments.    Recording from the suburbs of Wichita, Kansas, this is Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda in Oregon.   Apologies for the long gap since the last episode— as you have just heard, I’ve been relocating with my family halfway across the country, which has taken up a lot of time.   Hopefully we’ll get back to a more regular schedule soon.

Today we’re focusing on a very unusual book by Croatian author Slavonia Draculic, titled “A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism: Fables from a Mouse, a Parrot, a Bear, a Cat, a Mole, a Pig, a Dog, and a Raven”.    From the title you might expect it to be some kind of absurd satire— but each of the animals in the book is narrating adapted stories based on real events that occurred in Eastern Europe under Communist rule, though told from their unique point of view.   Some of the stories are darkly humorous, all are informative, and a few are quite chilling.    Let’s look at a few of the stories her animals tell us.

The book is introduced by a Czechoslovakian mouse, who is said to live in the cabinets of a physical museum.   

Permit me to say that, from what I have heard from the professor, Communism is not so much about exhibits, about seeing. It is more about how one lived in those times, or more to the point, how one survived them. From the lack of food or shoes to the lack of freedom and human rights. The question is, How do you present that kind of shortage, shortages that were not just poverty-induced, to somebody who knows very little about it? Because people who experienced life under Communism tend not to come here, anyway….

Drakulic, Slavenka. A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism (p. 6-). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition

The mouse recommends we get some perspective from his friend Milena, the elderly cleaning lady who tends to the museum.    She provides a key insight into why it is so hard for former residents of these countries to truly confront their past and expose the kind of stories we’ve been sharing in this podcast:

Our young people people don’t care, for them Communism is the ancient past. Those old enough to remember it want to forget it now. And why? Because they went along with it. As I did. As my husband did, and our neighbors, and everybody we knew, every Pavel and Elena around us,” I heard her say….

10 percent of the population were party members, plain and simple. That means one million seven hundred thousand people! I understand that not all of them were believers; they were only formally members because of the job and career and benefits that went with membership. But no regime, however totalitarian, could exist without complicity on the part of the people—however unwilling it might be,” I remember Professor Perlík saying. “Let us not kid ourselves; most of us complied in order not only to survive—because Czechoslovakia was not the USSR—but just to live better. I admit it’s a hard fact to face now…

Maybe the absence of individual stories is the best illustration of the fact that individualism was the biggest sin one could commit.


This fact that so many people collaborated with the regime in order to survive is a common theme under all these systems.   Even famous dissident author Milan Kundera is said to have a black spot in his record:

Kundera left Czechoslovakia and went to France after the invasion in 1968 and never returned. After that he became one of the best-known dissidents from the Communist world, next to Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Suddenly, this same Kundera is in the middle of a scandal! I heard about it from a couple discussing it very loudly in this room just recently. In fact, they woke me up in the middle of my regular afternoon nap. What happened? 

In October 2008 a certain historian found a document that is taken as proof that Kundera is not what he seems to be. Not a moral man, but a denouncer no less. A document from 1950 is there to prove it. It is a police report, a short one. It states that Milan Kundera, at that time a student at the FAMU film academy and an ardent member of the CP, reported to the undersigned police inspector that there was a suspicious person staying in his dormitory. 

Following this, the police arrested Miroslav Dvoraček, a pilot and a spy for the American-supported Czech intelligence agency of that time. Dvoraček had illegally crossed the border back into Czechoslovakia and was on his way out again. Following Kundera’s report, the man was arrested and sentenced to twenty-two years of hard labor. Dvoraček served his sentence mostly in uranium mines. Yet, in his writing and interviews, Kundera never mentioned this episode….

You see, true or not, the real problem is that this whole devilish story is believable. Convincing. Everybody agrees that it could have happened. It could have been that Kundera saw reporting on Dvoraček as his patriotic duty: He was a party member, he himself was in danger of going to prison if he didn’t report it, such were the times. It could have happened to anyone—or so the argument goes….   There is a certain malevolent triumph in the ‘fact’ … that the best of us all could have failed.


Another of the more memorable chapters is the one narrated by Tosho the dancing bear.  Draculic uses the idea of a Bulgarian peasant training a bear to dance as a metaphor for the way the Communist party, inherently a small, weak group of people, manage to control entire populations and force them to do their bidding.     After the fall of Communism, an animal rights activist named Evelina tries to rehabilitate Tosho, but is confused by the fact that the bear seems to miss his trainer.

But then I realized that she was troubled not only by the fact that we had been tortured, but also that we had withstood torture without even a squeak. She could not understand our passiveness. Evelina belongs to a new generation that grew up after the fall of Zhivkov’s regime, free from Communist Party ideology. 

I realized that recently, when she asked me, “But why didn’t you do something? You are so much bigger, so much stronger than the people who held you imprisoned! ʺ Yes, why didn’t we? “I’ll tell you why, young lady: Because the thought never occurred to us, that’s why! That was the secret of both Zhivkov’s and Angel’s rule—not only was your body captured, but so was your mind. I learned only in hindsight that what keeps one enslaved is one’s own captive mind,” I told her. “And if you are still wondering, Was there no one else to stand up for our rights, no one to stop this unbearable torture?—like neighbors or the police, or other citizens—I tell you: No! They all watched us dance and laughed! It amused them to see a huge and dangerous animal reduced to a pitiful clown. It proved their domination. A sad story of how beastly people can be, given the chance.”


I believed that Angel and I were friends after all those years of living and performing together. This in spite of the fact that he kept me on a chain, with a ring through my nose. He convinced me that it was more for the sake of appearance. “This is for your own safety, eh! People would go mad if they saw a bear walking free in the street,” he used to say, reassuringly. “They would kill you right away. People are cruel, believe you me. I have seen it many times in my life.” As if I did not know that!


The needs of the animals and the humans enter a strange sort of conflict as the bear reminisces about Zhivkov’s eccentric daughter Lyudmila, who was openly a vegetarian, an almost unheard-of lifestyle in Bulgaria.   At the same time, these reflections apply just as well to the relationship between Communist leaders like Lyudmila and the masses of people they claim to be, and often even intend to be, helping.

At first I thought that to be a vegetarian in a country where many people could not afford to eat meat—where such a diet was not a matter of taste or choice—was an extraordinary, enlightened decision. You have to be really high-minded and spiritually oriented….  

Long after Lyudmila was gone I understood how easy it had been for her to be a vegetarian. She defended the rights of other living beings, mostly mammals, because animals are like people; they feel pain, they feel fear. Therefore, she appeared more human herself. On the other hand, she did nothing to change their conditions. Her activity in our favor was restricted to just that—not eating meat…

I naively imagined how, for example, she could have given the order to ban the capture and torture of wild bears. Or, for that matter, to let people travel abroad and then decide for themselves what beauty and light and harmony are. But this would have required much more from her than grand words. It would have also been more dangerous to deal with human than with animal rights. At the time, human life was seldom perceived in its single form; it was usually seen as only a mass, a crowd….

There was no real change; there could not be any. In the end, even if her intentions were good, our life went on without change. Freedom—be it for animals or for humans—was not her priority. How could it be? She had little or no contact with real life, with real underdogs and underbears. She simply did not see us as being enslaved.


Probably the funniest chapter is the one narrated by a mole, who lives in the vicinity of the former site of the Berlin Wall.   He was born after the Wall fell, but has heard many stories about it from his mole relatives.   Given his easy traversal between the two sides, he at first is mystified as to why the humans made such a big deal about it.     He views some museum artifacts showing the lengths various residents of East Berlin went through to get across the wall:

This collection proves the existence of the Wall(s) beyond any doubt. There were huge machines on wheels called trucks, which were used to crush the turnpike at the border crossing in Friedrichstrasse. And a homemade chairlift! A father sent his small son over the Wall(s) by using this invention. Unbelievable as it is, I also saw a hot-air balloon. Imagine, in anno domini 1979 two families escaped by using it to climb twenty-six hundred meters! There was a cable drum that smuggled people, too. I was also most impressed by ordinary cars. It was amazing how a gigantic creature, such as a grown-up male or female Man, could squeeze himself or herself into a small trunk, and thus became invisible to the border guards. One kind of car was built so low that it actually passed under the horizontal bar at the checkpoint, transporting three people.


As he seeks wisdom from his fellow moles, he finally hits upon a reason why the humans are so interested in this crossing:

“Well…  have you never heard of the banana issue!?” … “They are a delicacy. You should imagine a banana as an exquisite, extremely succulent, tasty kind of earthworm. Even the mere mentioning of bananas makes Men’s mouth water,” he said. “Oh, I do understand that, the mere thought of a special kind of fat earthworm… makes my mouth water as well!” I exclaimed, happy to have learned something new. 

In the old days, before the Berlin Wall went down, bananas were a very popular food among Men. “But in those days,” Andreas continued, “unlike other popular foods, there was something particular about bananas. While on the West side of the Wall (the banana side, so to speak) Men did not especially appreciate them, probably because they could indulge in them every day; on the nonbanana side they were literally dying for them.”


Following up on this discussion, the mole does some research, and learns of a popular joke told by humans about the situation:

Two Berliner children are speaking to each other over the Wall (but let me remark here that this was hardly possible; the Wall was much too high!). The little boy in the West says, while eating a banana, “Look, I have a banana.” The boy in the East answers: “Yes, but we have socialism!” The boy in the West counters: “We, too, will have socialism soon.” But the boy in the East says triumphantly: “Tough luck, then; you won’t have bananas anymore!” 

Obviously, you had either bananas or “socialism”; the two of them didn’t grow together. But what was this socialism? “Another kind of food?” I asked myself. Based on available sources, I soon came to the conclusion that socialism must have been not food but a kind of pestilence that prevented bananas from growing in the Eastern part of the Overland…

After having pondered a while, I thought that there could be only one answer: The Men on the nonbanana side built the Wall(s) to protect the prisoners and bananas from socialism. They surely demonstrated extraordinary care for the others, a noble characteristic of human beings.


[Closing conversation with Manuel]

As you can see, the author’s odd choice of narrators enabled her to approach each of the stories from a rather unique perspective.   While providing plenty of humor, she succeeds in conveying the ironies, the failures, and in some places even the horrors of Communist rule in Eastern Europe throughout the Cold War period.    I’m sure if you’re interested enough in the topic to be listening to this podcast, you’ll thoroughly enjoy Draculic’s Guided Tour.

And this has been your Story of Communism for today.


Episode 36: Radioactive Spinach for Kids

 Audio Link

Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we discuss what life is really like for those unfortunate enough to live under communist or socialist governments.    Recording from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon, this is Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda.

Today we’re going to interview Nora Clinton, author of “Quarantine Reflections Across Two Worlds”.   Nora discusses her early life in Communist Bulgaria, her experiences on moving to the West, and the ways in which recent events remind her a bit too much of her past.   Let’s hear what she has to say directly.

<Listen to audio for interview,

Here are some of the quotes from the book that we noted down, for discussion in the interview:

I had always considered a ham-and-cheese sandwich to be nothing more than what the name suggested. Little did I know this would be a memorable paragon of free-market economy and a kaleidoscope of magical abundance. 

The server asked with a gentle smile, “What kind of bread would you like?” I was confused. “What kind do you have?” “White, wheat, rye, pumpernickel, pita, sprouted, flourless …” After I hesitantly chose, he continued, “Cheddar, provolone, brie, gouda, Havarti, pepper jack, or American?” Followed by, “Do you want mustard, mayo, butter, or cream cheese? Peppers, tomatoes, relish, onions, lettuce, arugula, or sprouts?” And to top it all off, “How about a pickle?” 

I felt exhausted after ordering my first American sandwich, yet almost tearful with amazement and appreciation.

Clinton, Nora D.. Quarantine Reflections Across Two Worlds (p. 16). Archway Publishing. Kindle Edition. 

The communists then nationalized the company but needed experts to teach them basic skills at the state-owned insurance outfit. They hired my grandfather to manage this effort but soon ordered him to dismiss two employees for political reasons. Their crime was “harboring ill musings toward the government.” My grandfather refused to fire the employees on political grounds. And he disappeared overnight.


In 1968, the comrades’ tanks invaded Prague, and my grandfather vanished again. An informant sitting at a café had recorded his conversation with a friend, in which both men expressed disapproval of the invasion. The government exiled my grandfather to an isolated, poverty-stricken village in northeast Bulgaria for one year, without permission to see his family. He was denied the simple joy of attending his daughter’s high school graduation.


 We did not have a telephone; visitors merely dropped by. Phones, cars, apartments, and other essential possessions were a privilege—people had to deserve them. They often waited five, ten, twenty, or more years to obtain them.


When I was five, I attended kindergarten. While some teachers were warm and humane, the communist directive mandated that children be indoctrinated and humiliated every step of the way. This would serve as an instructive preview early on of what was to come in adulthood. We sang a song about the party being our one true mother. It went like this: “You love your mother, and she may be a very fine person, but she only cares about you and your sister. We all, however, have one true mother—the communist party that cares for us all.”


Few people in the West are aware that high school and college students, soldiers, and other groups were engaged in forced labor to help the unsustainable communist economy. They dug ditches, painted buildings, worked in the fields or can factories—the so-called “merry brigades.”


A few days after the explosion, my classmates and I were to collect spinach at a vast cooperative farm, after spring rains and gusts of wind had spread the radioactive cloud across great swaths of territory in many countries. Our principal called the Ministry of Health to inquire if this was safe. “We are talking about eighth-grade children,” she pleaded. The ministry assured her there was no risk, and we gathered radioactive spinach from dawn to dusk, when a new order arrived from above: “Destroy the spinach!”

My extended family included a number of medical doctors, who were aghast upon learning that I had spent the day picking radioactive spinach. “You must take iodine,” they urged me, “immediately!” They diluted some iodine in water and made me chug it. It left a burning sensation in my esophagus, but perhaps it saved my life.


One professor I knew, who earned a six-figure salary, was an unabashed self-proclaimed communist, who enjoyed a luxurious house with acres of majestic pines and an emerald pond. He incessantly directed invectives at the United States and sang “The Internationale” at his bon-vivant soirees, after distributing gaudy pink brochures with this dreadful anthem’s lyrics to his unfortunate guests. 

The French have fittingly labeled this phenomenon “left caviar” or “champagne socialism.” Just think of George Bernard Shaw, who shamelessly propagated eugenics and genocide, offered to assist Hitler and Mussolini, and lauded Stalin’s extermination camps as though they were a quaint holiday arrangement of voluntary duration.



As always, you can see a link to Nora Clinton’s book, as well as one to her foundation’s website about victims of Communism in Bulgaria, in the show notes at storiesofcommunism.com .  

And this has been your story of Communism for today.


Episode 35: Repeating History in Venezuela

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Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we discuss what life is really like for those unfortunate enough to live under communist or socialist governments.    Recording from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon, this is Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda.

After the last episode’s impassioned personal stories by two Venezuelans who had been forced to abandon their country, I attempted a search for memoirs or novels published by other Venezuelans who had lived through their country’s economic collapse.   Due to the events being so recent, it was difficult to find such works.   But I did find an entertaining account by an American journalist named Raul Gallegos called “Crude Nation:  How Oil Riches Ruined Venezuela”.   It was published in 2016, and in addition to talking about a bit of the history, talks about Gallegos’s experiences in Venezuela during the preceding decade, spending time among the normal people as well as government officials.

As you might guess from the title, one of Gallegos’s key points is that despite having been among the richest nations in the Western hemisphere for a time, there was a constant inherent weakness to Venezuela’s economy:  the over-dependence on oil wealth.    This led to a lack of diversification in their industries, an over-dependence on foreign imports, and a foolish tendency to elect governments that would spend money indiscriminately.   Perhaps to increase the chance of the book being accepted by American leftists, he avoids using the word “socialism” too much, and phrases his conclusion like this:  “Venezuela’s reality is a tale of how hubris, oil dependence, spendthrift ways, and economic ignorance can drive a country to ruin.”     But really, once you start talking about “spendthrift ways and economic ignorance”, it’s hard to avoid relating that to socialist policies.    

Venezuela’s modern problems began in the 1990s, when Venezuela seemed to have an endless supply of oil wealth.    Hugo Chavez was elected president on a platform of spending the country’s riches to help the poor, and fundamentally transforming the country in the name of social justice.    Naturally, he also demonized the “savage capitalists” who managed private companies, and promised the government would fix that problem too.   He started out by enacting policies like price controls on consumer goods, to make them more accessible, and outlawed corporate layoffs.    As Gallegos writes,

Voters elect politicians who promise economic miracles and hand out as much money as possible. This is the people’s money, after all. …  Under Chávez’s movement the government has lavished billions of dollars on fighter jets, helicopters, and advanced military technology for armed forces that have never fought a war. Politicians spend untold sums on social programs but fail to invest enough to keep pumping oil, the original source of the country’s fantastic riches. Chávez, convinced the state could run companies better than they were already being managed, nationalized dozens of them in every industry but turned them into corporate zombies instead. The companies operate, employ thousands of workers, and are seemingly alive. But they produce little, lose gobs of money, and survive because the government props them up.

[Gallegos, Raúl. Crude Nation: How Oil Riches Ruined Venezuela . Potomac Books. Kindle Edition.   Loc 319]

One confusing aspect of spending time in Venezuela is the varying exchange rates of the currency.    There is a small elite, mostly people working with the government or with powerful political connections, who are paid in foreign dollars and can exchange money at a rate of 6.3 bolivars to the dollar.    However, the unlimited printing of money by the government has continually driven down the bolivar’s real value.    Common people are charged much more— and due to government controls on how much currency each person can exchange, mostly had to use the black market to buy anything significant.

As I edit this text in March 2016, the black market dollar stands at nearly 1,200 bolivars per dollar, a 5,600 percent increase in roughly a year. The truth is, I cannot write fast enough to keep up with the bolivar’s loss of value. In this country, those who earn dollars can live like royalty, and those who don’t do whatever they can to get their hands on them…

Under normal circumstances a weaker currency shouldn’t hurt people too much, but in Venezuela where almost everything people consume comes from abroad, especially from the United States, a weaker bolivar means virtually everything a family might need or want, from food to clothes, television sets, fridges, washers, and cellular phones, can become more expensive in just days.

[Loc 401-441]

Angry government officials accused currency traders of sabotaging the economy.    Naturally, the leaders of Venezuela decided that a government-based solution was the key to solving this problem, as with all problems.    The government expanded its takeovers of private companies, and became a leading importer of food, medicine, and related items— but then small groups of well-connected con artists and corrupt officials started creating sham companies to launder this spending for themselves.

Jorge Giordani, a seventy-six-year-old electronics engineer and the main architect of Venezuela’s economic policies under Chávez—known as “the Monk” for his ascetic ways and almost religious devotion to orthodox leftist ideas—famously admitted that US$20 billion, or one-third of the country’s total import bill, was lost to obscure enterprises in 2012 alone.  Seen another way, corrupt foreign currency dealings took US$658 from the pocket of every Venezuelan that year.

[Loc 492]

Gallegos’s journalistic work led to a personal clash with “The Monk”, after he asked a question during a press conference, about whether giving the president too much control over the central bank and allowing it to freely create money might lead to overspending and government abuses.   

The Monk’s response was an angry forty-minute rant during which he accused me of showing a “lack of respect” for central bank board members and President Chávez. “The reserves belong to the nation, not the bank,” he said. “What discretion are we talking about?” The president, as the people’s elected representative, he insisted, had every right to decide how to spend that money. … Other reporters in the audience seemed stunned. 

Later that night a friend called to inform me that I was being called an enemy of the revolution on a well-known government propaganda television program. A nationally televised show called La Hojilla (“the Razorblade”), known for attacking the government’s perceived enemies, replayed the incident and accused my employer, Dow Jones and Company, and me of manipulating information. The Monk and the government’s media apparatus had made an example of me for the entire country, especially those who questioned the government’s economic policies. Debating the idea of turning the bank into the president’s petty cash fund would not be tolerated.

[Loc 693]

By 2015, Venezuela was suffering a dire shortage of consumer goods.   Price controls led to inefficiency and inability to produce in many areas:  prices were often so low that companies could not recover the cost of supplies, and couldn’t attempt to cut costs by laying off employees.

I made it my goal in January 2015 to buy a household roll of toilet paper somewhere, anywhere in the Caracas metropolitan area within three weeks. … It had been roughly two years since store shelves were regularly stocked with toilet paper rolls in Caracas, the city in Venezuela where consumers were most likely to find scarce products. Other major cities and towns in this oil-rich nation were worse off: their store shelves were barren almost all the time. People traveled to Caracas from all over the country hoping to find body soap, laundry detergent, and toilet tissue somewhere in the capital.  When delivery trucks carrying toilet paper drove into stores, dozens or even hundreds of Venezuelans already stood in lines that were blocks long, waiting for hours…

Odd things happen when toilet tissue disappears. At the Nugantina café, a fixture in the Los Palos Grandes neighborhood in eastern Caracas, a stack of brown paper towels normally used to dry hands sat atop the toilet in the unisex bathroom. There was no toilet tissue available for customers… A Renaissance manager told me the hotel took the precaution of keeping a three-month stock of toilet tissue. “It’s all about having the right suppliers. And having lots of them,” the manager said. The hotel devoted one whole floor of the building exclusively to storing its inventory of prized toiletries.

Shopping for toilet paper, or anything else in Venezuela, became a fraught experience. Visiting more than a dozen supermarkets and pharmacies in Caracas over several days left me with nothing. People stood in one line or another outside supermarkets at all hours of the day….

On a Saturday, at the state-owned Bicentenario supermarket in Plaza Venezuela, a middle-class enclave, people showed up in droves to shop…  Outside, several hundred people lined up in a dirt field under the sun, holding umbrellas and sitting on folding chairs, to wait for a chance to enter the building. Entire families of mostly low-income Venezuelans showed up with children of all ages to sit in the heat. A handful of portable toilets were strategically placed on the edges of the field for those who needed to relieve themselves, a woefully inadequate number given the growing mass of people in line. Of course shoppers were expected to bring their own toilet tissue if they planned to use the toilets.

[Loc 825-835]

And of course, the government discovered the alleged real root cause of the toilet paper shortage:  an orchestrated campaign of right-wing sabotage.    When this pronouncement was received with skepticism, another government official pointed to the shortage as a sign of prosperity:  if people needed toilet paper, it must mean they were eating well, due to the success of the socialist government in bringing them food.   But the government continued to blame sabotage as well, attempting to crack down on the hoarders who supposedly were keeping the products off the market.   If a store was found to be holding back stock of this or any other price-controlled good, its owners could find themselves in prison for 8-10 years. 

As you would expect, this uncertainty about if and when any particular product would be available also leads to the perverse incentive to buy more than you need, whenever you can find it.   

To witness the Venezuelan tendency to stock up on goods I met Ramón Barrios, a sixty-eight-year-old retired policeman, who lives in a spartan home on a slope in the low-income barrio La Pastora. Barrios developed the habit of leaving his home with a folded plastic bag in his back pocket to carry the products he could find in the streets. “If there are people lining up somewhere I will get in line and buy whatever is for sale,” if no ID number is required, Barrios told me. … He opened his old wooden cupboards and allowed me to take out whatever I could find. Several minutes later, I had managed to dig out at least twenty-two pounds of white rice bags, another twenty pounds or so of sugar, roughly ten pounds of black beans, at least a dozen packs of pasta, fifteen pounds of corn flour, bottles of cooking oil, ketchup, mayonnaise: goods that were almost impossible to find and buy in large quantities anywhere. And far more than a retired man living alone would need.

[Loc 1201]

To gain some insight into the still-fanatic core supporters of the Venezuelan leadership, Gallegos also spent some time with a colorful local leader nicknamed “Che”, who modeled his life after Cuba’s Che Guevara.   Apparently he wasn’t a listener of this podcast, since as you may recall, we have discussed how Cuba’s Che was actually an incompetent but bloodthirsty fraud, whose only actual successes were in the public relations arena.    Anyway, this Che was the leader of a local armed Marxist group that controlled his neighborhood, ensuring votes for Chavez and Maduro.   

“We’re in an economic war,” Che said, referring to food scarcity. “And when you’re at war, you bring out the military. Take the companies, militarize the economy!” Che didn’t finish high school, but claims to read Marx and other thinkers on which he bases a mélange of ideas similar to the ideological mix Chavismo calls Twenty-First-Century Socialism. … “We don’t threaten people to get what we need,” he said of his Colectivo friends. “Some [armed] groups do it, but we don’t….  He told me he doesn’t use toilet paper and has some handy only for visitors.

Che claims he has never benefited from government largess, but like many Venezuelans in the D and E segment, those closest to him have gained from social programs…  [his girlfriend’s] mother managed to get a two-bedroom apartment assigned to her by the government even though she is a retiree living by herself (government apartments are usually assigned to families). Che assured me he did nothing to help her get a new home but admitted that she did mention to housing officials that he was practically her son-in-law and “that may have helped.”

[Loc 2298-2313]

But this government generosity isn’t quite what you might expect, once you look closely at the details.    Government-contracted construction companies suffer from the same waste and inefficiency created across the economy.  Gallegos describes the apartment:

The apartment complex was roughly two years old but looked much older. Its facade had cracks in various places, and the paint was peeling. The lobby of the building had dirty concrete floors and an abandoned commercial space, with broken ceiling tiles, trash, and a small mountain of loose gravel on the floor, that no business had found fit to lease. The whole building looked like it was unfinished when residents moved in…  the building’s elevator doesn’t work, so residents have to trek up and down the stairs every day, which is a pain for those who live on the top floors.  …I noticed the bathroom and the shower had no tile, the walls were cracked, and a hole in the floor to the left of the toilet—crudely covered with a piece of cardboard and tape—emitted a foul odor. Rosa and her neighbors later informed me the sewer pipes in the building often got clogged and this caused bad smells in people’s bathrooms. 

[Loc 3603]

Gallegos also spent some time talking in depth with managers and employees at various struggling Venezuelan companies, learning how constant and often contradictory mandates from the state make it impossible to produce goods efficiently.    Perhaps the most notorious is the case of the oil companies, which under the Chavez and Maduro governments have become money-losing enterprises despite Venezuela’s massive oil reserves.   

State-owned giant PDVSA, which controls the country’s vast oil empire, has become as unusual as the country’s own economy: it controls the richest accumulation of oil in the world but doesn’t have enough cash to pay its bills.  The company has earned more than US$100 billion from oil sales annually in recent years and has sold every barrel of crude for at least twice what it cost to produce it, which means the company typically mints money every time it pumps a barrel of oil. Yet PDVSA takes months, even years to pay its suppliers and has accumulated billions of dollars of unpaid bills to the point that now its own contractors lend money to the troubled company…

…PDVSA has consistently spent more money on social programs during the five years ending in early 2015 than it did on operating and oil exploration costs combined, and on the equipment it needs to increase oil output over time, the main reason for the company’s existence in the first place.

…PDVSA produces lumber, roof tiles, and cinder blocks to build the homes the government gives the poor almost for free. And unlike the business of pumping crude, the company loses money on these activities. Keeping those loss-making businesses going, however, provides jobs to thousands of workers and Chavismo’s political supporters.

Since Chávez fired more than nineteen thousand PDVSA oil workers and executives after the 2002 strike, his administration and his successor’s favored hiring politically loyal people over those with technical expertise. …And its new slogan, “PDVSA now belongs to everyone,” became a Chavista rallying cry.

[Loc 3005-3029]

<closing conversation with Manuel>

Amusingly, American leftists seem to have held out as long as they could before admitting that there really was something wrong with Venezuela.   Gallegos had trouble getting his book published in 2016, because major publishers insisted that Venezuela’s problems were only temporary, and that things would “return to normal” soon and readers would lose interest.   I think history has pronounced its verdict on that idea.     Be sure to check out his book, linked in the show notes at storiesofcommunism.com, if you want to learn more about the decline of this once-rich nation under socialism.

And this has been your story of Communism for today.