Things can change. And they can change quickly. I remember the rock musician Billy Squier from the 1980s. He rose from total obscurity to international stardom, and then somehow went right back to obscurity.
David Mamet made a great little movie a while ago called Things Change (you should be seeing all of his movies, regardless). It captures this “variability of fortune” ethic very well. And I’ve talked about it before, in books and articles here and there.
The point can apply to nations as well as people. Take Columbia and Venezuela, for example. The two sisterly countries are economically and socially now polar opposites. Venezuela is literally a failed state. The country is currently run by Hugo Chavez’s hand-picked successor. Maybe “run” is the wrong word, unless that word means “run into the ground.”
By any measure, Venezuela is a disaster zone. Inflation has been about 500% so far this year, and is likely to exceed an incredible 1000% within the next year or so. Nothing is in the stores, and nothing is on the shelves. The few hotel visitors that do show up in the country are advised to bring their own toilet paper.
Crime is exploding, even in rural areas. Police hardly even bother to investigate crime any more, leaving vigilante groups to do the work of “law enforcement,” which can mean lynchings and murder.
Years of corruption, mismanagement, greed, graft, and stupidity are to blame. No one can blame this one on the United States. Hugo Chavez embedded himself in the seat of power a few years back and, proclaiming Fidel Castro as his “mentor,” propelled the nation right over the brink. What makes this all so gut-wrenchingly tragic is that Venezuela is one of the richest nations in the hemisphere. It is sitting on oil and gas reserves second to none. Its leaders essentially created OPEC many decades ago. There is enough mineral wealth in the country to literally do everything.
Everything, that is, except run the country.
But let’s now take a look at Colombia. Columbia in the 1980s and early 1990s was crazy. Violence was off the charts. Narco-trafficers, cartels, and rebel groups turned the country into a tropical version of Afghanistan, with rival warlords and bosses battling each other for the biggest share of the spoils. In 1985, for example, the rebel group M-19 laid siege to the Colombian Supreme Court building itself. Incredibly, eleven of the twenty-five Supreme Court justices were killed in the battle.
Medellin was the murder capital of the world in the early 1990s. Everybody shuddered and joked about how dangerous Colombia’s cities were. But good tactics, discipline, and not a little law enforcement and intelligence assistance from abroad helped turn things around. The cartels were decapitated. Rebel groups were hunted down and liquidated. Slowly, order began to take the place of disorder. Medellin’s crime rate is about 95% lower than what it was in the early 1990s. Tourists are pouring in, attracted by the country’s scenic beauty, stability, and strong infrastructure.
How could this have happened? How could things have just fallen apart so rapidly for Venezuela, and gotten so much better for Colombia? Well, lots of reasons. Most of them have to do with three things: leadership, leadership, and leadership.
Good leaders set the tone, provide the guidance, the vision, and the motivating spirit. When you have good people in the right places, things work well. Even countries with relatively few resources can do a lot with good leadership. And conversely, countries with abundant resources will get nothing done with corrupt or venal leaders. This something we should keep in mind, always.
Venezuela may have to go through its own dark night of its soul. Even though more than two-thirds of the population want corrupt, useless flunky Nicolas Maduro and his United Socialist Party out of power, he seems unlikely to give up without a fight. Of course, in his delusional world, it’s everyone else’s fault but his: the United States, monetary fluctuations, the collapse of the petroleum market, voodoo spells, maybe even radio waves bouncing off the clouds.
But at the end of the day, he’s the leader. His party’s and his predecessor’s policies made it so. And if he had any amount of integrity or love for his country, he’d step down and make way for someone else who can reverse a decade of useless, failed “socialist” policies. How this will all play out remains to be seen.
Change is the natural order of things, as Lucretius tells us. The world changes rapidly every day, even every hour. We need to be aware of, and responsive to, these changes. When things are great, we should be grateful. And enjoy it while it lasts. Because it never does. And when things have run their course, we should know when it is time to move on.
We are all nomads, selling our wares door-to-door.
It is well for us to reflect on the fact that things can change so quickly, and so completely. Forward progress is not inevitable. It is not irreversible. The demons of ignorance, greed, and vanity are always lurking just below the basement trap-door, calling out to us in muffled voices, pushing for a way up and out.
And if bad leadership lets them loose, they can cause untold harm.