I met John Reistoffer in Caracas in the late 1990s. He, his brother and I planned to drive to Lake Guri in east central Venezuela to fish for peacock bass. A bonus which I did not expect was the geological tour of the country as we were driving SE across the Orinoco R. to the lake. You see, John was a petroleum geologist working for the Venezuelan oil company and knowing what’s under the dirt and its history is part of his job. He spoke of the formation of the tepuis from which the highest waterfall in the world, Angel Falls, originates. It was fascinating. After several hours of that – of which I could’ve easily listened to more – was a history of the economics, politics and culture of the country. This is where it turned bad.
He said you have to watch your stuff all the time. Thievery is a national pastime. The government officials are mostly kleptocrats and with oil reserves enough to last another 200 years, the benefits seldom reach the man on the street. Mineral wealth, he told me, had enormous potential but the feds were strict about claims rights, allowing an individual only a 10-meter square area to mine. And when the miners took their gold to town to buy supplies, the feds’ roadblocks always guaranteed they got a share.
Why is it that way, I asked, generally south of the Rio Grande … the corruption, I mean.
He told me that when the pilgrims came to America it was to establish a new order, one different form the old oppressive one they left in Europe. They wanted to live free and honestly and not be under the thumb of the aristocracy. But when the Conquistadores left Spain for the New World it was to steal as much as they could and go home. This legacy they left in the lands they conquered.
And now we know that under Hugo Chavez, Venezuela became a failed state. Why?
I have been to Colombia three times now, camping in tents on the Terecay R. not far from the border of Venezuela. Although with the same heritage I found the Colombians to be relatively happy and helpful people as compared to the skeptical Venezuelans. They got rid of Pablo Escobar 23 years ago and retook the running of the country back from the drug lords. Kyle’s own Marta Randall grew up in Colombia and remembers how unsafe it used to be. Gregorio Sokoloff was fishing with us this recent last time. A Colombian with an American college education and a Russian geneology, he also gave us insights to the culture of his country. I had remarked on what fantastic gains Colombia seemed to have made since the demise of Escobar and he agreed but added that it was far from complete. Not so much in the cities but in the rural areas the mindset still exists that if a man is in your way you go get a gun and shoot him. Lawlessness is down but still too present. Why?
All of this reminds me of what Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his book “Democracy in America”, and that is … America is great because America is good. Adding to this is R.D. Walker’s article, “Why Do People Obey the Law?”
Walker says a vast majority of Americans obey the law because of (1) fear of penalties, but mostly because, (2) it’s the right thing to do. Citizens of other countries see their government twist the law, apply it arbitrarily, or ignore it altogether. They feel that government has violated the social contract between them and itself and eventually feel that they have no longer the responsibility to their end of the contract. Example: When the mayor of Baltimore illegally told the police to stand down and let the rioters loot, and burn. Not only did the government avoid its responsibility to uphold the law, it gave de facto permission to the rioters to continue their malfeasance.
Venezuela, a failed country, and Colombia, a country trying to come back from near failure, should be observable lessons what could happen to America if the law continues to be ignored by its government and its citizens.
Tocqueville also said that when America ceases to be good it will cease to be great. So where do we go from here?
Ray Wolbrecht is a retired dentist who practiced for many years in Kyle.