The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Venezuela’s Maduro hollows out his nation

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The situation in Venezuela is not improving. You are probably aware of what afflicts the country: Spiraling and overlapping economic crises (largely of the government's own making), emptied store shelves of food, medicine and other basic goods, spurred malnutrition and poverty, and a new refugee crisis in the Western Hemisphere.

Months of mass protests last summer were ultimately subdued by an increasingly authoritarian government, which replaced Venezuela's opposition-filled Congress with a new Constituent Assembly stacked with loyalists of President Nicolás Maduro. The body deployed sweeping powers to cow dissent and paved the way for a new set of elections, including a snap presidential vote, to be held in April. All of those moves have been rejected by most of the international community, which views any election in the current climate of intimidation as a fraudulent farce.

Maduro, however, is undeterred, and his opponents remain perpetually divided. While opposition parties are boycotting the elections, one former Venezuelan state governor, Henri Falcon, announced his presidential candidacy on Tuesday, giving Maduro a somewhat credible challenger — and the election a paper-thin veneer of legitimacy. Despite the opposition spending months engaged in rounds of internationally mediated talks with Maduro's government, there's no political breakthrough anywhere in sight.

All the while, stories of degradation and deprivation come out of Venezuela at a relentless clip. There are lurid tales of prison inmates foraging for dead rats, pumas and lions wasting away in Venezuelan zoos, and mothers embarking on harrowing cross-border trips just to find medicine for their children.

My colleagues' recent reporting on the ground offers a snapshot of the country's tragic implosion: Because of a lack of contraceptives and drugs, HIV patients are flooding hospitals and AIDS-related deaths have surged; destitute parents, starved and unable to cope, are abandoning their children at orphanages; mismanagement and graft turned one of the world's most oil-rich countries into a gasoline importer whose economy is at the edge of an abyss.

As many as 4 million Venezuelans — more than 10 percent of the population — have already left the country, according to the Brookings Institution. That's an exodus on a similar scale to the one seen in war-torn in Syria. According to U.N. statistics from last November, more than 600,000 Venezuelans have fled to Colombia, 5,000 to the Caribbean isle of Curacao, 20,000 to Aruba, 30,000 to Brazil and 40,000 to Trinidad and Tobago.

That displacement threatens to create problems beyond Venezuela's borders. “The flood of people is already overwhelming border economies, schools, health systems and basic shelter in Colombia, Brazil and even Ecuador,” wrote Shannon O'Neil of the Council on Foreign Relations. “Venezuela’s Caribbean neighbors, many with weak institutions and still recovering from last year’s hurricanes, are ill-equipped to meet such new challenges. And those fleeing are vulnerable to human trafficking and extortion, providing fodder for transnational drug and criminal organizations. The surge threatens to shift politics in this year of the Latin American election, when nearly two out of every three voters heads to the polls to elect a new president.”

While President Trump has spoken angrily about Maduro's excesses and slapped new penalties on the Venezuelan regime, the United States has not taken the lead in working to mitigate a spiraling humanitarian disaster. Nor can the average Venezuelan take much comfort in the Trump administration's broader anti-immigrant platform, which included canceling protected status for tens of thousands of Salvadorans, Haitians and potentially Hondurans who found sanctuary in the United States in the wake of earlier humanitarian disasters in their own countries.

Venezuela's crisis — a historic disaster for what used to be one of Latin America's wealthiest nations — could be an epilogue to the socialist experiment launched by President Hugo Chávez. Chávez used the nation's vast oil wealth to lift millions out of poverty, but he presided over a system of cronyism and corruption that has potentially enfeebled the country for a generation.

With the opposition struggling to muster a challenge, analysts have suggested the greatest threat to Maduro is internal, potentially from its influential military. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently suggested that Maduro could face a coup. “In the history of Venezuela and South American countries, it is oftentimes that the military is the agent of change when things are so bad and the leadership can no longer serve the people,” he said in early February.

But such a putsch is still unlikely, Mexican writer Enrique Krauze noted in a lengthy and noteworthy essay in the New York Review of Books. “The army does not at present seem to be showing signs of rebellion, and, if such sentiments do exist in the middle ranks of officers, those who harbor them live in fear of Cuban espionage,” said Miguel Henrique Otero, a journalist critical of the regime, to Krauze.

In the meantime, Maduro and his allies continue to point the finger at the “imperialist” meddling of outside powers (read: the United States) while fanning the flames of nationalist populism. Maduro constantly seeks to channel Chávez's legacy, though few consider him a convincing heir.

" 'I am Chávez,' Maduro said shortly before his leader died,” Krauze wrote. “But although he spoke like Chávez, he was certainly not Chávez. After his death, Maduro declared publicly that 'Chávez appeared to me in the form of a little bird.' Although some writers still treat Maduro as an astute leader and a pure revolutionary who has met with hard times, the regime is now very close to a full dictatorship. It has lost its quasi-religious aura.”

As he grimly clings to power, Maduro may need a lot more than mystique to survive. If the country's economic predicament continues, a social eruption is inevitable. “Our work conditions have become inhumane,” a state oil worker told my colleagues, describing the collapse of the industry. “If we continue like this one more year, we will die.”

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