FOR SEVERAL years Venezuela's self-styled socialist government has been paying billions of dollars to Wall Street to avoid default on its staggering debts, even while starving its people of vital imports of food and medicine. Now that unlikely policy, one of the last ways in which the government of Nicolás Maduro distinguished itself from the world's pariah regimes, appears to be crumbling. Last week, ratings agencies declared Venezuela and its state oil company to be in selective default, a step that could trigger a cascade of other judgments and send creditors racing to seize the country's foreign assets.
So far that stampede hasn't started, and Mr. Maduro and other Venezuelan officials insist they do not intend to stop payments on the more than $100 billion the government and state oil company owe. Last week the regime summoned bondholders to Caracas to say it wished to restructure and refinance the debt. But it offered no plan to do so, and it has missed a string of recent payment deadlines. With just $10 billion left in its reserves, it looks unlikely to cover the more than $8 billion it owes in the next year. Most financial analysts say a full default is inevitable, either now or within months.
Behind the numbers lies a staggering tale of corruption and malfeasance. The regime of Hugo Chávez and its successor borrowed breathtaking sums even while raking in record revenue from oil exports. Almost all this windfall of more than $1 trillion was squandered or stolen. When petroleum prices fell, Mr. Maduro had to choose between coupon payments and food supplies. He chose Wall Street, thereby exacerbating a humanitarian catastrophe: A majority of the country's 30 million people say they have lost weight due to a lack of food, and some 500,000 people fled the country in the past two years.
The regime’s reluctance to default reflects a healthy fear of the possible consequences. Venezuela has substantial assets abroad, including the oil company Citgo and the refineries it operates in the United States. If these, along with Venezuela’s tankers, are seized, the government could lose its last economic lifeline.
Of course, Mr. Maduro could service Venezuela's debts and feed his people if he were willing to seek help from the International Monetary Fund, as well as humanitarian aid, and take elementary steps to stabilize the economy. But the only foreign help he seeks is that of Cuba's hard-line intelligence apparatus, which pushes him toward totalitarianism, and Russia, which in its zeal to back any anti-American cause has bailed him out several times — and announced another deal to refinance its loans last week.
The Trump administration, for its part, has helped force Mr. Maduro into bankruptcy by banning U.S. traders from further dealings with Venezuelan debt. Naturally the regime is now blaming Washington for the financial fix it is in, so it was clever of the Treasury Department to suggest a compromise: It said it might exempt a refinancing plan if it were approved by the opposition-controlled National Assembly. Perhaps that will prompt Mr. Maduro to finally get serious about negotiations with the opposition. More likely, Venezuela is headed for more misery.