When I arrived in 1992, Venezuela — which has the world’s largest oil reserves — was among Latin America’s richest countries. Today, the monthly minimum wage is barely $20 (at the black market exchange rate), less than Haiti’s. Extreme poverty and infant mortality — both of which dipped in the first years of Chávez’s presidency — are again rising. Oil production has fallen by nearly 25 percent since Chávez took office and decried foreign participation in the country’s energy sector; he milked the state oil company dry to pay for his social initiatives and his own political campaigns. Today, the state oil company is warning that it may default on its bonds. Production at the state steel company has fallen by nearly 70 percent since its nationalization. The power grid, under state control, suffers constant outages and service disruptions. Venezuela, which once exported electricity to Brazil and Colombia, had to ration power earlier this year.
Food production has cratered. In my largely agrarian village, my neighbors don’t have seeds, fertilizers, or pesticides. The government took control of the country’s largest agricultural goods company years ago, promising to make it more responsive and make Venezuela self-sufficient in food. The result has been just the opposite. Today, Venezuela is a nation waiting in line to buy scarce items such as bread, rice, pasta, and sugar; buyers now queue at stores the night before, hoping that hard-to-find items might appear.
Hunger stalks my village as well. My neighbors were innovative as we went on the Maduro diet. In lieu of cornmeal, they began cooking green bananas or yucca roots to make a dough which they then turned into the ubiquitous arepas. Beef and poultry were replaced by what they could hunt in the cloud forest by the village: Opossums, sloths, porcupines, kinkajous, monkeys, and chacalacas all found their way into their cooking pots.
A few of us started a soup kitchen for the village’s most needy, asking our overseas friends for donations to buy food. Within days, we were serving meals for 90 people, up from the 30 or so we initially forecast. Still, that wasn’t enough for some: One elderly man died of malnutrition. Others began gathering up a paste made of chicken by-products such as guts and bones which one woman used to bring to the village for stray dogs. With a little onion and rice it was palatable, they said.
Medicines are almost nonexistent. Aspirin has become a luxury for many; diabetics, people stricken with cancer, and those with high blood pressure are out of luck. The public health system — which Chávez vowed to make the region’s finest — has been gutted. Those needing operations face waits measuring months, and the cost can be astronomical.
Chávez promised a people’s revolution, a finer form of democracy. Instead, Venezuela is now facing political repression. Under Chávez, the country’s institutions — from the courts to the military to the legislature — lost whatever autonomy they once had. All became appendages of the Bolivarian socialist revolution. Under Chávez, it wasn’t strange for the supreme court to open one of its sessions by warbling a pro-Chávez ditty. Or for the head of the National Electoral Commission to show up at Chávez’s funeral in 2013, wearing the armband of Chávez’s political movement.
Today, Venezuela’s jails are filled with political prisoners: people locked up for their beliefs and opposition to the government. Many faced trumped-up charges; many are still awaiting trial. The persecution continues: Maduro and his cohorts continue to strip opposition mayors of their posts, charging them with corruption. And though the government clearly has the resources to arrest those who disagree with it, they apparently lack the resources to tackle common crime.
This year, about 30,000 people in a country of 30 million will be murdered. In 92 percent of the cases, their killers will never be arrested. By contrast, about 13,000 Americans will lose their lives to crime this year — but that’s with a population 11 times that of Venezuela. Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, now has the world’s highest murder rate. And seven other Venezuelan cities are in the world’s top 50.
In part, one can blame a breakdown in societal values. Many young Venezuelans no longer see a future for them in the country; crime thus becomes the only route for rising above poverty, for getting ahead. The government has facilitated this crime wave. Following an abortive coup in 2002, Chávez intervened in many police forces, putting them under central control and firing experienced officers. He also armed his own followers to safeguard his regime — creating a sort of public-private militia, and abetting the flow of arms to bad guys.