Across Latin America, economic growth has stalled, social tensions are on the rise, and political systems are under strain. And one country is suffering more than any other: in Venezuela, worsening economic and political crises, mostly of the government’s own making, threaten the stability of the state with the world’s largest oil reserves.
Ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for December 6, Venezuelan President Nicolas Máduro, who took office after the death of Hugo Chávez in March 2013, is cracking down on opposition figures and engaging in reckless saber rattling with Venezuela’s neighbors Guyana and Colombia. The government is nervous that the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) could lose its majority in the National Assembly for the first time since Chávez came to power in 1999, with the opposition more united than in past campaigns. But whatever the outcome of the election, political stability will not come to Venezuela in the foreseeable future.
Venezuela’s troubles are evident on many fronts. Although reliable economic data are lacking, Venezuela’s inflation is estimated at 200 percent per year, the highest in the world, and the value of the country’s currency is spiraling downward. The International Monetary Fund now expects the economy to shrink by ten percent this year, and many experts believe a default on a mountain of foreign debt is likely in 2016. Basic goods are unavailable or in short supply, forcing Venezuelans to spend hours in line to get milk or toilet paper. Looting has become common, and soldiers patrol supermarkets. Rates of violent crime, long a concern, have worsened as large, well-armed gangs control vast swaths of the country. Caracas now has one of the world’s highest murder rates.
Maduro seems paralyzed by the country’s problems. His attempts to put the economy in order and curb crime have been misguided and fruitless. Ineptitude is, however, only part of the problem. Maduro is the product of a governmental structure imposed by Chávez that relies comandante, made all key decisions and possessed the political skills, charisma, and money—the price of oil rose from less than $10 per barrel to over $140 during his rule but has now dropped dramatically–that Maduro lacks. The result is disorder, indecision, and improvisation, combined with a desperate search for domestic and international scapegoats.
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