‘Basket case’: Why is Venezuela falling apart?

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The country is sliding towards violent anarchy, despite all its natural blessings and its current misery could be just the beginning of something far worse

:: Who is Venezuela’s president Nicolas Maduro?

How does a country with enormous potential wealth come to this?

There are many reasons, but top of the list are gross economic mismanagement and, perversely, the curses brought by all that oil.

By any number of measures Venezuela is falling apart.

Nine out of 10 Venezuelans say they cannot afford enough food. Three quarters have lost weight in the last year. Maternal mortality rates have shot up. People are routinely dying of treatable conditions because doctors can no longer find the most basic of drugs.

A riot security forces vehicle is set on fire
Image:Protests in the country have become increasingly violent

We may moan in the UK about falling living standards, but in Venezuela income per head is back to levels last seen in the 50s.

On the streets, political protests are paralysing much of the country. Their brutal suppression by the Maduro regime is, on average, claiming one life every day.

Like the government of Hugo Chavez that it followed, the Maduro government claims to be on the side of the masses. But its kleptocratic rule has been disastrous for every level of society. The poor just have less to lose.

The regime is tightening its grip on the levers of control more and more jealously, fearful of what might happen should it fall from power. In turn, the frustration and anger of the people only intensifies in what is becoming an explosively combustible mix.

Riot security forces pass through a roadblock
Image:Security forces have been deployed on the streets

The government is in some ways only following the example of previous political and business elites in Venezuela. Since its democratic heyday in the 50s, one government after another has closely guarded its control of the oil monopoly, and not delivered necessary political and economic reforms.

But the Maduro government’s mismanagement of the economy has been breathtakingly irresponsible.

The hose of public spending has been left on, aimed only at supporters of the regime. To fund such profligate finances Maduro has printed money, unable to rely on oil income in a period of falling prices.

Nationalisation, price controls and rampant corruption have added to the witches’ brew poisoning the economy.

And there is little hope of relief. The regime may be despised but it remains confidently in control.

The army is in as deep as Maduro, co-conspirators in his misgovernment of the country. He retains the support of much of the very poor and the opposition remains divided.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is facing ongoing protests from opposition parties amid calls to hold an election.

Video:Naked protester walks through ugly Venezuela clashes

And he is not likely to give up power easily nor are his henchmen and cronies. They know the fate that could await them if they do.

So a painful deterioration seems inevitable. Protests will become increasingly desperate and violent, their leadership passing from conventional politicians to more extreme elements.

Increasingly paranoid and wary, the regime may respond with ever increasing violence. And in the anarchy that ensues criminal gangs and organised crime will foster greater instability, and profit from it.

The only hope is shrewd and sustained intervention from outside the country. Other Latin American nations are waking up to the threat of a Venezuelan failed state.

In normal times Washington could be counted on too. But the right kind of US mediation, that does not just make matters worse, is under this president and his deliberately weakened State Department far from a foregone conclusion.

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