Guest Opinion: Venezuela in free fall

Chicago Tribune
Nov. 2
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Anyone visiting Venezuela may want to pack a couple of plastic garbage bags. What for? If you change $100 or $200 in cash upon arriving, you’ll be given large piles of nearly worthless bolivars, and you’ll need something in which to carry them. The way things are going in Venezuela these days, you may not want to count on the money changers providing the trash bags.

Venezuela is in the midst of an economic collapse, with inflation in triple digits, food and medicine shortages creating terrible hardships and the country’s chief export, oil, selling for half of what it commanded a couple of years ago. The economy has been in a recession for the past three years — and is expected to keep shrinking. Pervasive government graft isn’t helping. And crime is rampant in Venezuela, where the murder rate is a shocking 18 times higher than that of the United States.

Economic disasters often lead to political change, with those in power being cashiered and new leaders getting a chance. That has already happened, to a limited extent, in Venezuela: Last year, the opposition captured more than two-thirds of the seats in the National Assembly.

But Nicolas Maduro, the handpicked successor of the late leftist strongman Hugo Chavez, is not willing to meekly defer to the will of the people. He has deployed all the resources of his regime to crush dissent, neutralize the judiciary and tighten his grip on power.

When the opposition recently mounted a drive to collect signatures to hold a recall election, as provided in the Constitution, a government commission first imposed requirements obviously designed to kill it. But when the effort showed signs it would succeed anyway, the commission simply suspended the collection of signatures. Maduro clearly has no desire to put his rule to a vote — which polls indicate he would lose by a landslide.

On Friday, hundreds of thousands of fed-up Venezuelans took to the streets of Caracas and other cities to demand his removal. This was followed by a general strike that was only partly successful, thanks to the government’s threat to expropriate businesses that didn’t stay open. Opposition groups are planning a mass march to the presidential palace on Thursday.

On Sunday, the government met with some opposition representatives, and the two sides agreed to further negotiations, mediated by a papal envoy. But skepticism is in order. Fifteen opposition parties boycotted the meeting, and previous talks have led nowhere. Maduro is more likely hoping to buy time while stonewalling real reforms. He knows that giving in on the principal demand — the recall referendum — would be the end of his regime.

His record offers few grounds for hope on either the economic or the political front. Last summer, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said the country is enduring “a humanitarian crisis.” Human Rights Watch concludes that in Venezuela, “impunity for human rights violations” has become “the norm.”

Maduro has few allies anymore, at home or abroad. His toxic blend of socialism, corruption and repression won’t revive the economy or raise his own dismal standing. Last week, protesters chanted, “This government will fall!”

Let’s hope they’re right — and that Maduro eventually agrees to go quietly.