- - Thursday, November 30, 2017

Not so long ago Venezuela, which stumbles along as if on a national breadline, was the wealthiest country in Latin America. And why not? It has the world’s largest proven oil reserves and abundant fertile farmland. Its governmental institutions were once efficient and largely free of corruption. With a few good funerals, times could be good again.

But things look rather different now. The country’s GDP has collapsed; it’s only 60 percent of what it was only four years ago. By contrast, the Gross Domestic Product declined by 28 percent during the Great Depression in the United States. The poverty rate is north of 82 percent; it was 48 percent in 2014. Three quarters of Venezuelans have lost weight in recent years, by an average of almost 20 pounds per person.

Usually it takes a war, an earthquake or a tidal wave of immense and historic proportions to cause a collapse so calamitous. The collapse of Venezuela is wholly man-made. President Nicolas Maduro and his late predecessor Hugo Chavez are the authors of the ruin in their land. Mr. Chavez, who was in power for 15 years before his death in 2013, pledged to build a Venezuela where everyone would share everything equally. In a sense he succeeded. Venezuelans now share equally in misery, as in Cuba, where the government bequeathed by Fidel Castro, the mentor of Messrs. Castro and Maduro, produce misery for all.

Hugo Chavez nationalized various industries only to plunder them, and the baleful results were utterly predictable. Industries collapsed, and Venezuela became “the poor man of Latin America.” He raised interest rates far beyond usury, further devastating the economy. He spent lavishly on social programs, destroying the nation’s rainy day fund. When oil prices dropped, as they always do, there was no way to get in out of the rain.

Nicolas Maduro has succeeded in making things worse. Coming off a stellar career as a bus driver, Mr. Maduro has turned to printing money, and the government can hardly find money to buy the paper to print the currency on. It might turn to printing the currency on toilet paper, but there’s a severe shortage of that, too. With the fall in oil prices, there’s hyper inflation: last year, consumer prices rose 800 percent. Because the government is running out of dollars it can no longer import goods. Hence the shortages of food, medicine and everything but misery.

Mr. Maduro has turned, as despots will, increasingly authoritarian. Opposition leaders are thrown in jail. A sham election this summer packed the government with his cronies. Torture of prisoners is widespread. The only good news is that this suggests he’s afraid his regime can’t last. He’s trying to persuade Beijing and Moscow to throw him a lifeline. If it’s true that it’s darkest before the dawn, President Maduro’s end is in sight.

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