- - Monday, May 28, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Viva la revolution — or something. Alas, the slow-motion catastrophe that is the Venezuelan revolution shows no signs of abating. It keeps going, going and going, and in ever steeper descent.

The presidential election this month was a farce. Every reasonably legitimate alternative to the toxic incumbent, Nicolas Maduro, was barred from running. Many such prospective candidates were in prison. The media had shriveled, ensuring that dissenting parties could not get anything remotely resembling a fair hearing. The harsh way anti-government protest has been dealt with over past years sent the message that no dissent will be tolerated by the rotten regime.

Mr. Maduro’s only claim to political and management skill was his earlier career as a bus driver. He “won” the election with two-thirds of the vote — the outcome was never in doubt — and the turnout was anemic. Nearly 7 in 10 Venezuelans did not vote. This was an eloquent verdict on what the people think of their government.

Not very long ago they lived in the richest country in South America, awash in oil, with the world’s largest proven oil reserves, all set upon abundant fertile land. Anatoly Kurmanaev, a Russian journalist writing in The Wall Street Journal, recalls that when he arrived in Caracas to take up his post as correspondent in 2013, “the party was still on: Oil was fetching $100 a barrel, and Mr. Maduro’s populist government was showering petrodollars on everyone. The Caracas skyline was dotted with grandiose construction projects, steakhouses were buying vintage Scotch by the carload and hotels had to be reserved weeks in advance.”

The ruinous policies of the late Hugo Chavez and his chosen heir put an end to all that, and set Venezuela’s economy in ruins. Mr. Chavez, who took power in 1999, nationalized and plundered national industries, bankrupted his country’s financial reserves with lavish social spending and raised interest rates to the point that business simply cannot function.

His successor has accomplished what was thought impossible. He has made things worse. Facing crippling deficits as oil prices collapsed, Mr. Maduro printed money. Hyperinflation followed, of course, and as the government ran out of foreign currency it could no longer import basic goods. Toilet paper became a prized and rare item in Venezuela. Every Venezuelan with the means fled the country, creating a refugee crisis in neighboring countries. Independent economists in Venezuela expect by the end of this year that the nation’s economy will have shrunk an astonishing 35 percent over the past five years, and the poverty rate has risen to 87 percent.

Immediately after the election results were released, Venezuela expelled the two top American diplomats, accusing them of conspiring against the government and attempting to sabotage the election. It’s encouraging, however, to see both the United States and other nations getting tougher on Mr. Maduro. Following the national election farce, the Trump administration announced a measure making it harder for the regime to liquidate its assets. President Trump’s point is that the assets belong to “the Venezuelan people,” not the kleptocrats who populate its regime. Fourteen other nations throughout the Americas, including Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, condemned the way the elections were conducted and said they would scale back diplomatic relations with Caracas.

“We call for the Maduro regime to restore democracy, hold free and fair elections, release all political prisoners immediately and unconditionally, and end the repression and economic deprivation of the Venezuelan people,” Mr. Trump said. It’s a worthy hope, but not one likely to be redeemed without a struggle. Mr. Maduro will have to be toppled, most likely by his own people. The bad news for him is that the people of Venezuela have many legitimate reasons to want his head on a spike.

With hyperinflation expected to reach 14,000 percent this year, the most basic economic tasks have become nightmares. Cash is scarce, credit-card networks are overloaded and banking systems routinely crash. Paying for a cup of coffee, a visitor observes, can take an hour. Streets are empty after dark. Streetlights no longer work, and the only people out after dark are kids rummaging through garbage cans looking for something to eat.

“Caracas has long been a dangerous yet vibrant city,” says Anatoly Kurmanaev, “but the crisis has transformed it into a zombie movie set.” The rape of Venezuela demonstrates once more that the place where Marxist economics works is in a textbook. Nothing revolutionary about that.

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