Over the last two decades, the now-deceased Hugo Chavez and his handpicked successor, President Nicolas Maduro, have wreaked havoc in Venezuela. Socialist economic policies and government corruption have destroyed a once-thriving economy sitting on the world’s largest oil reserves.
For the past 21 years, The Heritage Foundation has published its annual Index of Economic Freedom, which looks at the economic freedom of countries throughout the world. In that period of time, Venezuela’s score has declined the most out of any country, going from 59.8 to 27.0 (on a scale of 1-100). It is now in second-to-last place, right behind Cuba and better only than North Korea.
Adding to Venezuela’s economic crisis is its skyrocketing inflation rate. The International Monetary Fund estimates a 2016 inflation rate of 475 percent, an enormous increase from 2015’s already crushing rate of 275 percent. For 2017, the situation is estimated to become much worse, with a sharp rise of 1660 percent.
Mismanagement of the economy has created a humanitarian disaster beyond comprehension. The capital city of Caracas is now the most dangerous non-war zone in the world, with 120 murders for every 100,000 residents. Venezuelans live in fear knowing they are more likely to be kidnapped in their own country than are the citizens of Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria.
To combat the epidemic of food scarcity, the government put the military in charge of the country’s food management and distribution systems. Yet that only seems to make matters worse. The AP recently reported that the military is taking advantage of the country’s food shortages by profiting from food trafficking.
The deteriorating conditions in health care show just how serious the crisis is. Chronic shortages of medicine have rendered hospitals essentially useless. The World Health Organization estimates that there are shortages for 75 percent of necessary medications and medical supplies such as antibiotics, vaccines, and scalpels.
Blackouts resulting from a crumbling energy infrastructure are a daily occurrence. The death of newborns has become a common phenomenon, with one doctor saying “the death of a baby is our daily bread.” Infectious diseases once kept under control have surged. Cases of diphtheria and malaria are re-emerging, and the number of Zika infections is estimated to be “nearly 700,000,” according to a Venezuelan health organization.
All the while, Venezuelan government officials have been using oil revenues to line their own pockets. For decades, the anti-Chavez opposition has sounded the alarm about the billions of dollars stolen by corrupt government officials. Senior government officials, including former cabinet members, have been sanctioned by the U.S. government for being international drug traffickers and providing support to Colombia’s terrorist group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
Government officials have also been found to support members of Hezbollah. A recent report by CNN found that the Venezuelan embassy in Iraq may have provided Venezuelan passports and visas for individuals connected to terrorism.
While public attention is focused on troubles in the Middle East and beyond, we have a ticking time bomb in our own hemisphere. The situation in Venezuela continues to deteriorate and shows no sign of improvement. Venezuela is now the leading country for U.S. asylum requests, ahead of even war-torn countries.
The country’s imminent collapse will have far-reaching implications for the region. In addition to a refugee crisis, there will be a spread of communicable diseases. Moreover, regional criminal organizations such as Colombia’s FARC are sure to exploit the power vacuum. The situation would undermine the United States’ largest foreign aid investment, “Plan Colombia,” valued at more than $10 billion and many U.S. lives.
Recently, U.S. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence met with Lilian Tintori, the wife of political prisoner Leopoldo Lopez. This month marks the third year Lopez has spent as a political prisoner. It also marks the second year of incarceration for former opposition Mayor Antonio Ledezma. Both join more than a hundred others as prisoners of Venezuela’s dictatorship, a higher number than even in Castro’s Cuba.
The Trump administration’s efforts to highlight the human rights abuses and criminality of the Venezuelan government send the right message. It’s imperative that the United States mount a comprehensive strategy on alleviating the humanitarian crisis and getting the country back on track.