Venezuela's descent into chaos

The economy is collapsing. Food is scarce. Violent protests rage in the streets. Is Venezuela headed for a rebellion?

An anti-government protester holds a Venezuelan flag.
(Image credit: AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

The economy is collapsing. Food is scarce. Violent protests rage in the streets. Is Venezuela headed for a rebellion? Here's everything you need to know:

What is daily life like?

It's become a Darwinian struggle for survival. Although Venezuela has more proven oil reserves than Saudi Arabia and was once one of Latin America's wealthiest countries, it is now enduring the world's deepest recession. The economy has shrunk by nearly a third since 2013, when leftist President Nicolás Maduro took over from his mentor, Hugo Chávez. Food imports have plummeted 70 percent. Supermarket shelves are often empty, and skyrocketing inflation — now about 800 percent — means that what little food is available is too expensive for many Venezuelans. Throngs wait outside grocery stores for delivery trucks, not knowing whether there will be rice available or just cat food. Fights have broken out in lines; people have been robbed and murdered. "These days, you have to put the line above everything," says pharmacist Haide Mendoza, who saw robbers shoot a man queuing at his drugstore, while others did nothing. "You make sure you get what you need, and you don't feel sorry for anyone."

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Are people going hungry?

Nearly 75 percent of the population lost an average of 19 pounds in the past year because of what locals call the "Maduro diet." Across the country, people pick through trash heaps looking for edible scraps to feed to their children. "To eat," 11-year-old Sergio Jesus Sorjas told The Wall Street Journal, "I sometimes go to the butcher and I say, 'Sir, do you have any bones you can give me?'" Even farmers are short of food: Unable to buy enough seeds, fertilizer, or livestock feed, they've seen much smaller yields than is normal. Often, desperate people steal fruits and vegetables from the fields before they're ripe. In some areas, 20 percent of children under age 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition, and half of those are at risk of dying. The number of women dying in childbirth increased 65 percent last year, and infant mortality shot up 30 percent — partly because mothers are undernourished and partly because the health-care system has broken down.

What's happening in health care?

Hospitals have run out of most medicines and supplies, and patients are expected to bring their own needles, sterile gauze pads, and antibiotics. The lack of anti-biotics has caused infection rates to soar, and patients have lost limbs needlessly. Some hospitals have running water for less than an hour a day. "The rooms are fetid and sometimes the patients can't shower," a nurse at a Caracas mental health facility told "People wet themselves and we've no diapers." Meanwhile, a malaria outbreak has sickened nearly 250,000 people.

How did things get this bad?

It started with former President Chávez's socialist Bolivarian Revolution. He funded programs for the poor using the nation's soaring oil revenues — a barrel of crude went from $10 when he took office in 1999 to over $100 when he died of cancer in 2013. Chávez also imposed price controls on a list of consumer products, from rice to toilet paper, and nationalized key industries, seizing oil facilities, factories, and farms owned by wealthy Venezuelans and multinationals. Productivity plunged, foreign investment dried up, and when oil prices nose-dived in 2014, the economy collapsed. Hyperinflation has since made the currency all but worthless, and a monthly pension now provides about $10 a month. The crime rate has soared: The country had 92 murders per 100,000 inhabitants last year. In comparison, the U.S. had about five homicides per 100,000 people. Angered by the chaos and growing deprivation, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have begun staging daily protests demanding new elections to replace Maduro.

How has Maduro responded?

By doing whatever it takes to cling to power. He has jailed opponents and shut down the free press. The opposition won a huge majority in the 2015 National Assembly elections, but the Maduro-packed Supreme Court has prevented it from exerting much power. In March, the court issued a ruling all but abolishing the legislature, only to back down a few days later after massive demonstrations and an international outcry. This month, Maduro called for a "citizens' assembly" to write a new constitution — half of its 500 delegates will be picked from workers groups loyal to the ruling Socialist Party, and half will be elected in local contests that could be skewed by the pro-Maduro electoral college. "You wanted your elections," the president sneered. "Here are your elections." Meanwhile, he has turned out the National Guard to combat the protesters with tear gas, rubber bullets, and truncheons. At least 40 people have been killed in clashes between security forces and demonstrators, who have attacked police with rocks and Molotov cocktails.

Could a civil war break out?

Maduro seems to think so. Worried about a violent uprising, the president is expanding the pro-government armed militia from 100,000 to 500,000 members. At the moment, the threat of a coup is limited because the military's top brass is still with Maduro, who has kept them close: Current or former army officers occupy a third of the cabinet positions, and the army runs key state businesses. But rank-and-file soldiers are suffering like ordinary Venezuelans, and they could turn on the president. "Closing political avenues to elections means opening the door to violence," says retired Maj. Gen. Miguel Rodríguez Torres, Maduro's former interior minister. "They are heading toward anarchy on the streets."

A 'narco dictatorship'

The economy may be collapsing, but one business is still booming in Venezuela: the cocaine trade. Under pressure in their homeland, many Colombian drug traffickers have moved their operations to neighboring Venezuela over the past decade, where they've found a government and a military happy to welcome them — in return for a slice of the profits. The U.S. State Department says more than half of the cocaine produced in Colombia now passes through Venezuela on its way to Mexico, the U.S., and Europe. Two nephews of President Maduro, who were arrested in Haiti in 2015 by the DEA, were found guilty last year of trying to ship nearly 1,800 pounds of cocaine to the U.S. Maduro's vice president, Tareck El Aissami, was hit with U.S. sanctions earlier this year after the Treasury department declared that he had "a significant role in international narcotics trafficking." The nation, says Venezuelan Bishop Cástor Oswaldo Azuaje Pérez, is being run by "a civilian-military narco-dictatorship."

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