Since the death of former president Hugo Chávez in March 2013, Venezuela's fortunes have been decidedly poor, and the country, once a beacon for left-wing causes around the world, is now in a state of near collapse. Endemic corruption, poor governance, the world's highest inflation rate, spiraling crime levels and huge lines outside supermarkets and pharmacies at any time of day are the defining features of contemporary life here. Once one of South America's wealthiest and safest countries, it's no exaggeration to today call Venezuela one of the continent's poorest and most dangerous places. Most Venezuelans simply shake their head when the inevitable discussion about politics starts: despair tempered by the trademark Venezuelan dry humor seems to be a common reaction to the topic.
The current president is Nicolás Maduro, previously Chávez's deputy and anointed successor, who came to the presidency on his predecessor's death in 2013. He has continued most of Chávez's policies, but without any of Hugo's trademark charisma, which was always so vital to his popularity and appeal.
Indeed, Maduro has done little to define himself politically, save arresting and imprisoning several of his political enemies and starting a diplomatic spat with Colombia that dramatically backfired in 2015, sparking some in South America to publicly question his fitness for office. His steak-and-cigar dinner with celebrity chef Salt Bae in Turkey in 2018 led to more questions and outright indignation. The year before he suggested that Venezuelans raise and eat more rabbit to combat food shortages. 'Plan Conejo' (Rabbit Plan) distributed baby rabbits to poor neighborhoods, but many adopted them as pets.
In September 2015 opposition leader Leopoldo López received a 13-year sentence for inciting violence during anti-government protests in 2014. He was first sent to prison but since 2017 has been mostly under house arrest.
Maduro was re-elected to a new six-year term in early 2018, defeating former governor Henri Falcon, but the election was widely decried as fraudulent within and without the country. Officials reported total voting at 46% while opposition said as few as one-third of voters bothered to cast their ballots.
On the ground life has changed enormously in recent years for the majority of Venezuelans. Many people simply earn money by lining up all day for food and other basic goods such as toilet paper at state stores, which they resell on the black market for huge markups. You will see these so called bachacos (ants) in enormous lines all over the country – today the country is divided into those who line up and those who pay others to line up for them. With state salaries now worth barely US$30 a month (estimated as of October 2018 but subject to great fluctuation), corruption or moonlighting often become the only viable ways to earn a living wage.
Even the most basic of medical services are difficult to come by as basic medicines and supplies are in a shortage and 20% of the doctors have left the country in the past five years. Venezuela also has one of the highest violent crime rates globally, with Caracas named the world's most violent city by some statisticians.
Maduro's government introduced a new currency – the 'bolivar sovereign' – in August 2018 to battle 32,000% inflation, basically lopping five zeros off the old bolivar fuerte. The two competing currencies, however, mainly caused confusion. The standard wage was also raised 6000%.
In September 2018, to ratchet up the pressure on Venezuela's government, the US imposed sanctions on Nicolas Maduro's wife and several other members of his political inner circle, seizing their assets in the US and preventing them from doing business there.
Five South American nations, along with Canada, called for an investigation into the Maduro government's crimes against humanity at the United Nations in September 2018. The alleged suicide of opposition politician Fernando Alban while in custody in October 2018 cast a wider shadow on the government, with UN calls for a full investigation.
Sadly, unless political change comes via the ballot box or voluntarily from the Maduro government, it looks like it will sooner or later come from the increasingly angry and restive population, who feel their well-being has been ignored for too long.