Venezuela's fortunes since the death of former President Hugo Chávez in March 2013 have been decidedly poor, and the country, once a beacon for left-wing causes around the world, is now in a state of near economic 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 call Venezuela today 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.
Nicolás Maduro, the current president (and previously Chávez's deputy and anointed successor, who came to the presidency on his predecessor's death in 2013), is continuing 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.
Parliamentary elections in December 2015 will be a significant indicator of the Maduro government's plans. If the opposition gains control of parliament, there's a chance that some kind of change to the Chavista-dominated political scene can be effected. Yet ballot-box stuffing is hardly a new phenomenon in the country and most locals are pessimistic about change coming about through popular vote.
Other indicators are not good, particularly the sentence handed down to opposition leader Leopoldo López, who in September 2015 received a 13-year sentence for inciting violence during anti-government protests in 2014, and who is now in solitary confinement in a Venezuelan prison. Considered by Amnesty International to be prisoner of conscience, López is currently Maduro's biggest problem – he is Venezuela's most popular politician, with approval ratings over 50%.
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$20 a month, corruption or moonlighting often become the only viable ways to earn a living wage.
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 wellbeing has been ignored for too long.