Public health in Venezuela is, in fact, getting rapidly worse. In 1961, Venezuela was the first country declared free of malaria. Now its robust malaria-prevention program has collapsed, and there are more than a hundred thousand cases of malaria yearly. Other diseases and ailments long vanquished have also returned—malnutrition, diphtheria, plague. The government releases few statistics, but it is estimated that one out of every three patients admitted to a public hospital today dies there. State mental hospitals, lacking both food and medications, have been reduced to putting emaciated, untreated patients out on the streets.
The regular entrances to the hospital were all manned by uniformed personnel with rifles—National Guard, mostly, but also police, both local and national, and other, less identifiable militia. Hospitals in Caracas were even more tightly secured. Why were hospitals so heavily guarded? Nobody threatened to invade them. The guards had orders, it was said, to keep out journalists. Exposés had embarrassed the government.
Most of the elevators were out of order, so we took the stairs. At night, the medical student said, these stairwells were dangerous—unlit and prowled by muggers. But how could muggers get past the guards? “They work together,” he said. “They share.” He took me down a grimy corridor to a heavy door, which he cracked open. Beyond it, I could see a gleaming, brightly lit hallway with freshly painted light-blue walls and a polished white tile floor. “This is the area they show visitors,” he whispered. He peered at me to make sure I understood. Got it: Potemkin General. We hurried away.
Doctors had been fired for talking to reporters, even for simply filing complaints about hospital conditions. The government did not want to know. There were private clinics to which high officials and Venezuelans with dollars took themselves and their families. Those who could went abroad.
A dictatorship but without law and order
Hugo Chávez was the country’s President from 1999 until his death, in 2013. For decades, the country had been ruled by two centrist parties that took turns winning elections but were increasingly out of touch with voters. A move to impose fiscal austerity was rejected, in 1989, with a mass revolt and countrywide looting—a paroxysm known as the Caracazo—which was put down by the Army at a cost of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives. Chávez was an Army lieutenant colonel, from a humble background—his parents were village schoolteachers. He crashed the national stage in 1992, by leading a military-coup attempt. The coup failed, and Chávez went to jail, but his televised declarations of noble intent caught the imaginations of many Venezuelans. He offered a charismatic alternative to the corrupt, sclerotic status quo. After his release, he headed a small leftist party and easily won the Presidency.
He soon rewrote the constitution, concentrating power in the executive. Like his hero, Simón Bolívar, the Venezuelan leader who drove the Spanish out of South America, he had regional ambitions. He used Venezuela’s oil wealth, which is vast, to help cement a close alliance with Cuba and then with a number of other neighbors in South America, Central America, and the Caribbean, creating a strategic and economic bloc to counter the traditional hegemony of the United States.
It’s understandable that angry Venezuelans talk about “the dictatorship.” Their rights are under siege. But real dictatorships impose order. Hugo Chávez worshipped at the feet of Fidel, who would not tolerate one-tenth of the disorder, street crime, and gun violence that plague Venezuela. To be fair, crime was already rampant when Chávez came to power, and people hoped that, as a military man, he would be able to rein in the malandros. But Chávez showed little interest in law enforcement. He even objected to the idea of a professional police force. That would be a “police of the bourgeois state.” Crime was a result of poverty, inequality, and capitalism. Today, researchers estimate that the annual number of homicides is as high as ninety per hundred thousand people. The government says it is only fifty-eight per hundred thousand. Whatever. In 1984, the number was between eight and ten.
Military control supply chain and run drugs and run kleptocracy
In 2008, when the global financial crisis battered the oil price, Venezuela got a foretaste of the current crisis. The Army was put in charge of food distribution. Soldiers are not trained to understand the global supply chain. Supermarkets emptied, people went hungry, and food ended up on the black market. Later, a hundred thousand tons of food was found rotting in warehouses at the ports. Today, there is a brigadier general in charge of cooking oil; another is assigned to laundry soap, body soap, shampoo, toothpaste, and deodorant.
Over the years, senior officers discovered that import-export was a lucrative field. Chávez and his military had a warm relationship with the main guerrilla army in neighboring Colombia, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (farc), which was involved in narco-trafficking. Venezuela had long been a main transshipment route for cocaine going north. Venezuelan generals ran the Cartel of the Suns, referring to a military insignia. Chávez and Maduro came to preside over a kleptocracy. State contracts were awarded without competitive bidding to companies connected to the leadership. Huge amounts of money have simply disappeared.
Few airlines fly to Caracas today. Paying bills owed to foreign air carriers is not a government priority.
30 million population but about 2 million have left the country
At the Caracas airport, unwary travellers are robbed, and worse, by taxi-drivers. The sensation of being monitored—by suspicious officialdom, by scammers, by predators—is thick in the airport. But a mood of grief is thicker still. People sob in check-in lines, on the way to security. Parents watch grown children shuffle toward flights to afuera—the outside, the world beyond Venezuela—as if they might never see them again. It’s a mass emigration: perhaps two million already gone, many of them young. They go to Spain, Colombia, Panama, the United States, the Dominican Republic, Argentina, Chile, Mexico—wherever their passports will take them.
In Caracas, “For Sale” signs (“Se Vende”) on houses and shops are common. But the signs often lack basic contact information. That’s because, I was told, it’s dangerous to advertise your phone number. Criminals, knowing that you own property, may call with extortion demands and kidnapping threats. Better to let potential buyers ask around the neighborhood, where their faces can be seen.