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Ishaan Tharoor: Venezuela's Maduro hollows out his nation

| Thursday, March 8, 2018, 8:55 p.m.
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro gestures to supporters during a ceremony formalizing his candidacy for the upcoming presidential election at the National Electoral Council in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018. Officials loyal to Maduro recently approved delahying an early presidential election from April 22 to late May. Scheduling that election has drawn broad condemnation from the United States and several of Venezuela's Latin American neighbors, who said conditions for a fair vote are lacking. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro gestures to supporters during a ceremony formalizing his candidacy for the upcoming presidential election at the National Electoral Council in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018. Officials loyal to Maduro recently approved delahying an early presidential election from April 22 to late May. Scheduling that election has drawn broad condemnation from the United States and several of Venezuela's Latin American neighbors, who said conditions for a fair vote are lacking. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

The situation in Venezuela is not improving: Spiraling and overlapping economic crises (largely of the government's own making); stores emptied of food, medicine and other basics; malnutrition and poverty; and a new refugee crisis in the Western Hemisphere.

Months of mass protests last summer were ultimately subdued by President Nicolás Maduro's increasingly authoritarian government, which replaced Venezuela's opposition-filled Congress with a new Constituent Assembly stacked with Maduro's loyalists. The body deployed sweeping powers to cow dissent and paved the way for new elections, including a snap presidential vote, to be held in April, now delayed until late May. All those moves have been rejected by most of the international community, which views any election in the current climate of intimidation as a fraudulent farce.

Maduro, however, is undeterred, and his opponents remain perpetually divided. While opposition parties are boycotting the elections, one former Venezuelan state governor, Henri Falcon, announced his presidential candidacy, giving Maduro a somewhat credible challenger. Despite the opposition spending months in rounds of internationally mediated talks with Maduro's government, there's no political breakthrough in sight.

My Washington Post colleagues' recent reporting offers a snapshot of the country's tragic implosion: Because of a lack of contraceptives and drugs, HIV patients are flooding hospitals and AIDS-related deaths have surged; destitute parents, starved and unable to cope, are abandoning their children at orphanages; mismanagement and graft have turned one of the world's most oil-rich countries into a gasoline importer whose economy is at the edge of an abyss.

There are lurid tales of pumas and lions wasting away in zoos and mothers embarking on harrowing cross-border trips to find medicine for their children.

As many as 4 million Venezuelans — more than 10 percent of the population — have already left the country, which could create problems beyond Venezuela's borders.

“The flood of people is already overwhelming border economies, schools, health systems and basic shelter in Colombia, Brazil and even Ecuador,” wrote Shannon O'Neil of the Council on Foreign Relations. “Venezuela's Caribbean neighbors, many with weak institutions and still recovering from last year's hurricanes, are ill-equipped to meet such new challenges. And those fleeing are vulnerable to human trafficking and extortion, providing fodder for transnational drug and criminal organizations.”

While President Donald Trump has spoken angrily about Maduro's excesses and slapped new penalties on the Venezuelan regime, the United States has not taken the lead in working to mitigate a spiraling humanitarian disaster. Nor can the average Venezuelan take much comfort in the Trump administration's broader anti-immigrant platform.

Maduro and his allies continue to point the finger at the “imperialist” meddling of outside powers (read: the United States) while fanning the flames of nationalist populism.

If Venezuela's economic predicament continues, a social eruption is inevitable. “Our work conditions have become inhumane,” a state oil worker told my colleagues, describing the collapse of the industry. “If we continue like this one more year, we will die.”

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post.

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