ONE MORNING last month Luis Manuel Cómbita was trying to sell large green mangoes in a pedestrianised street in the historic heart of Bogotá, Colombia’s capital. He was stopped by a policeman because he lacked a permit. Mr Cómbita, aged 24, rake-thin and with a peeling fake leather jacket, said he had arrived from his home town of Mérida in Venezuela two weeks before. “There’s no future in Venezuela,” he declared. On his wages as a building worker “you go a day and half a week without eating.”
Mr Cómbita is one of at least 2.5m Venezuelans who have emigrated since 2014 (out of 32m). Some put the diaspora at over 5m. There is no sign of the exodus ending. What began as a political confrontation under Hugo Chávez, an authoritarian army officer first elected to the presidency 20 years ago this month, has under his chosen heir, Nicolás Maduro, mutated into a national collapse.
Venezuela’s economy has shrunk by half since 2014—a feat few others have achieved in peacetime. Hyperinflation began in October 2017: over the 12 months to November, prices have risen by 1,299,744%, says the finance committee of the opposition-controlled National Assembly. (The government no longer publishes figures.)
What remains of Venezuela’s private sector is facing destruction, says a boss. The government has loosened some of the ruinous price and exchange controls it long relied on. Now the main problem for business is the plunge in demand as wages are shredded by inflation. Companies are closing down. The latest to do so this week was Goodyear’s Venezuelan tyre factory, which was operating at 10% of capacity.
Venezuela’s collapse is not the result of low oil prices, still less of sanctions imposed by the United States. Other oil producers have coped with low prices, and the sanctions mainly affect individual leaders of the regime. Venezuela has been mismanaged and looted by its rulers. Chávez squandered an oil boom, borrowed recklessly and shackled the private sector. Venezuela is now the world’s most indebted country. Its foreign obligations equal five times its exports, according to Ricardo Hausmann, a Venezuelan economist at Harvard University. Even China and Russia seem reluctant to lend more to it.
Normally all this would mean the government’s downfall. Voters do not like being robbed or impoverished, and outsiders are unlikely to bail out Venezuela while the same incompetent thugs remain in charge. However, Mr Maduro has taken precautions to avoid being ejected. The main opposition parties are banned, their leaders in jail, in exile or intimidated. Torture of prisoners is common. The National Assembly has been reduced to an impotent NGO. In municipal elections on December 9th, only 27% of voters were officially said to have turned out. The Cuban spies who protect the regime have disrupted several coup plots this year. Dozens of military officers are in jail.
Venezuela now resembles Cuba in other ways, too. Those with access to dollars can shop freely; the majority rely on state food rations, distributed through a regime loyalty card. The opposition is starting to look like Cuba’s disrupted and divided dissident groups. The difference is that “our struggle is against a failed and criminal state,” notes Julio Borges, an exiled opposition leader. Connected crooks control petrol and cocaine smuggling, and gold mining.
Outsiders have failed to find a way to restore democracy in Venezuela. President Donald Trump has muttered about launching a military invasion, but after Iraq that is highly unlikely. On January 10th Mr Maduro will start a second six-year term following a rigged presidential election in May. Since his regime will lose its last speck of legitimacy on that date, many governments say they will cut or downgrade diplomatic ties. Mr Borges urges them to apply more individual sanctions against the regime’s leaders. Some may. Latin American diplomats are withering about what they see as the naivety of Spain’s new Socialist government, which is calling for yet more talks. Unless put under much greater pressure, everything suggests that Mr Maduro would use these, as he has before, to stall and divide the opposition.
Economists like to say that if something is unsustainable, it will eventually stop. Venezuela suggests that the unsustainable can endure for a very long time. Mr Maduro’s well-armed regime does not care whether Venezuelans stay or go, consent or no, thrive or starve, and it has survived a national economic collapse. It is a grim lesson for the world.