CARACAS – Venezuela today is undoubtedly much poorer than the country Hugo Chavez left behind on March 5, 2013, when he died after governing for 14 years, but the oil-producing country is also much poorer than when the socialist leader originally took power with the promise of ending the corruption and misery.
The popular “commander” took the reins of government in February 1999 when Venezuela had an inflation rate of 30 percent and a minimum wage of slightly more than $500 a month, amid a radical inequality between rich and poor, which led the charismatic president to promise an end to that gap and to the extreme poverty.
To achieve that goal, Chavez was aided by the soaring price of oil, which brought Venezuela an estimated $1 trillion, and the support of at least two-thirds of the population.
Problems began to arise for the so-called Bolivarian Revolution toward the end of his life, however, and he left his political heir, Nicolas Maduro, a Venezuela that produced scarcely anything but oil, international reserves of some $30 billion and an annualized inflation of 19.5 percent.
Maduro promised to “defend the legacy” and, to a certain extent, kept his word by maintaining the exchange control established in 2003, the social programs, frequent salary increases and an economic policy defying international recommendations.
However, he lacked his predecessor’s popularity while ebbing oil prices did not provide his government the same financial support, two variables that set off a political, social and economic storm that continues to this day.
Thousands of companies have closed their doors here, most of them during the Maduro government, which today is seen by many as an undemocratic regime, yet another deterrent to investment.
Half of Venezuela’s workers make an average of $37 a month (at the official exchange rate, but just $6 at the black market rate), insufficient to deal with the generalized scarcity of food and medicine products, among others, or the inflation, which last year rose 2,616 percent, according to the legislature.
Meanwhile, an estimated 1.6 million Venezuelans have left the country in recent years.