By Joel Brinkley
Venezuelans are hungry.
Food shortages in this oil-rich state are reaching record levels, and many consumers now have to lurk around behind grocery stores, hoping the merchant will open the back door and sell them corn flour, sugar, cooking oil, chicken -- even toilet paper -- for as much as double the state-set price. An average loaf of bread now costs almost $10.
Those high prices are illegal. The socialist state of President Hugo Chavez long ago set price controls for most consumer items. But with inflation exceeding 20 percent -- among the world's highest rates -- mandated prices can't keep up with costs. (The only states with higher inflation right now are Syria, Sudan, Iran and Belarus.)
The problem has become so serious that the government was forced to devalue the state's currency by one-third last week -- a desperate step that will make imports far more expensive.
As all this goes on, Chavez lies in a Cuban hospital bed, trying to recover from cancer surgery. He's been there more than two months. Chavez is among the world's most loquacious megalomaniacs. He would speak to his people for hours, taking over most every radio and television station in the nation. If he were able to speak right now, certainly his people would have heard from him. No question about it.
But Venezuelans have not heard a single word from their leader since he entered the hospital on Dec. 10. Government acolytes have issued statements saying he's getting better. They've also published a couple of written statements said to have come from him, but few believe they are genuine.
Several news stories, quoting unnamed sources, have reported that Chavez is in an induced coma, on a respirator. That cannot be confirmed, but under the circumstances it at least seems logical. We don't even know what form of cancer afflicts him. He and his government have refused to say.
Still, among many Venezuelans there's considerable doubt that Chavez will be able to remain president -- even if he does survive. He missed his own inauguration last month, and many Venezuelans hope his presidency is over. It's no wonder. Since he was elected in 1998, Chavez has destroyed his country. The evidence is open and obvious. And the hyperinflation (as high as 29 percent in recent years) is just the tip of the iceberg.
Venezuela is a wealthy country. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries says it earned $88 billion from oil exports last year, and that's 28 percent of Venezuela's GDP. So why do Venezuelans suffer from such a severe housing shortage that squatters have to take over hundreds of empty or half-constructed buildings? Why, in 2011, did Chavez find himself actually urging his people to begin occupying abandoned warehouses. Speaking in the regal third person, he pronounced: "Chavez will expropriate them and put them at the service of the people."
And why do people suffer from frequent power cuts and prolonged blackouts?
Under Chavez's rule, Venezuela has also become the most lawless state in South America. In Caracas last year, police estimate that, on average, someone was murdered every two hours. Kidnapping is rampant. Early this month, the United Nations lamented "an alarming pattern of violence in Venezuelan prisons," where 560 people died last year, one Venezuelan watchdog group reported.
Some Venezuelans believe corruption is to blame for much of this. After all, Chavez set up a social-infrastructure fund that in recent years has taken in $102 billion, largely from oil income. However, the government declines to say where or how that money is spent.
The answer seems obvious.
As the nation remains locked in limbo, government officials seem to be worrying about another coup. After all, Chavez once staged an unsuccessful military coup and briefly lost power in another coup a few years later. So, last month, Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced that the government would provide $372 million, from somewhere, to finance auto loans for soldiers.
As Maduro put it, "20,000 military families are going to have their personal car with a loan with good terms." I'm sure the scores of people forced to live under the stands at a Caracas racetrack appreciate that.
Chavez may be in an induced coma, but he has already taken care of what will happen to him if he does not survive. Over several years he built a 12-story, $140 million mausoleum for Simon Bolivar, the 19th century revolutionary he admires. Rumors are rife that part of that monument is set aside for Chavez.
Asked about this repeatedly, presidential palace officials refuse to comment.