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September 21, 2017

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What's behind Venezuela's slide into chaos

Storm clouds are buffeting the coast of Venezuela, the once-rich South American state which is sliding into economic chaos and combustible political confrontation.

Mass demonstrations have rocked the capital Caracas. As democratic opposition protesters confront the riot police and paramilitary forces of the entrenched socialist dictatorship, the country of 31 million slips deeper into turmoil.

It did not have to be this way.

Once a fairly prosperous and middle class country, Venezuela challenged the paradigm of much of Latin America in the post-war period having a working democracy which was not jolted by periodic military coups d'etat. Nor was this the stereotypical "banana republic." Anything but.

Yet the rise of the petroleum fueled and politically high-octane presidency of Colonel Hugo Chavez starting in 1999 changed the political equation. A dozen years of left wing politics, nationalizations and increasing authoritarianism of the Bolivarian Revolution put Chavez's Venezuela near the pinnacle of progressive Latin American regimes. President Chavez presented himself as a buffoonish populist and regular critic of the U.S. Having witnessed his antics during his U.N. visits, one could be assured of colorful rhetoric and a peculiar charm fitting of a Latin despot.

In a sense Venezuela's oil boom was both a blessing and a curse. In the beginning, petrodollars fueled the state and lavish social welfare programs for his United Socialist Party. Later petrodollars provided a massive political slush fund to support political solidarity with Castro's Cuba, and a host of other Marxist states looking for the flow of Peso diplomacy. The drop in global oil prices and the cost of socialist mismanagement by Hugo Chavez turned a once prosperous state into an economic basket case.

When Chavez died of cancer in 2013, his mantle fell to Vice President Nicolas Maduro, a less talented demagogue, who's been swamped by the deluge of mismanagement, corruption, and hyper inflation.

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