Venezuela is grinding to a halt amid chaos

Miami Herald Editorial Board

Venezuelans flocked to petition sites in Venezuela last week to initiate a recall referendum against President Nicolás Maduro.
Venezuelans flocked to petition sites in Venezuela last week to initiate a recall referendum against President Nicolás Maduro. AP

May 1 is considered International Workers’ Day in many countries, especially those with a leftist orientation. This year, the people of Venezuela would gladly skip the celebration and settle for something to eat.

President Nicolás Maduro’s failing regime reached a new low last week when he ordered public-sector workers to adopt a two-day work week as a way to save money on electricity in government offices. The government blames power shortages on falling water levels at hydroelectric dams. There’s some truth in that, but the failure to anticipate this cyclical weather pattern and compensate for it represents a gross failure of management.

How can a nation with the world’s largest oil reserves run out of energy? The answer is that Mr. Maduro and his late mentor and predecessor in office, Hugo Chávez, ran the country into the ground. They failed to conduct necessary maintenance on the vast apparatus of the state-owned oil company because they were too busy spreading money around the world to buy political influence. And they turned the national oil company, PDVSA, into a large-scale sinecure for political hacks.

They fired the professionals who made the company an envied model of efficiency and production and replaced them with members of the ruling party whose political loyalty was deemed more important than technical know-how. The government has refused to use crude to generate electricity, but neither has it built plants using other technologies.

The result is today’s crisis. On Wednesday, Venezuela’s Paraguana oil refining complex was reported to be operating around half capacity, producing around 360,000 barrels per day instead of 645,000.

In yet another sign of the rapidly spreading crisis last week, the head of the opposition-led National Assembly said lawmakers are the latest victims of the crisis. “There’s no money to pay salaries this month” for legislators or staff, said National Assembly speaker Henry Ramos Allup.

For Mr. Maduro and his cohorts, it’s panic time. Declaring an absurdly brief, two-day work week is an abject admission of failure. It will do little to buy the government breathing room.

Government opponents were outraged by the latest developments. Sporadic looting and protests broke out on Wednesday after the government’s announcement. Sensing genuine public outrage, the National Electoral Council finally approved the paperwork necessary to begin collecting signatures for a recall election to oust Mr. Maduro — almost two months after the opposition requested it.

This could be a way out of Venezuela’s crisis. Venezuelans flocked to petition sites to sign up. But only the gullible can believe that the government would cave in so easily. Erecting obstacles to prolong the recall process until next year would mean that the country’s vice president would take over until 2019 if the recall is successful.

And successful it no doubt would be. Venezuelans are fed up. One respected polling firm found last week that 86 percent of Venezuelans view the country’s situation negatively, with 69.7 percent saying the scarcity of consumer goods is the main problem.

It’s late in the game. The Organization of American States and other international agencies that advocate democracy must insist that the recall election be held without undue delay. It’s Venezuela’s last chance to avoid a disaster.