May 16, 2010:
Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez's mismanagement of the economy, and resulting inflation and unemployment, has created a growing opposition. The biggest complaints have to do with shortages of basic consumer goods, and the resulting inflation as people bid for the scant supplies of food, clothing and other basics. The annual inflation rate is now over 30 percent. Chavez, caught up in his own radical socialist rhetoric, refuses to admit to any error, and blames a growing list of foreign enemies for the problems. Chavez has taken control of more of the economy, which only makes the problems worse. This year, Venezuela will be the only South American country to see its economy contract. This is likely to get worse, as Chavez increases his controls on foreign currency, banking and product distribution, it becomes impossible for a growing number of businesses to stay in business.
Chavez has no clue about how the economy really works, but being a military man, he understands how persuasive pointing guns at people can be. So he encourages loyalists to join the workers militia. This is a pro-government (well, pro-Chavez) organization that relies on volunteers, and is armed with Russian weapons bought by the government just for this purpose. The militia already has 150,000 members, and the government wants more. There are currently 2.3 million government employees in Venezuela, and most of those hired since Chavez took power were selected in part for their loyalty to Chavez. The number of government employees (now 20 percent of the work force) has gone up 70 percent since Chavez took over. The Venezuelan military has 130,000 personnel, but Chavez is mostly concerned with the growing number of civilians who oppose his rule. Thus volunteers for the militia are not accepted until their loyalty to Chavez is assured. Not everyone qualifies.
Many people working for the oil industry did not qualify, and have been dismissed in great numbers over the past eight years. This included most of the more competent oil workers. So the oil industry, the biggest single source of government income, has fallen apart. Recently, a huge offshore natural gas drilling platform suffered a bad case of poor maintenance and operator error. It collapsed and sank. This was very costly, and embarrassing, although the state controlled media has played it down, and security forces are keeping foreign reporters from the 95 people rescued from the platform, and anyone in the national oil company, the news is getting around Venezuela.
Chavez is determined to hang onto power, no matter what, and his armed militia is a key weapon. Most Venezuelans have lost faith in Chavez, but these lost souls can still be persuaded by a gun in the face.