On Jan. 24, former major league baseball player Marcos Carvajal died of pneumonia. He was only 33. The common respiratory infection should not have killed him.
But Carvajal was in Venezuela, a country where more than three-quarters of all public hospitals lack basic medicines, and common ailments have become death sentences.
Venezuela's health care system is supposed to be one of Hugo Chavez's greatest legacies. But severe shortages of medicines and medical supplies have decimated public health care.
A recent New York Times expose of Venezuela's mental health facilities found a system in chaos, with patients routinely going without medication, food, hygienic products and even electricity.
The humanitarian crisis can only worsen as Venezuela's economy continues to crumble. It already suffers the world's highest inflation rate, and the International Monetary Fund projects it will skyrocket to 13,000 percent by year's end. IMF also estimates the economy will contract 15 percent during that period.
Food is largely unavailable and unaffordable for many. Long lines into near-empty supermarkets are common, as are stories of the Venezuelan military trafficking food in a starving nation. The daily Basic Food Basket now costs the equivalent of three daily minimum wages.
Oil, Venezuela's prime source of revenue, can no longer salvage the economy. A crumbling infrastructure and the replacement of industry professionals with party loyalists has led oil production levels to plummet from more than 3 million of barrels per day in the late 1990s to only 1.8 million last year.
Public safety is fairing just as poorly. Order breaks down in a dying economy. Venezuela is now Latin America's most homicidal nation. Last year, 89 of every 100,000 Venezuelans were murdered – a rate 20 times that of the U.S. The capital city, Caracas, registered 130 murders per 100,000 people.
Rather than keep people safe, Venezuelan police and national guardsmen have become political enforcers used by President Nicolas Maduro to squash dissent. Anti-government protests were common last year, with hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans demonstrating throughout the country. In response, government security forces killed 163 protestors and imprisoned thousands.
Finding a solution within the current political system is near impossible. Maduro and his party loyalists control virtually all levers of power. The July 2017 elections were fraudulent to the core.
All 545 candidates "elected" to the National Constituent Assembly – including reputed drug cartel leader Diosdado Cabello – were handpicked members of the ruling Socialist Party. Recently announced snap presidential elections will be just as corrupt and unlawful.
Cabello is not the only narco-affiliated government official in power. Last year the U.S. Treasury Department fingered Vice President Tareck El Aissamid as a Specially Designated Narcotics Trafficker, pursuant to the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act. Over $500 million in illicit assets amassed by El Aissamid and his business partner were seized in the U.S.
Last December, a U.S. court sentenced two nephews of Venezuela's first lady to 18 years in prison for attempting to sell 1,700 pounds of cocaine to undercover DEA agents. Numerous others in the ruling party orbit have also been sanctioned for similar reasons. Venezuela's ruling party has essentially turned the country into a narco-trafficking hub for regional cartels.
There is no question that Venezuela's revolution has failed its people. The big question is: What can the international community do to hasten a return to democracy?
In the past year, the U.S. and various Latin American countries have ramped up pressure on the regime. The U.S. has sanctioned more than 50 corrupt government officials and barred Venezuela from selling its oil debt in the U.S.
These actions have increased the strain on Maduro and his cronies, but more must be done. The people of Venezuela are suffering dreadfully from the socialist thugs in power.
This piece originally appeared in The Sacramento Bee