LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom

LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom

The situation encountered by Heritage analysts on the ground in Venezuela last week was of a country that has been looted and is falling apart—literally and figuratively. The once thriving nightlife of downtown Caracas is but a distant memory. These days the streets are deserted, surrendered to gangsters and narcotraffickers. People are too fearful of rampant crime to venture out at night, mindful of the nearly 20,000 murders in Venezuela just last year.

There are shortages of basic necessities everywhere. Venezuelans travelling abroad always bring home an extra suitcase full of medicines, foodstuffs, and even toilet paper. Mary O’Grady reported in The Wall Street Journal that “over the past 10 years inflation in food and nonalcoholic beverages is 1,284%.”

Thanks to Chavez’s ridiculously generous (and economically harmful) energy subsidies, in Venezuela you can fill up your car’s gasoline tank for about $0.90—yes, you read that right—90 U.S. pennies will buy a little more than 15 gallons. But Venezuelan families have a very hard time finding basic foods such as milk, eggs, bread, and chicken on store shelves. People resort to hoarding, reminiscent of the bad old days in the USSR.

One Venezuelan colleague told us that he routinely runs red lights while driving at night in Caracas to avoid being targeted by roving gangs of cold-blooded carjackers—he even keeps a taxi sign in his car to confuse the would-be bandits. And, as dangerous as driving is in a city where, after 14 years of Chavismo, life has become cheap, our driver from the airport told us he had been a university-educated professional—head of a government ministry’s public relations department—before Chavez took over. Now over 40, he says he cannot find steady work and that there are thousands like him facing the same situation.

Most observers expect great difficulty for Capriles to overcome the combination of sympathy for Chavez and the formidable, Cuban-designed Chavista machine. Maduro has lately been invoking the memory of “El Comandante” by relating to voters that Chavez has been visiting him in the form of a small bird (“un pajarito”) that urges Maduro to continue the revolution.

We hope that, instead, the majority of Venezuelans will decide that it is Chavismo that is for the birds.

On April 4, we travelled to Caracas to make the case for economic freedom in Venezuela in advance of the election this Sunday between Hugo Chavez’s hand-picked successor, Nicolás Maduro, and opposition candidate Enrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez last October.

We participated in a series of Spanish-language presentations and media interviews with a handful of opposition think tanks, newspapers, radio stations, and a lone television channel (Globovision) that are still permitted to operate in Venezuela.

We also presented the findings about Venezuela in the 2013 Index of Economic Freedom at events organized by CEDICE Libertad and the Venezuelan–American Chamber of Commerce (VENAMCHAM).