A tyrant becomes most dangerous when he reaches the end of his rope. This is where Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro now finds himself. On Monday, he placed Venezuela under a "State of Exception and Economic Emergency" due to "international and national threats against our fatherland." Specifically, he warned of a coup against himself orchestrated by the United States government.
On Tuesday, a state-funded news service reported his threat to dissolve the national legislature, which the opposition party won in a landslide election last December. "The National Assembly has lost political validity," Maduro told reporters. "It's a matter of time before it disappears."
But Maduro is probably beyond saving. At this point, only 15 percent of his fellow citizens approve of his government. Political protests roil the streets, and normally law-abiding citizens have resorted to looting to get their hands on basic necessities. The government has responded with force.
Venezuela's hospitals lack not only medicine but even soap, and cannot keep patients — especially at-risk infants — alive amid constant blackouts. Infant mortality rose by a hundredfold in 2015 from its 2012 levels, and five times as many women now die in childbirth. When his political opponents passed a law allowing foreign aid to prop up Venezuela's hospital system, Maduro blocked it, calling Venezuela's healthcare system the envy of the world.
Government agencies are now open only two days a week, as a cost-saving measure. The economy is in collapse, in the midst of its second straight year of double-digit contraction. Everyday items, including food, have long been difficult to buy in Venezuela, but they are now becoming impossible to find. Government-imposed price controls, combined with an astounding 700 percent inflation rate, have made toilet paper so scarce that it's more valuable by the square inch than the Venezuelan currency one must use to buy it. (To be sure, it still flushes better).
Venezuela always relied heavily on oil exports, and lower oil prices since 2014 have made the current crisis more acute. But the shortages, the street violence and the political discontent had already begun back when oil prices were still high.
The clearest sign that things will get worse before they get better is Maduro's desperate bid to blame anyone else within reach and keep power by lashing out in ways that can only exacerbate the problem. It must be the "fascists" of the opposition! It must be the American imperialists! It must be illegal Colombian immigrants! It must be the capitalists!
Maduro has now threatened to seize the many Venezuelan factories that have idled and arrest their owners for stopping work to sabotage the economy. This comes straight from the playbook of all other failed socialist governments before him.
But what could Maduro do with the factories if he seized them? They are idle because of his misrule. As the nation's largest brewery they cannot get their hands on the materials they need to produce anything. Even in the rare cases where raw materials are available for purchase, they cannot buy them with worthless Venezuelan currency.
In recent years, polls have shown that younger Americans have become less wary of socialism. Many of them now "feel the Bern" in the current presidential elections. They were still children, or not even born yet, when the Berlin Wall fell. They have had few opportunities to see socialism in action because (for good reasons) there have been few new experiments with it in the time since.
They need to be told the full story of Venezuela, so that they can see how even a democratically elected socialist regime can bring a once-prosperous country to its knees. The unbending Maduro is giving them a unique chance to see it all play out in real time.