A devastating superbug also has been plaguing Venezuela. But the reality of its effects will only be fully understood by its people in the aftermath of Hugo Chavez's death as a new president faces the massive economic and social ills the populist president leaves behind.
The socialism Chavez championed during 14 years of rule has proven to be a superbug of devastation. Unfortunately, many of the best Venezuelan minds needed to deal with these problems have left the country.
When he took office in 1999, Chavez promised change. He promised to redistribute Venezuela's oil-generated wealth. He promised to fix corruption. He promised to give power to the people. He promised to destroy a government foundation built on capitalism, cutting economic and political ties to the United States.
Today, Venezuela suffers one of the world's highest murder rates, double-digit inflation, water and food shortages, a serious downturn in foreign investment, rampant corruption, etc.
Ironically, the only recent economic upturn experienced was in April 2012 after a journalist claimed Chavez was dead. Stock values skyrocketed, only to fall when the claim was found to be untrue.
As a young army officer, Chavez wanted to abolish the country's two-party political system. In 1992, he tried stealing power by leading a failed coup. Imprisoned for two years, he came to realize to steal power, he had to do it legally, working within the country's democratic framework.
Elected in a 1999 landslide, "the man who would be king" immediately sought to become one, chipping away at the country's constitution, vesting himself with monarchial powers.
Appealing to the uneducated poor, using state assets to buy their votes, curtailing criticism by limiting free speech and taking control of the air waves, either arresting opposition members or running them out of the country, Chavez was able to get a number of resolutions passed that effectively put him and his cronies in control of all three government branches.
To gain control over the country's economy, Chavez began nationalizing foreign-owned industries. While gaining popularity with Venezuela's poor, it discouraged foreign investment, further contributing to a downward spiraling economy. Adding to it was the subsequent exodus of Venezuelan businessmen to more favorable economic environments.
Chavez's foreign policy was based on Venezuela's oil, using it to bind together a group of anti-U.S. dictators or dictator wannabes. To his hero Cuba's Fidel Castro, he provided 100,000 barrels a day at subsidized rates. The irony of Cuba's own failed socialist program was lost on Venezuelans who continued to support Chavez's socialist policies. Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador also benefitted from Chavez's oil largess -- all at his people's expense.
To his credit, Chavez contributed to one oil company's economic boom. In 2002, after Venezuelan state oil workers protested against him, Chavez fired 20,000 executives, engineers, geologists and workers. Those 20,000 were eventually replaced by 100,000 inexperienced Chavez supporters. With a fivefold increase on the payroll and oil industry knowledge in short supply, production in Venezuela plunged. Only increased oil prices helped deaden the full financial sting that resulted.
Meanwhile, fired Venezuelan oil workers found an open job market next door in Colombia, triggering that state oil company's subsequent boom.
Much like Egyptian President Abdel Nasser envisioned himself leading an alliance of unified Arab states during the mid-20th century, Chavez envisioned himself atop a Latin American alliance. While both failed (although Chavez made headway), they succeeded in promoting anti-U.S. sentiment. Chavez repeatedly claimed all of Latin America's problems were due to the United States.
Chavez also embraced Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, providing his terrorist group Hezbollah, now operating a base there, access. Embracing Iran meant criticizing Israel, so Chavez suddenly became a Palestinian supporter. He claimed their treatment by Israel was evidence of a "new Holocaust." (Since Ahmadinejad denies the Holocaust occurred, apparently Chavez's "new" reference escaped Ahmadinejad's scrutiny.)
Chavez was a demagogue who sought to establish himself as the highest authority. While healthy, he criticized the Catholic Church, calling officials "devils in vestments."
Yet later, fighting a losing battle against cancer, he tearfully pleaded for life at a pre-Easter church service.
Reportedly, Chavez's last words were: "I don't want to die. Please don't let me die." Supporters claimed it was out of love for country. The truth is, it was out of love for power.
(Continuing its anti-American policy, the interim government suggested Chavez's cancer was the result of U.S. foul play.)
Socialism is a "nightmare bacteria" that has taken a heavy economic and social toll in both Cuba and Venezuela. The Cubans understand this; soon, so too will the Venezuelans.
Like the cancer that ravaged Chavez, socialism has ravaged Venezuela. Hopefully, the prognosis for Venezuela will prove more optimistic than it did for Chavez. But major surgery by a new leader vested with the best interests of the Venezuelan people in mind will be required to heal the patient.
The man who would be king has left the kingdom in ruins.
(James G. Zumwalt, a retired U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant colonel and infantry officer, served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Persian Gulf war. He is the author of "Bare Feet, Iron Will--Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam's Battlefields," "Living the Juche Lie: North Korea's Kim Dynasty" and "Doomsday: Iran--The Clock is Ticking." He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)