Glitzy car showrooms line the main road into town. A giant General Motors production plant hints at prosperity and employment.

But the showrooms are empty. The plant has closed after a year when it lay idle because no parts were available.

Valencia, Venezuela’s third largest town of two million about 100 miles west of the capital Caracas, gives a glimpse of life behind the headlines of riots and deaths. 

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Venezuela, circled by Colombia, Brazil, Guyana and the Caribbean Sea on the north coast of South America, is an “undeveloping” nation going backwards.

It has the world’s largest proven oil reserves and huge mineral riches. It’s a beautiful country stretching from the snow-capped Andes in the west to Amazonian jungle in the south and stunning beaches in the north.

But 18 years of United Socialist Party rule under the late President Hugo Chavez, who died in 2013, and his successor Nicolas Maduro have sadly hollowed out the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

This is a broken nation of 30 million people with an economy shrunk by a quarter since 2013, most people barely surviving food and medicine shortages, rampant crime with Caracas now rated the world’s most dangerous city and the world’s highest inflation rate approaching 1,000 per cent. Crumbling infrastructure vividly shows the state of decline.

Two months of almost continuous protest against Maduro and his Chavista regime have left some 60 dead and hundreds injured.

The latest cycle of protest was triggered on March 29 when the Supreme Court, loaded with Maduro supporters, announced it was taking over the powers of the opposition-controlled National Assembly. In the face of massive opposition, the court reversed the decision three days later but the population’s anger had been ignited.

The hugely charismatic Chavez, a former army colonel,  had whipped up support from the masses with promises to reduce poverty and inequality as money rolled in from high oil prices and output.

Maduro lacks both the charisma of Chavez and his ability to unify the party.

Cronyism that saw Chavistas replace skilled managers at the formerly slickly-run state oil company has seen investment slashed and production fall to fewer than two million barrels a day from a peak of 3.5 million, and at dramatically lower world prices.

Exchange controls and devaluations are a constant in business life. The central bank sets a rate of 10 bolivars to one US dollar for its shrinking stock of foreign exchange for vital imports like medicine and, say critics, for friends of the regime.           

A business rate of about 700 applied till recently when the bank suddenly announced auctions at 1,800-2,200. Dollars on the black market are around 6,000 bolivars.

The economy is crippled by corruption that pervades every aspect of life and puts Venezuela at 166 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index out of 175 countries, below even Zimbabwe.

Venezuela has become a major cocaine transit route to the US.

The US has imposed sanctions on Vice President Tareck El Aissami, accusing him of playing a major role in international drugs trafficking.

Venezuela is America’s harshest critic in Latin America and the regime have accused protestors of being US-inspired.

Even Latin America despairs.  

Maduro recently started Venezuela’s self-ejection from the Organisation of American States to pre-empt being expelled.

The country faces large-scale emigration to neighbouring countries or the US. “What is there for young people?” asks a despairing parent whose daughter moved to Colombia.

Critics of the regime are jailed after show trials with an estimated 300 political prisoners now behind bars, a figure that rises almost every week.

The military shore up the regime and protestors hope that riot troops, wearied by constant battle, will turn on Maduro. But senior officers in Maduro’s inner circle have grown wealthy on corruption and state largesse and most observers see little weakening in their resolve.

An unexpected chink in regime unity has come from Attorney General  Luisa Ortega who challenged the Supreme Court ruling and has accused security forces of using excessive force to quell the protests. Cynical protest leaders fear that her defiance may simply result in her replacement or that she is simply distancing herself in case the regime falls.   

Maduro, facing almost daily protests but rejecting opposition demands for early presidential elections, has just announced a “constituent assembly” to rewrite the constitution. Opposition leaders denounce that as another attempt to cling on to power and a further tightening of what protestors see as essentially a coup in Venezuela On the eve of yet another day of predicted major protests, riot squads of the National Guard at military barracks across the country prepared to defend the regime. White-painted armoured cars fitted with roof-mounted teargas launchers and robo-cop protective clothing stood ready, all Chinese made.

The National Guard have played a key role in the unrest, often blocking marches and using teargas and water cannons to fight youths throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails.

They are complemented by “colectivos”, gangs of thugs on motorcycles funded by the state and responsible for some of the most brutal actions against protestors.

They were all needed in some of the recent protests, this time about freedom of speech and the media. Television channels, either state owned or muzzled, show little if any footage of protests happening across the country.

Coverage moved to the internet but the government has now turned on online broadcasters, leading the UN Human Rights Commission to condemn “the censorship and blocking of information both in traditional media and on the internet.”

Maduro has now issued a decree allowing content filtering of social media which have proved harder to censor. 

But life goes on for residents despite the day-to-day challenges and a recent British Foreign Office warning against all but essential travel to much of the country, including Caracas.

At a middle-class dinner party in Caracas, the affluent hosts apologise for the lack of bread due to a nationwide flour shortage and of wine, with a bottle costing a month’s average wage.

A birthday party in the grounds of a sprawling mansion surrounded by high walls and an electric fence within a secure gated community still needs two armed guards to reassure guests. Some guests bring personal bodyguards, others are late because of protests on a motorway.

A doctor obsessively checking social media sees a picture of a building ablaze near his home as protestors and looters ran amok.

Nearly everyone leaves before 9.30 pm when the security risk rises even further on the dark and deserted streets.

A supermarket’s shelves are empty of basics. Long queues form around cash machines hoping to get stacks of inflation-eroded bolivars before stocks run out or at bakeries hoping for a loaf.

Anti-Maduro sympathisers hope a leadership figure will emerge from outside the traditional leadership to challenge the establishment.

Few see life improving soon as a desperate regime clings to power behind fusillades of teargas and a hope that popular anger will simply run out of steam.