CARACAS, Venezuela—When this city's professional soccer club traveled to a key match in Peru, its tough rival wasn't the only challenge. The team also had to endure an arduous four-day journey, including four connecting flights, a layover in neighboring Colombia and a jarring, cross-border bus ride.
Like many of their compatriots, the players simply couldn't get a flight that would take them where they wanted to go.
The 20-man team was a victim of the long-simmering dispute between international airlines and the leftist administration of President Nicolas Maduro. With the cash-strapped government holding back on releasing $3.8 billion in airline-ticket revenue because of strict currency controls, carriers have slashed service to Venezuela by half since January, adding another layer of frustration to daily life here.
The lack of flights is complicating family vacations, business trips and the evacuation plans of Venezuelans who want to leave the country, which is whipsawed by 60% inflation, crime, food shortages and diminishing job prospects. Steve H. Hanke, a Johns Hopkins University economics professor, says Venezuela tops his so-called "misery index," which takes into account inflation, unemployment, economic stagnation and other factors in 89 countries.
"In Venezuela, you have the sensation that you can't leave," says Virginia Hernández, a Venezuelan who is studying orthodontics in Argentina.
The Caracas polling company Datanalisis found that one in 10 citizens—most of them middle- and upper-class Venezuelans between 18 and 35—are seeking to leave the country, more than double the number who sought to abandon it in 2002, which was marked by an unsuccessful coup attempt against then President Hugo Chavez and a paralyzing oil strike.
President Maduro blames the country's problems on an "economic war" led by greedy capitalists trying to topple his government. "They're trying to wage a little war by getting rid of our overseas flights," he said during a recent televised address. "I've told these companies clearly that those who leave or try to blackmail Venezuela will not return," he warned, promising that "we'll replace them faster than you think."
So, is the poor Venezuelan leader the victim of a world capitalist conspiracy, or is he reaping what he's sown?
Good luck to President Maduro in "replacing" the airline industry that he has driven away through policies that make it impossible for airlines to operate in the country on the same terms upon which their sustainability is built elsewhere.