Venezuelans used to be among the happiest people on the planet.
In 2012, they voted themselves into fifth place in a global Gallup survey on happiness. In 2013, this South American country ranked 20th out of the 156 countries included in the United Nations’ annual World Happiness Report, which assesses well-being worldwide based on measures like wealth, life expectancy, and corruption.
My home country used to be a prosperous, cheerful place. People were proud to be from Venezuela—a place known for its friendly citizens and beauty queens: Venezuela has produced six Miss Worlds and seven Miss Universes.
Not anymore. This year, Venezuela plunged to 102nd place of 156 countries in the World Happiness Report. By comparison, Denmark topped the list and the United States came in 18th.
Venezuela has changed dramatically in recent years.
President Nicolás Maduro—who was elected to succeed the popular late leader Hugo Chávez in 2013—has turned out to be a kind of King Midas in reverse. Everything he touches seemingly turns to garbage.
Once poor people are now starving. On average, Venezuelans have lost 24 pounds each since food shortages began in 2015.
Meanwhile, the middle class is disappearing. According to the labor union UNETE, 75% of Venezuelan workers no longer earn enough to support their families.
Fleeing these unbearable living conditions, thousands of Venezuelans have begun pouring across the border into neighboring Colombia and Brazil every day.
Maduro has systematically persecuted his opponents, sending them to jail or into exile. The regime has also used the state apparatus to boost its electoral prospects, trading food for votes, suppressing turnout in dissident districts and crushing anti-regime protests.
As a result, this wildly unpopular president is running for reelection without meaningful opposition and is likely to win.
It’s hard to be happy under a dictatorship.
Many Venezuelans have lost any hope of political change. Maduro has crippled Venezuela’s independent institutions, stacking the Supreme Court with loyalists and stripping the National Assembly of its legislative powers. Freedom of speech is long gone.