Venezuela scrambles to head off collapse

With the nation on the brink of collapse, Venezuelan officials Monday were scrambling to keep the country afloat.

But a plunge in crude prices, rampant inflation and a currency crash has left the once oil-rich nation with few options to head off political and social chaos.

Opposition leaders over the weekend protested a 60-day state of emergency declared by President Nicolás Maduro on Friday night, based what he called plots from Venezuela and the U.S. to subvert him.

With the economy in freefall, hungry mobs have looted food stories, power and water are in short supply and hospitals are unable to care for newborns.

"You can hear the ice cracking. You know there's a crisis coming," a U.S. official told a group of reporters Friday, according to published reports.

That crisis has been building for years, but the pace of Venezuela's decline has worsened in recent weeks. Mobs have stolen food and clothing amid shortages of many basic consumer products.

Last week, soldiers fired tear gas at protesters marching to press for a referendum to recall Maduro.

He insists he will remain in office until his term expires in 2019 and claims his opponents are seeing to oust him in a coup.

On Monday, Economy Vice President Miguel Perez sought to assure investors that the government is prepared to make payments coming due on its debts. Perez told Reuters that the government had arranged a $50 billion loan with China to give the country some breathing room as it struggles to offset a sharp drop in oil revenues.

He also said the government planned to slash imports and predicted the local economy would continue shrinking until the end of next year.

Even if oil prices recover, Venezuela faces a long road back to political and economic stability. The International Monetary Fund, in its latest forecast, expects the country's output to shrink by 8 percent this year and another 4 percent next year.

With its currency in freefall, inflation has soared as the price of imported goods has skyrocketed. The IMF predicts inflation will top 700 percent this year before surging to some 2,200 percent next year.

Maduro also faces a growing political backlash as government salaries and services have been slashed. Electrical power has been rationed. Crime rates are rising. Basic health services and supplies are lacking.

In December elections, voter anger helped Maduro's political opponents take control of the National Assembly. But efforts to unseat Maduro have been blocked by the Supreme Court.

The deadlock and deteriorating conditions have sparked protest and widespread popular unrest. One recent poll showed that nearly 70 percent of Venezuelans want Maduro out of office.

"If you block this democratic path we don't know what might happen in this country," two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles told Reuters. "Venezuela is a time bomb that can explode at any given moment."