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High Noon over Humanitarian Aid at Venezuela’s Border
High Noon over Humanitarian Aid at Venezuela’s Border
Savannah Strife: Brazil’s Combustible Border with Venezuela
Savannah Strife: Brazil’s Combustible Border with Venezuela
Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido speaks as he attends a rally to commemorate the Day of the Youth and to protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela 12 February 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Q&A / Latin America & Caribbean

High Noon over Humanitarian Aid at Venezuela’s Border

Venezuela’s constitutional crisis continues to unfold, with the opposition amassing food and medicine on the borders with the stated intent of turning the military against President Nicolás Maduro, who is refusing the aid. In this Q&A, our Senior Analyst for Venezuela Phil Gunson explains the standoff.

What happened?

Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaidó, recognised as the country’s interim president by dozens of countries including the U.S., has promised that on 23 February a “humanitarian avalanche”, comprising hundreds of thousands of volunteers and heavy transport vehicles, will begin importing and distributing food and medical aid that is accumulating at various points outside the country. An aid concert, featuring a number of high-profile Latin music stars, is planned for 22 February in the Colombian border town of Cúcuta, while the government has announced its own rival festival across the frontier. Pointing to the vigorous U.S. government campaign to force him out of power, President Nicolás Maduro has called the aid distribution plan a show devised by Washington to provide an excuse for a military intervention. He has vowed to stop it.

What is the conflict about?

President Maduro was sworn in for a second six-year term on 10 January, but the opposition, which says his 20 May 2018 election was a sham, regards him as a “usurper”. Along with the U.S., Canada, almost all member states of the EU and most of Latin America, it argues that the country’s constitution requires Guaidó, elected president of the opposition-controlled National Assembly just five days earlier, to assume the interim presidency pending fresh presidential elections. Under the article they invoke, these should be held within 30 days, though supporters of Guaidó argue that this timetable is neither feasible nor desirable, and that fair elections cannot be held so soon even though the constitution demands it.

In addition to the confrontation over the presidency, Venezuela is facing an increasingly severe social crisis brought on by a collapsing economy and exacerbated by financial and trade sanctions imposed by the U.S. In the past two years, as Latin America and the Caribbean in particular have begun to feel the impact of mass emigration of Venezuelans, the crisis has taken on a regional dimension. And since the Trump administration assumed a leadership role in the coalition of countries pushing for Maduro’s removal, it is inextricably entwined with global geopolitics. In a speech in Miami on 18 February dedicated to Venezuela, President Donald Trump depicted the struggle as a key part of a regional, even global effort to roll back socialism, evoking the Cold War. Omitting any reference to other countries in the coalition, he said the Venezuelan opposition would win “because the United States, a truly great nation, is behind you”.

Do Venezuelans need the aid?

Aid organisations in Venezuela say the country is suffering a “complex humanitarian emergency” due to severe shortages of food and medicine and the government’s refusal to adopt adequate measures to combat hunger and disease. The gross domestic product has fallen by around half since Maduro took office in 2013, according to some estimates, and annual inflation in 2018 was over one million per cent. The government does not publish statistics, but according to a regular survey by three local universities, more than nine out of ten Venezuelans earn too little to buy sufficient food. Most essential medicines are unobtainable and the health system has effectively broken down. For example, in a survey of 40 public hospitals released this month, 75 per cent had no morphine and over half had no insulin. Doctors calculated that over 1,500 patients had died in these hospitals alone in recent months for lack of medicines or equipment. Almost 80 died as a result of power cuts. Diseases such as malaria, measles and diphtheria – once nearly eradicated in Venezuela – are spreading out of control, and patients with chronic conditions such as heart disease, cancer and HIV/AIDS are mostly unable to obtain treatment.

Aid for the needy is a critical political symbol and source of power in Venezuela, where Maduro’s government claims to be carrying out a revolution that benefits the poor.

Even large-scale humanitarian aid, however, will not solve the crisis, which requires economic recovery and the reconstruction of health infrastructure and the country’s food and agriculture sector. Experts acknowledge that a few hundred tonnes of aid, were it to be allowed in, would still be just a drop in the bucket.

Will the government let the aid in?

No, at least it says it will not. The government admits that it has encountered economic difficulties, which it attributes to a decline in the price of oil, virtually the country’s only source of foreign exchange, and to U.S. sanctions, which intensified at the end of January when Washington moved to withhold the proceeds of oil purchases from the state oil corporation PDVSA. U.S. government figures show that oil sales to the country from Venezuela at the start of February were less than a quarter of what they were in the last week of January. Belatedly, the Maduro government has started to acknowledge the scale of public misery in Venezuela, announcing that its ally Russia is sending 300 tonnes of emergency aid (a claim about which President Putin said he knew nothing), and on 15 January signing an agreement with UNICEF and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to assist with child nutrition.

At the same time, Maduro’s government says talk of a humanitarian crisis and plans for the February 23rd provision of humanitarian aid are merely pretexts for a U.S. military intervention, potentially supported by other South American countries such as Colombia. In reality, it seems to fear that the aid the opposition wants to bring in will result in a challenge to Maduro’s authority over the armed forces. The opposition has been explicit in this regard, voicing its hope – and expectation­ ­– that military officers will turn against the sitting president to pave the way for a political transition, starting by refusing to obey orders to block the aid’s entry. Any attempt to thwart the aid delivery, some opposition sources say, would qualify as a crime against humanity, regardless of whether violence was used.

For the Maduro government, the provision of aid also has acute political significance, which is another reason why it will resist the opposition’s efforts. Aid for the needy is a critical political symbol and source of power in Venezuela, where Maduro’s government claims to be carrying out a revolution that benefits the poor while its detractors insist that it uses welfare handouts to reinforce its hold over deprived barrios. The government distributes cheap but basic food rations to an estimated 7.3 million Venezuelan households via a program known as CLAP.

As tensions have risen, both sides have resorted to sabre-rattling. On 15 February, Maduro announced a “special plan for permanent deployment” (of the armed forces), “to defend our border against Colombian provocations”. Sources in Caracas downplay the threat, however, indicating that the government’s priority is to avoid a military flare-up at the border while controlling opposition protests through tough policing measures. The U.S., meanwhile, has refused to rule out military action, repeating that “all options are on the table”, while insisting that Maduro should leave office immediately. At a meeting in Miami on 20 February, the commander of the Colombian Armed Forces, General Luis Navarro, and the head of U.S. Southern Command, General Craig Faller, jointly called on their Venezuelan counterparts to “do the right thing” and let the aid through.

Does the government’s argument stand up?

Under international law, governments must give consent to the distribution of food and medical supplies when a population’s survival is threatened, but only if the aid is of an exclusively humanitarian and impartial nature. This aid operation, however, is primarily political, in that it is intended to undermine Maduro and bring about a change of government. “Aid that sits on the border while US officials taunt the regime is there for political showmanship, not humanitarian aims”, tweeted Jeremy Konyndyk, the former U.S. foreign disaster assistance chief. In private, some of those behind the “humanitarian avalanche” admit that the relief of suffering is a secondary consideration.

One possible outcome would see some of the aid gaining entry to Venezuela at the same time as Caracas claims that it has successfully resisted an attempt at foreign intervention.

This matter is of great concern to humanitarian organisations that have been working inside Venezuela over recent years to bring in and distribute food and medicines. They fear that the government may target their operations as a result. On 15 February, for example, police took the unusual step of raiding the offices of the private charity Manos Amigas por la Vida (Fundación Mavid), seizing medicines and other supplies intended for HIV/AIDS patients in an operation that some feared may be a sign of things to come. They also arrested some of the staff. The police later announced that the charity had been found to be providing its clients with expired medicines.

That said, the humanitarian emergency the government denies is all too real. It is the single biggest factor forcing millions of Venezuelans to flee the country. According to the latest figures from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, at least 3.4 million people – more than a tenth of the population – now live abroad. Most have fled in the past two years.

What is likely to happen?

Juan Guaidó has declared that the aid cannot be stopped, but many observers doubt that much will get across the border on the declared date of 23 February. Most attention is focused on the border near Cúcuta. Hundreds of tonnes of U.S.-funded aid have already been stockpiled there, ready to be taken into Venezuela. But the Venezuelan government has deployed troops and police to stop it and has even blocked a new, and so far unused, multi-lane cross-border bridge with shipping containers and part of a tanker truck. There are also doubts as to whether the opposition will be able to gather a large enough rally on its side of the border to force the authorities to accept the aid consignments. Border towns such as San Antonio de Táchira and Ureña are relatively small, and road access from the rest of the country to the border would be fairly easy for Venezuelan security forces to regulate.

Other potential crossing points include the far south east of the country on the Brazilian border, and the northern coast, the likely destination of aid stored on the Dutch Antillean island of Curaçao or heading from Puerto Rico. In recent days, however, Maduro has ordered a temporary closure of both routes of entry, and indicated that he might do the same on the Colombian border. Despite Maduro’s military manoeuvres, as well as the Trump administration’s pointed refusal to rule out the eventual use of force, both sides seem keen to avoid a military conflict, at least for now. One possible outcome would see some of the aid gaining entry to Venezuela at the same time as Caracas claims that it has successfully resisted an attempt at foreign intervention. But if the aid ploy fails to prompt the Venezuelan armed forces to withdraw support from Maduro, the opposition hopes that the oil sanctions, which are already beginning to nip, will bite hard enough to persuade the president that his time is up.

Venezuelan refugees walk alongside electricity pylons that cross the Venezuela-Brazil border near the village of Tarau-Paru, an indigenous village in Brazil. CRISISGROUP/Bram Ebus

Savannah Strife: Brazil’s Combustible Border with Venezuela

The frontier between Brazil and its crisis-ridden neighbour Venezuela has become a major migration route, a hotspot for crime and a flashpoint for violence. This is the first of three commentaries on Venezuela’s troubled borderlands.

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The 2,199-kilometres frontier between Venezuela and Brazil – a sparsely populated stretch of jungle and bush – has been transformed by the political and economic crisis wracking Venezuela into a region scarred by transnational crime, displacement and violence. The potential for bloodshed became real in late February 2019, when a confrontation between a convoy of Venezuelan National Guardsmen and a small group of residents in the town of Kumarakapay set off a deadly series of events that shook the whole region.

According to witnesses, inhabitants of the town, which sits in Venezuela’s Bolívar state approximately 50 kilometres north of the Brazilian border, were sound asleep early on 22 February when several armoured vehicles stormed in. The soldiers on board were heading southward to block the humanitarian aid that Venezuela’s opposition was planning to bring into the country the next day – part of a campaign supported by the U.S., Brazil and several Latin American countries to split the military and topple President Nicolás Maduro.

By some accounts, the villagers – who belonged to the indigenous Pemon community that enjoys formal autonomy in their territory – sought to block the soldiers from continuing their journey because they wanted the aid to come in. According to others, the villagers simply wanted to talk to the intruders and ask what they were doing. In any case what happened next is clear: soldiers from the convoy opened fire, killing one woman on the spot and leaving at least fifteen wounded.

The incident sparked six days of lethal skirmishes. Venezuelan security forces and irregular groups clashed with protesters along the border, with seven people reportedly killed and at least 62 detained. Around 70 school buses, filled not only with soldiers but also government-allied paramilitary groups, called colectivos, and prison inmates freed so they could enlist in the effort, headed to the border to block the incoming aid, according to a local human rights defender and several locals who fled to Brazil. The full extent of casualties remains unclear. Following her investigation of the February violence, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet cited “reports of a possible mass grave, which warrants further investigation”.

As tension builds between vulnerable civilians and the groups that prey on them, the threat of violence is never far.

The frontier appears peaceful again, but the political, economic and demographic realities that fuelled the February clashes and related ills persist. These realities extend far beyond the international standoff that sparked the Kumarakapay confrontation. The region is a hive of illegal mining ventures and home to brutal, expansionist criminal groups that work in concert with corrupt security forces. Residents facing harassment and extortion by these groups sometimes lash out, but often seek to escape fear and impoverishment by migrating to Brazil, which struggles to absorb them. Human trafficking and other illicit activities thrive. As tension builds between vulnerable civilians and the groups that prey on them, the threat of violence is never far.

The Combustible Border Between Venezuela and Brazil

Crisis Group's Andean Region expert Bram Ebus spoke with some of the Venezuelan refugees stuck in the Brazilian villages close to the border. CRISISGROUP

A Mining Boom and a Predatory Guard

The recent spike in tensions between Venezuelan security forces and locals near the Brazilian border is partly an outgrowth of the mining boom underway across the Gran Sabana region in Bolívar state – which itself has been driven by criminal groups and the cash-starved government’s push to accelerate gold and diamond exports.

The country’s armed forces are nominally in control of the mining industry, but they also work with criminal entrepreneurs, who have aggressively expanded their mining interests with impunity. Venezuelan organised crime groups called sindicatos and Colombian guerrillas have become major players in the mines of Bolívar and neighbouring Amazonas state, and often work in volatile alliances with corrupt state forces. As these groups pursue their hostile takeover of mineral-rich land and mines operated by locals, violence sometimes flares. The sindicatos violently control mining hotspots such as El Dorado and Las Claritas.

When the Venezuelan government closed the border [...] guardsmen demanded a payment of 150 Brazilian reals for each car that passed one of the illegal border crossings.

Indigenous leaders say that criminal groups have high-level political blessing. According to these sources, political representatives across the eleven municipalities of Bolívar state, loyal to the government in Caracas and to the chavista regional administration, turn a blind eye to these groups’ criminality and instead share in the mining profits, which in turn provides a financial lifeline for the state and its officials amid Venezuela’s economic ruin.

A former Venezuelan National Guard member who deserted and now lives in Brazil observed that Brazilian entrepreneurs are also part of the problem. He said they send truckloads of food across the border to feed the Venezuelan military and miners and are paid with often illegally-mined gold. This may explain why the Brazilian border state of Roraima exports more gold than it produces.

Brazilian villagers of Tarau-Paru border-town maintain that their Venezuelan counterparts will always be welcome. Some of the huts in the village, partly built of plastic, feature the sky blue UNHCR logo. CRISISGROUP/Bram Ebus

For their part, Venezuelan security forces reap the benefits of mining not only by taking a share of illicit profits, but through a panoply of criminal activities. Along some routes, they even traffic goods across borders. Alongside crime groups that are involved in human trafficking, underpaid guardsmen generate cash by extorting payments for similar cross-border movements. In the months when the Venezuelan government closed the border, from 22 February to 10 May, guardsmen demanded a payment of 150 Brazilian reals (roughly $36) for each car that passed one of the illegal border crossings, according to the defected officer. Each suspected migrant crossing either by foot or by car was forced to pay between 100 and 150 reals ($24-$46), the former guardsman recounted.

But guardsmen do not necessarily get to keep these takings for themselves. According to the National Guard deserter with whom I spoke, rank-and-file members of the Guard themselves live under the constant shadow of extortion. Both at the border and the regional airport in Santa Elena, he explained, a superior demands weekly payments from his subordinates totalling the equivalent of $2,000.

Fed up with poverty-level wages and the terrible requirements of the job, many guardsmen contemplate abandoning their posts. Sources in the diplomatic community reported that 77 have deserted and fled over the border since February, but many are too afraid to follow suit. The former guardsman I spoke to sent his family into hiding before crossing the border, and reported that the security forces have already come looking for them. “They are capable of murder”, he said. Recalling with shame the brutality he witnessed from inside the force, he said that on the day violence flared up across Gran Sabana, guardsmen were instructed to shoot at members of the indigenous population without justification. He remembers the order as: “Indio que llegue, indio que le disparamos” (“Indian that arrives, Indian we shoot at”).

Locals confirm that such abuse has fed deepening anger toward security forces across the region. This ill-will is exemplified on a small scale by the occasional capture of a guardsman by indigenous communities, which is often followed by violent military reprisals against civilians. On a larger scale, mounting frustration exacerbates the likelihood of escalating violence of the kind the region experienced in February.

Flight to safety?

Against this backdrop, Venezuela’s border with Brazil functions as an escape valve for Venezuelans seeking safety or greater economic opportunity. Immediately across the border, Brazil’s Roraima state is the point of arrival for most Venezuelans fleeing south. But for too many, flight to Roraima involves trading one set of risks and dangers for another.

A shelter used by Warao and Eñepa indigenous groups, located in the middle of Boa Vista, has capacity for 590 people but not enough space for everyone. According to aid workers, a nearby square harbors 400 more people. CRISISGROUP/Bram Ebus

In some respects, Roraima is well-suited to be the first port of call for fleeing Venezuelans. Cross-border political, cultural, and business ties between Roraima and Venezuela are extensive and important. Standing physically much closer to Caracas and other Venezuelan urban centres than to Brazil’s capital, Brasilia, Roraima is even connected to the Venezuela electricity grid (although it has not purchased any electricity since Venezuela’s March 2019 blackouts). State governor Antonio Denarium is an admirer of Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, an ardent enemy of chavismo, but he has been careful not to alienate his neighbours. When asked in an interview to choose between Maduro and National Assembly chair Juan Guaidó, who has asserted his claim to be interim president, Denarium refused to take sides. Members of the Pemon community in Brazil indeed welcomed hundreds of their fellow Venezuelan tribespeople who fled during the February crackdown.

There are now 40-45,000 Venezuelans in the whole of Roraima state, out of a total population of 520,000.

Nevertheless, Roraima – one of Brazil’s most impoverished regions – has struggled with the Venezuelan influx. According to the Brazilian military, there are now 40-45,000 Venezuelans in the whole of Roraima state, out of a total population of 520,000. Many are highly vulnerable, their needs neglected.

The border town of Pacaraima became notorious after anti-migrant riots broke out in August 2018. A business owner was attacked and robbed by unknown assailants, triggering a violent xenophobic outburst by residents, who suspected Venezuelan migrants were responsible, and targeted the entire refugee and migrant population camping out in the village. Hundreds were chased back across the border.

Now, more than a year later, calm has returned to Pacaraima – where Venezuelan day visitors and migrants can often be identified by their tricolour backpacks – but it is straining to support the growing Venezuelan presence. The town’s tumultuous main street is crammed with day visitors from Santa Elena, buying basic goods unavailable in Venezuela and exchanging currency. Pacaraima also houses hundreds of migrants and refugees too poor to continue their journeys into Brazil. They sell coffee and cigarettes, and haul luggage for better-off migrants. At the end of the afternoon, many Venezuelans in the town return to their home country with shopping. Those who remain start to gather cardboard from piles of trash to sleep on, as local shelters cannot cope with the influx.

Venezuelans and their tri-color backpacks dominate the scenery in the Brazilian bordertown Pacaraima. Main streets are full of visitors buying basic goods absent in Venezuela but also roamed by hundreds of refugees that lack the funds to continue inwards. CRISISGROUP/Bram Ebus

One consequence of the need, misery and lawlessness along the border is an alarming surge in human trafficking. “The streets are showcases of people”, says Socorro Santos, an expert on the issue based in Roraima’s capital city of Boa Vista – three hours by car from the border. She explains that organised crime groups, formed by Venezuelan and Brazilian nationals, lure poor and desperate women in Venezuela to Brazil with false promises of employment. She and other experts also express deep concern about Venezuelans employed in food-for-work deals in rural Roraima, where migrants and refugees are forced to work on large estates in slave-like conditions and paid only in meals.

The Brazilian borderlands expose refugees to other risks as well. An estimated 2,400 Venezuelans sleep rough in Boa Vista, a town of some 330,000 people. And the city’s eleven shelters, which according to the Brazilian army now host 6,500 people, have become dangerous places.

A big part of the problem is lack of resources. The army, which is in charge of the shelters alongside the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, has money for food, but not enough to cover most education or health needs, or leisure activities. Informal employment is simply unavailable for most. While about 2,500 Venezuelan youngsters are enrolled in local schools, teachers often do not speak Spanish. Bored and restless, Venezuelan youngsters in Boa Vista and elsewhere in Roraima are an attractive target for gangs and other criminal groups, which can use them as mules to slip unobtrusively across the border with contraband and arms. These criminal groups cast a large shadow over the community: former gang members living in Boa Vista comment that three of Brazil’s most prominent networks (Comando Vermelho, PCC, and Família do Norte) now have a local presence.

Late afternoon, while many return to Venezuela with their purchases, refugees start to gather cardboards from the trash to sleep on, as local shelters cannot cope with the influx of refugees. Hundreds of Venezuelans sleep rough on the Pacaraima street. CRISISGROUP/Bram Ebus

Problems with the refugee and migrant shelters are no secret. A young Venezuelan migrant – one of the lucky few who obtained a residency permit, apartment and job – spoke fearfully about the refugee shelter across the street from where she lives. She believes its residents are involved in local street crime and has observed Venezuelan minors, some aged under ten, dealing drugs at the bus stop she uses in the morning. A representative of the army-led “Operação Acolhida” (“Operation Welcome”), in charge of receiving Venezuelans migrants and refugees, downplayed the problems, but did not deny reports of violence, robbery, sexual abuse and drug use in the shelters. He complained that Venezuela does not share the names of former or wanted criminals with Brazilian authorities, making it impossible to control who crosses the border and enters the shelters.

The Brazilian government has tried to help relieve some of the pressure on Roraima created by the growing Venezuelan population. It has already arranged air transport for thousands of the displaced in an effort to spread migrants and refugees more evenly across the country. But the effect of these efforts on migrant numbers in the state is limited. More people are arriving than being ferried to alternative destinations, and many Venezuelans would prefer to stick close to the border for a possible return home or so they can visit their families. International humanitarian support for shelters and social services for new arrivals will remain essential for some time to come.

Crowded shelters have to cope with problems of hygiene, alcohol abuse and violence. As Venezuelans continue to trickle in, new solutions must be found to assist the most vulnerable populations. CRISISGROUP/Bram Ebus

Remedies for the Frontier

Surveying both sides of the Venezuela-Brazil border, it is now easier to see how the situation could get worse than to imagine how it might get better. Deteriorating relations between Venezuela’s government and opposition as well as galloping economic decline – with the country’s GDP expected to fall 23 per cent this year, according to the UN – seem poised to intensify migration at the Venezuela-Brazil border, boost the quest for mining riches, spur the expansion of non-state armed groups and perpetuate bilateral tensions.

Without [...] changes, the border with Brazil will remain unstable and the region’s residents subject to violent and criminal activity.

The most hopeful path forward for the region lies with the negotiations between Venezuela’s government and opposition, however great the obstacles they face. If the arrangements that emerge from those negotiations recognise the challenge on Venezuelan southern border, the importance of meaningful protections for the communities ravaged by the mining boom, and the need for cross-border cooperation to counter illicit groups that prey so many innocents, that would be a good beginning.

Without these changes, the border with Brazil will remain unstable and the region’s residents subject to violent and criminal activity even if the struggle for control in Caracas relents. For the thousands of displaced Venezuelans afraid to return home but facing bleak prospects in Brazil, this is a tough scenario to contemplate. On a recent rainy day in Pacaraima, a Venezuelan father tried to ease the painful situation with a joke. He slapped his hand on a stack of cardboard on his lap and declared, “These are our mattresses”. But his son sitting next to him, who abandoned his studies in Venezuela to migrate to Brazil, had no smile on his face.