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How to Respond to Venezuela’s Humanitarian Emergency
How to Respond to Venezuela’s Humanitarian Emergency
Venezuela’s Mining Arc: A Legal Veneer for Armed Groups to Plunder
Venezuela’s Mining Arc: A Legal Veneer for Armed Groups to Plunder
People line up to try to buy toilet paper and diapers outside a pharmacy in Caracas, Venezuela, on 16 May 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

How to Respond to Venezuela’s Humanitarian Emergency

Numbers tell the grim tale of Venezuela’s continuing slide into socio-economic ruin. With 1.6 million people fleeing the country since 2015, international donors should step up aid to neighbouring states, while concerned parties fine-tune pressure for political change in Caracas and prepare for worst-case scenarios.

Colombia’s hosting of a meeting on Venezuela today stands as an important opportunity to draw attention to the severity of the nation’s crisis, the suffering of its people and the burden it puts on its neighbours. It is also an opportunity to agree on broad outlines of a political and humanitarian response. The meeting should focus on reaching an international consensus on how to deal with mass migration from Venezuela, how to prod the government toward political compromise and how to prepare for sudden shifts in the country’s deepening crisis.

Facts and numbers tell the story. Venezuela’s economy has shrunk by roughly half since President Nicolás Maduro took office in 2013, due primarily to economic mismanagement and the ensuing collapse of oil production. In late 2017, the economy entered a hyper-inflationary spiral; prices currently are rising by over 200 per cent per month. Critically dependent on imports, and lacking hard currency, the country faces acute shortages of food, medicines and other vital goods. Many essential medicines have vanished from pharmacies while others register shortages of 85-90 per cent. The public health service has collapsed, while the provision of utilities such as water, electricity and gas is suffering prolonged disruption. Malaria, measles, diphtheria and tuberculosis epidemics affect large parts of the country, despite the quasi-eradication of these diseases in the past, and threaten to spread to Venezuela’s neighbours.

Up to 90 per cent of Venezuelans live in poverty and over a third cannot afford to eat three meals a day. Thousands scavenge for food in the garbage. In the past three years, according to figures from the International Organisation for Migration, some 1.6 million have fled the country, sparking a major humanitarian crisis and putting acute strains on the social services and job markets of receiving countries, notably Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, as well as in the northern Brazilian state of Roraima.

Meanwhile, from the Venezuelan government comes little but blanket denial. It claims the crisis is an invention of foreign media, blames shortages on U.S. financial sanctions introduced in August 2017 and refuses to allow in humanitarian aid.

The country is also embroiled in a political crisis. In the 2016 elections, the opposition took control of parliament, but since then the government has blocked its attempts to achieve peaceful political change. The government has used its control of the security forces and the judiciary to repress protests and jail, exile or ban its opponents. Most of the opposition boycotted the 20 May presidential election and the results were rejected by the U.S., the European Union and the fourteen-strong Lima Group of Latin American and Caribbean nations, leaders of which had been supporting negotiations between government and opposition until January of this year.

Three series of steps are in order:

  • Immediate measures to address the migration and humanitarian crisis: Those countries that are bearing the brunt of the migration crisis need urgent, additional assistance from donors. The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) estimates that Colombia alone needs $1.6 billion a year to deal with the migratory inflow from Venezuela, far more than the circa $50 million provided by the U.S. and EU this year. This support should be funnelled through properly coordinated international mechanisms, including the offices of the new UN envoy for the Venezuelan migration crisis, and draw on pooled funding mechanisms under the supervision of the World Bank and the IDB. In return, Latin American countries receiving Venezuelans should ensure that migrants are eligible for public services and programs of social and economic integration. They also should honour promises made at a recent Latin American summit in Quito not to close their borders or demand unobtainable travel documents from migrants, as Peru and Ecuador threatened to do in August. Foreign donors should strengthen and support civil society groups providing humanitarian aid within Venezuela, while Latin American and European countries, as well as international organisations, must continue to insist to President Maduro that such aid is not a tool of foreign influence but a means of preventing even worse human suffering.
     
  • Pressure for political progress: Pressure will need to be brought to bear on the Maduro government to achieve change. Sanctions are one such tool. While the U.S., Canada and the European Union have imposed some restrictive measures, most effective would be similar targeted sanctions – travel bans and assets freezes, for example – applied by Latin American governments against top Venezuelan officials. These penalties should be combined with clear signals that they would be progressively lifted in response to commensurate steps by the government to engage in meaningful negotiations with the opposition and relax harassment of opposition leaders and parties. Regional sanctions would be almost unprecedented and send a stronger signal than those imposed by Western countries alone.

    Some steps should be avoided. These include sanctions that would do broader collective harm by affecting strategic economic sectors such as the oil industry (eg, by banning Venezuelan oil exports to the U.S.), or otherwise inflict more suffering on the population. The same goes for more extreme measures. In recent weeks, reports have surfaced suggesting that the U.S. president had joined some in the opposition in floating the idea of military intervention, a position that a recent public statement by Organization of American States Secretary-General Luis Almagro suggests he also entertains. The solution to Venezuela’s crisis does not and cannot lie in such scenarios, which, if carried out, almost certainly would prove disastrous, and which in being proposed merely serve to deepen the Venezuelan government’s siege mentality. Military intervention would risk plunging the country into further instability and low-intensity conflict due to the abundance of illegal weapons and the presence of violent non-state armed groups, as well as the lack of consensus over who should run a putative transitional government.

    Only a negotiated transition, likely involving some form of guarantee for top officials in the Maduro government, toward the restoration of more inclusive politics and representative government, the reintroduction of constitutional checks and balances, and the economy’s stabilisation offers the hope of a viable and sustainable solution.

    China could play a key role, given its considerable leverage in Venezuela. While it remains close to the Maduro government, its interests would be far better served by a stable transition that respects its investments and Venezuela’s outstanding debt to Beijing, estimated at $20 billion.
     
  • Preparation for a worst-case scenario: Even as they proceed on the former two tracks, Latin American governments and other international partners should be ready to adjust to any sudden political change in Caracas, most likely the result of factional tensions and resulting changes in leadership. The emergence of a more conciliatory Venezuelan leadership would provide an opportunity for foreign powers’ re-engagement in political negotiations and economic stabilisation. A more traumatic division or rupture in the ruling coalition, on the other hand, could exacerbate the economic and humanitarian crisis. In this case, regional states and donors should be prepared to further step up aid to affected neighbours and to pressure Venezuela’s allies on the UN Security Council into recognising the threat to international peace and security that the crisis poses.

 

Venezuela’s Mining Arc: A Legal Veneer for Armed Groups to Plunder

Originally published in The Guardian

Late 2016, Nicolás Maduro tweeted a photograph of himself with a smile on his face and a gleaming ingot in his hands – but not all that glitters is gold.

Venezuela claims to possess some of the largest untapped gold and coltan reserves in the world, and the country’s gold rush picked up when the president decreed the creation of a massive area of 112,000 sq km destined for mining, known as the Orinoco mining arc. In a recently published development plan Venezuela set the goal to produce more than 80,ooo kilos of gold a year by 2025.

The project, launched in February 2016, was supposed to drive development, but many mining projects announced by the government have failed to materialize, and the mining arc now seems little more than a legal veneer for plunder by an expanding range of armed groups.

Multiple non-state armed groups are spreading their hold over southern Venezuela, adding another unpredictable factor to the country’s current crisis – and complicating any efforts for a peaceful resolution.

Their methods and origins may be different, but their motivation is one which has driven violence in Latin America since colonial times: a hunger for gold and other valuable minerals.

Venezuelan crime syndicates have run informal mines for years. More recently, Colombian guerrillas – dissidents from the now-demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) and members of the National Liberation Army (ELN) – have expanded their reach hundreds of miles into Venezuela.

The groups are deeply entrenched in local communities, and often work in volatile alliances with parts of the military who privately profit from illegal mining.

At least 300,000 people work at wildcat mines which have caused huge environmental damage, and sparked a malaria epidemic.

Confrontations between the rival armed groups make southern Venezuela one of the most violent regions in Latin America. “Everybody wants to be boss,” explained a former miner who fled to Colombia to avoid the escalating violence.

Numerous sources confirm the army’s participation in illicit mining and report that military death squads have occasionally entered mines to settle disputes. Most killings go unrecorded, but local media have reported more than a dozen massacres since 2016. Municipalities in the mining region cope with homicide far above that of Caracas, the world’s most violent capital city.

Of these factions, the ELN is one of the most prominent, operating in 13 of Venezuela’s 24 states and extending its reach across the southern mining regions to form a corridor across Venezuela to near its disputed border with Guyana.

The ELN’s tactical and ideological alignment with the Venezuelan government is grist to the mill for those arguing for a military intervention against Maduro.

But any foreign incursion could potentially trigger a disastrous escalation of violence, possibly leading to a low-intensity conflict that would cause tremendous suffering for Venezuela’s most vulnerable populations.

The ELN is now Latin America’s biggest guerrilla army, and has vowed to defend Maduro’s government in the event of a foreign intervention.

Local sources have described how the guerrillas embed themselves in local communities, giving political and military training.

“They make [the locals] fall in love, offer them weapons and they indoctrinate them,” said one indigenous leader from Bolívar state. As in Colombia, the rebels intervene in local disputes and offer a measure of authority in lawless areas – wildcat miners confirm that they prefer the presence of the guerrillas over the brutal and less tolerant Venezuelan crime syndicates.

So what should be done? The freedom with which armed groups operate south of the Orinoco river reflects the weakness of the Venezuelan state. But threats of foreign military intervention will simply embolden the guerrillas and strengthen their ties to Caracas.

Humanitarian aid is essential for the inhabitants of the region, but its safe entry will depend on the Venezuelan government’s consent – and will not be served by the sort of forced entry attempted in February.

The communities facing the most urgent humanitarian needs are remote and indigenous populations in the south, which are already suffering from epidemics and shortages. Food shortages are exacerbated by the dependence on gold as currency in mining towns.

Outside actors should work to clean up Venezuelan mineral supply chains. Foreign states should enforce due diligence frameworks on mineral exporters and commodity exchanges to minimize risks that they buy minerals that finance conflict and human rights abuses.

For now, the extraction of gold, coltan and other minerals funds armed groups and harms indigenous communities. Even the minerals that are sold by Venezuelan state companies and the Venezuelan central bank (BCV) stem in part from the same mines controlled by armed groups and should therefore be classified as conflict minerals.

Forgotten parts of southern Venezuela are of key importance to the political future of the country. Communities abandoned by the state – and the armed groups that prey on them – merit more concern from international actors disputing Venezuela’s future. Peace in Venezuela cannot be achieved without taking the south into account.