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How to Respond to Venezuela’s Humanitarian Emergency
How to Respond to Venezuela’s Humanitarian Emergency
A Rising Tide of Murder in Venezuela’s Mineral-rich South
A Rising Tide of Murder in Venezuela’s Mineral-rich South
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.


People stand next to Venezuelan soldiers, as they wait for information about the deaths in a remote illegal mine where seven people were killed in Tumeremo, Venezuela, on 17 October 2018. REUTERS/William Urdaneta
Q&A / Latin America & Caribbean

A Rising Tide of Murder in Venezuela’s Mineral-rich South

Dead bodies are appearing across the Orinoco river basin of southern Venezuela. In this Q&A, Crisis Group consultant Bram Ebus explains how the killings are linked by jostling among criminals, guerrillas and soldiers for mineral wealth amid the country’s wider socio-economic meltdown.

What happened?

A spate of mass killings in southern Venezuela is stirring international concern as the country’s political and economic crisis continues to drive a migrant exodus. On 14 October, at least seven miners were murdered in clashes between non-state armed factions near Tumeremo, Bolívar state, toward the Guyana border. Three weeks later, on 4 November, guerrillas of Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) ambushed a troop of Venezuelan National Guardsmen, killing three and wounding ten, near the town of Puerto Ayacucho, capital of Amazonas state, close to the Colombia border. These attacks came in retaliation for the guard’s arrest of an ELN commander Luis Felipe Ortega Bernal, also known as Garganta (Throat). The two incidents added to a growing number of violent deaths across the country’s vast “mining arc”, a 122,000-sq km area in the southern watershed of the Orinoco river.

Though the Bolívar and Amazonas killings took place hundreds of kilometres apart, many Venezuelans see them as connected, given that both events occurred in areas exposed to intensive mining, legal and illegal. The deaths raise pressing questions as to the effects of Venezuela’s overall socio-economic disintegration on the sparsely populated but mineral-rich south. They also highlight the ELN guerrillas’ growing presence in these regions at a time when their peace talks with the Colombian government are at an impasse. Colombia’s new president, Iván Duque, put the already faltering negotiations with the guerrillas, estimated to have almost 2,000 fighters in Colombia, on hold soon after assuming office in August.

What is at stake in southern Venezuela?

Venezuela sits atop one of the biggest (though as yet uncertified) gold deposits in the world. There are also promising reserves of coltan and diamonds, among other scarce minerals. As a forthcoming Crisis Group report will show, the country’s economic meltdown has led various armed actors, both state and non-state, to loot its natural resources, spurred by the desperation of impoverished Venezuelans who see little option but to head south and join the pillage.

Venezuela is in the grip of one of the world’s sharpest economic contractions, marked by hyper-inflation and scarcity of basis goods.
Venezuela’s Mineral Arc

In 2016, President Nicolás Maduro signed a decree purporting to create a legal framework for mining in Bolívar state (Venezuelan law prohibits mining in Amazonas state), with the aim of establishing a modern, sustainable extractive industry. In reality, no experienced companies work in Bolívar or anywhere in the mining arc. The corporations and state companies that operate in Bolívar get most of their minerals from mines controlled by local gangs or ELN fighters. Dissident former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who oppose the peace agreement that movement signed in 2016 with the Colombian government, are involved in illegal mining operations in Amazonas.

Why does this matter?

Venezuela is in the grip of one of the world’s sharpest economic contractions, marked by hyper-inflation and scarcity of basis goods. Its citizens are leaving in massive numbers – some three million since 2015, according to the International Organization of Migration. Emigration into Colombia, along with ideological differences and the Maduro government’s authoritarian turn, has put Bogotá and Caracas at loggerheads. Armed group activity in southern Venezuela, especially involving irregulars crossing borders, is liable to stoke those tensions.

Many sources say ELN guerrillas have taken over a significant number of mines controlled by Venezuelan crime syndicates in 2018. Battles for control have left a trail of bodies across the mining arc. Many killings – even massacres – go unreported because most occur in remote places, often inhabited by indigenous peoples, with haphazard or non-existent transport and telephone connections. These people fear speaking to outsiders, even when relatives go missing.

What is the Venezuelan government’s role in this violence?

A new governor in Bolívar state since October 2017 is reportedly allied to the crime syndicates, while his predecessor allegedly had relations with different criminal groups (neither has responded to such allegations). In Caracas, meanwhile, two government factions are believed to be competing for control of mineral reserves. One faction, including members of the National Guard, reportedly works alongside crime syndicates for personal enrichment. The other, comprised of parts of the military apparatus, appears set on running the mines in alliance with the ELN so as to invest the profits in the survival of the chavista government.

The latter’s objectives would appear to include the use of experienced guerrillas as a strategic line of defence close to the Colombian border in the event of foreign military intervention in Venezuela, a prospect mooted by leading U.S. and Latin American figures in recent months. Officially, the Venezuelan Defence Ministry denies that ELN guerrillas are present in the country, blaming right-wing Colombian paramilitaries for the 4 November killings in Amazonas. But the Colombian Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent out a communiqué on 5 November in which they condemned the killings and recognised Luis Ortega, who was arrested along with eight colleagues by the Venezuelan National Guard and is now held in a military jail near Caracas, as a senior ELN commander.

How have other countries reacted to the killings?

Bordering countries have shown the most alarm. Guyana and Colombia have reinforced the troops stationed at their respective borders with Venezuela, according to sources in both countries’ armed forces, largely out of concern over expanding mining-related violence.

An increase in bloodshed in southern Venezuela remains highly likely, at least until one group consolidates power in the region.

As part of its sanctions on the Venezuelan government, the U.S. announced via an executive order on 1 November that it will target gold exports, which it believes are being used to enrich Venezuela’s political and economic elite at the cost of increasing violence and human rights abuses in the country’s south. On 24 October, Marshall Billingslea, assistant secretary for terrorist financing at the Treasury Department, accused Maduro of “looting” his country’s gold supply, naming the export of 21 tonnes of the precious metal to Turkey as an example. He added that “[t]his gold is being removed from the country without any of the customary safeguards that would ensure the funds are accounted for and properly catalogued as belonging to the Venezuelan people”. The executive order forbids commerce with those who “operate in the gold sector of the Venezuelan economy”. This measure could have pernicious side effects, however, by forcing greater quantities of gold into contraband routes, thus boosting the revenues of organised crime and armed non-state actors.

Alternatively, under existing U.S. and forthcoming European Union (EU) legislation, Washington and Brussels could classify Venezuelan gold and coltan as conflict minerals. These laws urge companies throughout the value chain to obtain minerals from conflict-free suppliers, a provision that could stop Venezuela from selling its gold and coltan abroad unless exporters clean up their act. The fact that the Venezuelan mineral trade is associated with massacres, money laundering, sexual violence and groups included on the U.S. and EU terrorist lists could justify application of these laws, but it is hard to say whether or not this measure would also boost smuggling networks.

What are the likely scenarios over the coming months?

An increase in bloodshed in southern Venezuela remains highly likely, at least until one group consolidates power in the region. The competition between factions within the state could easily have a multiplier effect on attacks. Continued clashes among Venezuelan state forces, Venezuelan crime syndicates and Colombian armed groups are also likely to displace locals, perhaps across the border into Colombia. The people of southern Venezuela need urgent humanitarian assistance, particularly health care, as mining operations ravage the land that normally sustains them.

Map of Venezuela’s Mineral Arc

International Crisis Group/KO/June 2017