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How to Respond to Venezuela’s Humanitarian Emergency
How to Respond to Venezuela’s Humanitarian Emergency
Venezuela: An Opportunity That Should Be Seized
Venezuela: An Opportunity That Should Be Seized
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.

 

The president of the National Assembly, Jorge Rodriguez (C-top) swears in the new authorities of the National Electoral Council (CNE), during a special session at the National Assembly, in Caracas. 4 May 2021. Federico PARRA / AFP

Venezuela: An Opportunity That Should Be Seized

A series of gestures from Caracas suggests that President Nicolás Maduro’s government might be more willing to negotiate with rivals and enact partial reforms. Washington should respond in kind with phased sanctions relief and diplomatic gestures that can be reversed if Venezuela backslides.

On 4 May, Venezuela’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National Assembly, swore in a new electoral authority, two of whose five principal members are from the opposition. It was perhaps the most significant of a series of gestures by President Nicolás Maduro’s government over the past two weeks. While nothing suggests that Maduro is ready to make concessions that might threaten his grip on power, his recent moves do signal a willingness to negotiate and might provide a rare opportunity to temper a crisis that has brought the Venezuelan economy to its knees and caused Latin America’s worst humanitarian emergency. Reciprocal moves from foreign powers opposed to Maduro are necessary to ensure that this chance, however slim, is not missed. Washington is best placed to make comparably conciliatory moves by offering modest relief from the sanctions it has imposed and initiating low-profile diplomatic contacts to assess the odds of further progress.

These moves represent partial responses to demands laid down by the U.S.

Several other developments preceded the new election rectors’ appointment. The first came on 19 April, when Caracas finally signed a long-awaited agreement with the World Food Program, granting the agency access to the country to attend to the dire and growing child malnutrition crisis. The second occurred on 30 April, when the chavista government released six imprisoned oil executives from Venezuela’s Houston-based Citgo corporation – five of whom hold U.S. citizenship – into house arrest. A day later, the country’s chief prosecutor Tarek William Saab took a third step, announcing charges against low-ranking officials in three high-profile political killings for which the government had hitherto denied any responsibility. These moves represent partial responses to demands laid down by the U.S. and other external allies of the opposition movement led by former National Assembly chair Juan Guaidó, who since 2019 has asserted a claim to the “interim presidency” of the country.

The changes to Venezuela’s National Electoral Council, or CNE, by its Spanish acronym, were the most significant concession yet. Chavista domination of the CNE has been crucial to the government’s campaign to shut down any and all electoral threats. It ultimately led to the standoff with Guaidó and pushed many other opposition figures into exile. Opposition parties mostly boycotted parliamentary elections in early December 2020 – as they had the presidential contest in 2018 – and the small number that took part in the poll, some of them mere appendages of the government, obtained only twenty seats in a 277-seat Assembly. Even today, conditions for the opposition remain forbidding. Despite the new rectors, the electoral playing field remains deeply skewed in Maduro’s favour. Still, permitting a more balanced electoral authority marks a tentative step toward restoration of political competition.

For Maduro, greater opposition representation on the CNE could have benefits. First, this year’s elections, due in December, are local and regional, so there is less at stake for the president in any case. Moreover, he can sell the CNE deal to his own supporters as opposition recognition of government institutions and a strategy for reducing Venezuela’s international isolation. 

News of the reformed electoral board has divided opposition ranks. Even before Maduro announced the new CNE line-up, the alliance headed by Guaidó had rejected it as illegitimate. Its stance has not changed since, despite the two new opposition rectors’ strong credentials. (One is an experienced politician and former deputy chair of the Assembly; the other is a systems engineer whose role as an opposition elections expert was so important that the government jailed him for six months in 2017.) The opposition alliance maintains that the Guaidó-led parliament, a rump of which continues to meet, is the only body with the power to approve a new CNE. Guaidó himself, whom Washington recognises as the country’s legitimate president, blasted the appointment via Twitter, saying it would “drag the country toward a greater disaster”. 

Others take a different view. Notable among them is two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, who, prior to the December elections, made fruitless efforts, with EU backing, to negotiate conditions that would allow his party to take part. Together with other opposition politicians, some of whom prefer for now to remain anonymous, Capriles rejects the “all-or-nothing” approach of Guaidó and his party, Voluntad Popular, which is led by the exiled Leopoldo López and has campaigned without success for Maduro’s immediate overthrow. Support for the new electoral board is also strong among regional and municipal politicians and party activists, especially those in opposition-held states and municipalities, who fear oblivion if the policy of boycotting elections is maintained. The issue threatens to fracture several parties, and could even lead to a formal split in the opposition coalition as a whole, which would also favour the government.

Venezuelan civil society is increasingly emerging as a significant, autonomous force.

Another important element in this complex equation is Venezuelan civil society, which is increasingly emerging as a significant, autonomous force, committed to a negotiated resolution of the country’s protracted political crisis. Four of the fifteen CNE members (the five principal rectors plus ten reserve members) appointed on 4 May were proposed by groups linked to the recently launched Foro Cívico, which brings together NGOs, trade unions, the main employers’ federation, professional syndicates, faith-based organisations and others. The Foro has played a role not only in the CNE negotiations but also in pushing for agreement between the government and opposition on importing COVID-19 vaccines, seeking economic reforms and setting up mechanisms for attending to the humanitarian emergency. Broadly speaking, the Foro leaders support a more conciliatory approach, along the lines of that promoted by Capriles, seeking areas where they can engage the government to alleviate ordinary Venezuelans’ suffering. 

Yet it is Washington’s response that is most keenly awaited. Under President Donald Trump the U.S. pursued a “maximum pressure” policy toward Venezuela, on the assumption that external action, particularly in the form of severe economic and financial sanctions and diplomatic isolation, would force the Maduro government to step down and accede to free elections. That approach failed. President Joe Biden came to office committed to a more pragmatic stance, but for various reasons related largely to the attention given to other pressing concerns – notably the pandemic and migrants at the southern U.S. border – little beyond the rhetoric has changed to date. Washington has demanded “concrete measures” from Maduro if it is to relax sanctions. It must now decide whether the gestures by Caracas merit a response in kind.

All the Venezuelan government’s steps thus far are political gambits; they are tentative and reversible; and, again, in themselves they do not create conditions for credible polls or in any way jeopardise Maduro’s hold on power. On the key question of election conditions, the opposition presence on the new CNE is only a start, albeit a promising one. Much more is needed. The government must legalise opposition parties, for example, most of which are barred from electoral participation and some of which have seen their names and assets transferred to minority, pro-government factions. The electoral authorities need to thoroughly audit voter lists. Most importantly, the Maduro government will also have to scale down its apparatus of state repression if it wishes to convince the U.S., the EU and its neighbours of its good faith.

Still, given the gridlock in Venezuela’s political standoff and the country’s appalling humanitarian suffering, outside powers should respond to and seek to encourage any signs of movement. Crisis Group has argued for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of sanctions that inflict humanitarian harm alongside a phased lifting of other punitive measures in response to the gradual restoration of civil and political rights. The most obvious and pressing humanitarian need is for a restoration of permits to allow Venezuela to swap crude oil for diesel, of which there is a critical shortage. Diesel is vital, among other things, for food production and distribution. The U.S. could also consider steps like renewing licences and lifting sanctions that prohibit certain activities by U.S. and other foreign oil companies, with the understanding that these steps could be reversed if Caracas backtracks or fails to make further progress.

Also important is that Washington and Caracas set up channels of communication, either direct or through third parties, so that each can correctly interpret the other’s moves. Biden will pay a political cost for any easing of pressure on Maduro, with no likely immediate return. U.S. politicians are naturally – and perhaps increasingly – reluctant to incur the hostility of the Venezuela lobby in their country. The Maduro government will have to factor in that reality, just as Washington will need to take into account the difficulty the Venezuelan president may have in selling any rapprochement to his own coalition. Contact would allow each side to feel its way with more confidence.

The worst thing the U.S. could do now is to sit on its hands and await further concessions without any corresponding move on its part.

The worst thing the U.S. could do now is to sit on its hands and await further concessions without any corresponding move on its part. Such a course would strengthen the hand of those in the Venezuelan government who argue that however much they concede, Washington is interested only in getting rid of Maduro. It may well be that the Venezuelan president has no intention of going further, but the only way to find out is to engage in a process of gradual, reciprocal change. The ball is in Washington’s court.