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Venezuela’s Mining Arc: A Legal Veneer for Armed Groups to Plunder
Venezuela’s Mining Arc: A Legal Veneer for Armed Groups to Plunder
A Venezuelan soldier stands guard next to people forming a line to try to buy cornmeal flour and margarine at a pharmacy in Caracas, 15 March 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Venezuela: Edge of the Precipice

Venezuela is in full-fledged crisis: food and medicine are scarce, violent crime is surging, and the government is blocking democratic ways forward. The international community and the Organization of American States should press for political dialogue, the opening of legal paths to a presidential recall referendum in 2016, and permission for humanitarian aid to enter the country.

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I. Overview

In December 2015, President Nicolás Maduro immediately recognised the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) coalition’s resounding legislative election victory. For the first time in over sixteen years, the prospect arose of political cohabitation between the alliance led by the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and its opponents, and with it a unique opportunity to resolve the protracted political crisis by peaceful and democratic means. The government, however, has chosen confrontation, using control of the judiciary and other nominally autonomous branches of state to neutralise the opposition’s control of the National Assembly. The MUD seeks a recall referendum, which the constitution allows after the mid-point of any elected term of office. With battle-lines drawn, both sides treat many of the other’s decisions as legally and practically null and void. The government should cease efforts to block the referendum, and the international community should insist on a timely and effective dialogue with facilitators acceptable to both sides.

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The conflict of powers is all the more damaging because the economic and social crisis has worsened significantly. The World Bank estimates that 2016 GDP will decline by over 10 per cent, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that inflation will approach 500 per cent in 2016 and more than 1,500 per cent in 2017. With no wage indexation, the population below the poverty line is growing fast. Food and other basic goods are scarce, and most Venezuelans cannot afford to buy enough if they can find them. The health service is close to collapse, with most vital medicines unavailable and hospitals experiencing a sharp increase in patient deaths. Most citizens spend hours every day queueing for price-controlled goods, with no guarantee of success. The government has refused to allow donors, private or public, to send food or medical aid, arguing that pressure to do so is a cover for foreign intervention so as to damage its reputation and ultimately remove it.

It has been apparent for some time that without some form of international engagement the crisis is unlikely to end peacefully and constitutionally. The government is doing all it can to hinder the MUD’s efforts to cut short the Maduro presidency by legal means. If a recall referendum is not held this year, it would lose much of its effectiveness, since the constitution provides for the vice president to take over if the president leaves office in the last two years of his term, which ends in January 2019. If, however, Maduro was removed by referendum in 2016, a presidential election would be required in 30 days. If it produced a MUD successor, the response of Chavista loyalists might pose serious governability problems.

The secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS) has called for application of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which provides for diplomatic initiatives, including good offices, in the event of an interruption of the democratic order in a member state. Simultaneously, two former Latin American presidents and a former Spanish premier, at the request of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and endorsed by the June 2016 OAS General Assembly are seeking to promote a government-opposition dialogue. The former Spanish premier, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, briefed the OAS Permanent Council on 21 June on the exploratory stage of those efforts. No agreement has been reached on when that dialogue might actually start, and the MUD has described it as “thus far non-existent” and “convened by only one side”. The Council is scheduled to meet on 23 June to discuss the secretary general’s report.

To prevent an undemocratic, possibly violent outcome and facilitate an immediate solution to the rapidly worsening humanitarian crisis:

The government should

  • declare a humanitarian emergency and permit delivery of external food and medical aid and its distribution by non-governmental agencies;
     
  • refrain from using the Supreme Court to neutralise the elected legislature and permit a peaceful electoral solution to the political crisis by allowing the National Electoral Council (CNE) to exercise its constitutional role; and
     
  • free all political prisoners, allow political exiles to return without reprisals and engage in direct, effective, and timely dialogue with the opposition.

The MUD and National Assembly leadership should

  • prioritise national interest over partisan objectives;
     
  • maintain their declared commitment to peaceful, constitutional resolution of the crisis; and
     
  • make every effort to pursue an effective dialogue with the government.

The regional community should

  • insist that the government permit emergency food and medical aid and prepare a thorough assessment of principal humanitarian needs and how to meet them;
     
  • examine the crisis in the framework of the Inter-American Democratic Charter and urgently assist in restoration of constitutional norms and rule of law; and
     
  • support efforts to pursue a structured, timely dialogue between the two sides and press the CNE to follow the constitutional timetable for a 2016 recall referendum.

Caracas /Brussels, 23 June 2016

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.