Estamos en crisis: on Venezuela and the International Community
December 7, 2017 | The crisis in Venezuela—economic, humanitarian, and democratic in nature—has reached unimaginable extremes. Inflation is higher than in any other country in the world, medicine and basic goods are unattainable, and the average person has lost 19 pounds due to lack of access to food. Even worse, the crisis is not likely to be quelled at any time soon. Efforts to combat Nicolás Maduro’s autocratic control are largely at a standstill and the leader’s grasp on power has yet to falter.
The Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD)—the strongest historical opposition coalition that has actively resisted Venezuelan Chavismo since 2008—fractured just weeks ago in the aftermath of the October 15 regional elections that led to deep divides among members. The coalition, which is made up of over fifteen different political parties ranging from Marxist to center-right in ideology, has failed to assemble a coherent strategy and is now fragmenting due to internal disagreements over strategy. With this actor no longer such a powerful force in the game, the scenario in which a true democratic transition of power takes place seems farther and farther away.
The underlying problem that allows Maduro’s regime to thrive is clear and it is one that affects much of Latin America: corruption. Maduro’s criminal network operates not just throughout Venezuela, but transnationally as well. Despite the state’s hyperinflation and ever-increasing debt due to falling oil prices in recent years, Maduro and fellow politicians have maintained their wealth and power through the mechanism of a narco-state, whereby there exists a direct connection between government officials and drug cartels. His network is so complex that investigations into the actors involved are taking years to realize.
With this kleptocratic system in place, money laundering will continue to keep Maduro and other elites afloat for the foreseeable future, even as his citizens suffer from hunger and his state devolves deeper into a debt crisis. Thus, while sanctions that have been implemented by several international actors do hamper him, they cannot outright stop him.
In the meantime, the more immediate and obvious need for the international community is to address the humanitarian crisis. Maduro makes this largely impossible, however. Foreign actors have attempted to send aid, but he repeatedly refuses to accept it. He perpetuates a narrative that aid is not needed, because his narrative is that there is no crisis. He even sent $5 million of Venezuelan money to victims of Hurricane Harvey in the U.S. Maduro has made it impossible for even the international community to resolve the problems he himself has created. Thus, the future remains bleak for the almost 31 million people currently suffering from starvation.
Consequently, the urgent question within this scenario has become not only what should the international community do to prevent further suffering, but what can it do? With the internal opposition facing setbacks and paths to aiding the humanitarian crisis blocked, the international community must focus on a transition away from Maduro’s authoritarian control as the most likely way to relieve Venezuelans’ suffering and bring stability to the country.
However, the admittedly eager international effort has lacked a certain level of coordination and cohesion. Of course, different actors ranging from bilateral to multilateral institutions naturally have different interests. In order for any external effort to have a tangible effect and prioritize the victims of this crisis, however, strategies must be deliberated and actors must be unified—both among themselves and in coordination with the opposition efforts inside Venezuela. Particularly as the government and the opposition enter into a new round of negotiations, it is crucial that the international community clarify its approach and set an agenda for the future.
International actors first need to determine which potential solutions should be prioritized in the effort to reach stability in Venezuela. So far, major actors have agreed upon the initial step toward thwarting the regime: implementing sanctions. The United States and Canada have each executed sanctions on 40 powerful individuals in the country. The European Union is now following suit, recently announcing a weapons embargo on the country with the possibility to name targeted sanctions on individuals if the regime does not comply with certain demands for democratic restructuring. The Lima Group—a coalition formed by Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay and Peru—also supports sanctions, as well as further actions when necessary.
The agreement on implementation of sanctions from various different actors is a positive step. However, in addition to aligning policy decisions, powerful Western actors need to align their rhetoric as well. For example, the White House cannot throw out suggestions like introducing prospective military action in Venezuela when not a single other country in Latin America agrees with this route. This example of advocating for a specific path without consultation of the rest of the international community detracts from a unified strategy toward the situation.
Another area where international actors must align themselves is the issue of possible transition plans for Venezuela once initial stability is achieved. Some voices propose a restorative justice plan for Venezuela modeled after Colombia’s, whereas others dispute this idea by arguing that the model itself is too lenient on perpetrators. Some voices contend that the international community should work toward a transitional government period for Venezuela. Others argue that this scenario is unrealistic and not worth pursuing, as Maduro’s supporters would never submit to such an option.
Furthermore, there is disagreement over whether concerns of “justice” or “peace” should be addressed first in this crisis. The Organization of American States effectively chose the path of prioritizing justice when it appointed former International Criminal Court Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo to look into whether Maduro’s actions toward protesters during the summer months of 2017 constitute crimes against humanity and, thus, referral to the ICC. On the other hand, other international actors argue that it is more critical to achieve peace and stability first before shifting focus to justice. They argue that justice mechanisms should not even be considered until the nation is stable and citizens are no longer suffering.
The most vital concern is that the international community must find common ground in order to be helpful in resolving Venezuela’s internal crises. By doing so, they can focus on putting an end to the humanitarian crisis by utilizing civil society actors as a means to distribute aid, discuss the outlook for a negotiated and internationally mediated democratic transition, and agree upon the transitional justice mechanisms that are most likely to be effective in this unique case. In this period of critical need within Venezuela where the MUD’s activism has been waning, the international community must band together to support internal efforts and ensure that change is effected quickly and in a smart, thoughtful, and cohesive fashion. Only with this alliance in place will Venezuela be able to return to peace.
Megan Kelly is a recently returned Fulbright Recipient who was stationed in Colombia and is currently a Program Assistant at the National Endowment for Democracy. Her views do not reflect those of the NED.
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror itself.
Photo by Voice of America [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons