Venezuela was once the most prosperous and stable country in Latin America. After the death of the charismatic and autocratic Hugo Chavez, his successor, Nicolas Maduro, assumed the presidency in a fraudulent election. With petrol prices plummeting to a record low of $27 USD per barrel in early 2016, Venezuela faces shortages in food, medicine and other basic services. Poor governance and increased emphasis on the export of energy as the primary source of government revenue have led to the collapse of the Venezuelan economy, to the mismanagement of the country’s resources, and to the consolidation of an incompetent regime with Nicolas Maduro at the helm. As a result, there is an ongoing humanitarian crisis in Venezuela with mounting human security importance.
Weak states, exemplified in the case study of Venezuela, pose a long-term security problem for the international community, as the inability to govern triggers waves of refugees fleeing economic hardship, violence, and conditions of political oppression. Poor governance by the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), the incompetence of Nicolas Maduro, and the attempts at authoritarian consolidation of power have created a political, economic and humanitarian catastrophe in Venezuela. The weakness of the Venezuelan state in turn poses the threat of destabilizing neighboring countries and putting millions of civilians fleeing the dictatorship at risk.
The ongoing political and economic developments in Venezuela have led to an estimated 3 million Venezuelans fleeing to neighboring countries, the United States, and Spain. A rate of about 5,000 Venezuelans reach the borders of neighboring countries every day, with Colombia being the principal destination, now hosting 600,000 refugees. Close to 500,000 Venezuelan migrants have acquired some type of legal status in their host country, but the majority of them do not have any legal status, putting them at greater risk of violence, sexual exploitation, trafficking, and discrimination.
Domestically, Venezuela faces crippling inflation that is expected, per the IMF, to reach 1 million percent by the end of 2018 . Reports from Venezuelan asylum seekers give a human face to the facts and figures. They speak of food shortages, people eating expired food and rotting meat; they talk of children crying because they are hungry and dying of malnutrition. In one account, a Venezuelan lawyer turned Uber driver in the United States spoke of her mother, who was battling cancer and could not find the needed treatment anywhere in Caracas. The BBC reports that child malnutrition is at an all-time high in Venezuela, and the run-down healthcare system in the country poses a threat to citizens in need of medical attention; many women leave Venezuela to birth their children.
Weak governance and weak states belong at the top of the list of long-term international security trends because most of the world’s states are weak or weakening. Rule of law and democratic norms are eroding, and along with them the accountability of state governments to their people and the common good. The human security cost of these phenomena are high, and it takes significant time, effort, resources, and political will to bring a country from weak governance to stable or strong. Good governance does not occur overnight; it is a political process that needs to happen organically by the native peoples, but the international community and regional neighbors have the ability to aid in these processes. The United States and the Organization of American States are best positioned to help resolve this crisis and together with the legitimate government of Venezuela, move the country toward a better, more democratic future.
The Trump administration has taken a tough stance on Venezuela and the now illegitimate Maduro regime. Sanctions have been placed on Venezuelan oil imports, on the financial assets of the governing ruling coalition, and on select Venezuelan businesses. The administration, however, has publicly entertained the idea of intervening in Venezuela and enacting regime change. This would be a costly mistake and not a long-lasting solution but rather a “band-aid” quick fix.
First, research demonstrates that imposing democracies on established autocracies do not result in consolidated democracies; and nations that do transition take “nearly a century or so” to consolidate if all goes right. Second, an intervention will force the ruling elites to entrench themselves in power and increase their repressive tactics. Finally, while an intervention into Venezuela might be able to oust Maduro, the United States does not want to involve itself in an armed conflict that could precipitate armed loyalists launching a guerrilla campaign from the mountains against the new government — a problem which Colombia was just recently able to bring under some control.
Instead, the United States needs to act as mediator between the ruling elites and the opposition elites to negotiate a change in the status quo. The literature and history show that Latin American dictators in the twentieth century have been able to exit power and live in exile in Spain or another country. The end of many dictatorships in Latin America came about through negotiations and exit guarantees for the dictatorial elites. In early February, the Venezuelan National Assembly offered amnesty to the military officers willing to abandon Maduro and give up their support of the regime. The interim president, Juan Guaido, has also considered granting amnesty and allowing Maduro to live in exile if he steps down. The United States benefits by acting as the guarantor of the negotiations for the exit of Maduro and the eventual return to democracy of Venezuela. A negotiation, however, does not mean that the United States will ease on the sanctions, but rather use them as policy tools to get concessions. The United States and the legitimate government of Venezuela need to work together to bring about Maduro’s exit and offer credible commitments that his life and freedom will be respected if he steps down and chooses to live in exile.
The OAS, in accordance with the letter of the Inter-American Democratic Charter in its Articles XX and XXI, needs to work with Venezuela to promote the rule of law, democracy, and good governance. Suspending Venezuela from the OAS requires 24 out of 34 votes, and since many countries in the continent depend on Venezuelan oil, they will not support any drastic measures. Furthermore, Cuba has been suspended from the OAS since the 1960s, and the dictatorship continues to rule and develop.
Instead, OAS member states need to focus on supporting and caring for the needs of the migrants leaving Venezuela, especially in Brazil and Colombia, and aiding these countries with the burden. Within Venezuela, the OAS needs to bypass the hostile Maduro regime and work with the opposition and NGOs to deliver food, medicine, and basic hygiene items such as soap, toothpaste, and female hygiene products to the population. This will prove to be a difficult task, since the military has prevented aid from getting to the country. The long-term strategy of the OAS should be to strengthen the countries in its regional body and the rule of law through the fostering of vibrant civil society and political participation of opposition parties. The body faces a dangerous reality: most of its member states are weak and weakening states. Venezuela is an example of how a prosperous state can be mismanaged out of its riches and create a humanitarian crisis like never before seen in Latin America. Venezuela is the manifestation of a growing tumor, and the OAS must do all it can to stop it from metastasizing to other countries in the region.
The crisis in Venezuela poses a new set of security issues for the American continent that has not been seen before. Absolute state mismanagement like the one seen in Venezuela has never occurred in one of the leading countries of the region. If this pattern of state weakness spreads to other countries, the number of refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced people will increase at an alarming rate. The human security cost of state weakness and mismanagement needs to be at the forefront of the Western Hemisphere’s security agenda. In a continent known for its lack of civil wars and interstate conflict, state weakness poses the biggest and most disruptive security threat. It is in the best interest of the OAS and the United States to prevent other countries from following in the disastrous steps of Venezuela.
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David Deulofeu Antúnez is a first-year M.A. candidate in Security Policy Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs, with a focus in institutional design and political violence in post-communist countries. He has participated in numerous international Model United Nations conferences, where his positions and performance have gained him international awards. He received his B.A. in political science from Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where he had the opportunity to step outside political science and use his associates in biochemistry to conduct research on antibiotic resistance of nosocomial bacteria for the Small Worlds Initiative.