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Venezuela’s Humanitarian Crisis

This month at the Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru, participating nations "have a meaningful opportunity to address [Venezuela's] crisis," Farnsworth writes, "agreeing on concrete steps to reverse the suffering caused by the Maduro government."
Eric Farnsworth is vice president of the Council of the Americas and Americas Society.
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Una mujer se cubre la cara frente a militares de la Guardia Nacional en Venezuela. Crédito: Marco Bello/Reuters

Humanitarian crisis and refugee camps are not part of the image of Latin America in the world. A middle-income region with a growing middle class, Latin America is supposed to be better than that. The alternative picture—thousands of refugees on the march, a destroyed economy and people on the verge of starvation—is jarring. It may also be one reason as to why the world is only now waking up to the fact that Venezuela, which sits on the world’s largest proven oil reserves, is collapsing.

Once Latin America’s wealthiest nation, with regular Concorde flights between Paris and Caracas, the government’s misguided effort since 1999 to establish a new Socialism for the 21st Century has, predictably, wrecked the economy and destroyed democracy.

Venezuela suffers from hyperinflation. A fifth of Venezuelan children are malnourished and starvation is now a gruesome reality.

Seeking to restore its popular mandate, the government has called for elections on May 20, which it is in the process of gaming—including manipulating food supplies and jobs for political control—to ensure victory.

Social indicators have cratered to the point where Venezuela’s global peers are mostly desperate war-torn nations such as Syria and Yemen. Street crime has spiked. Caracas has become the most dangerous city on earth.

But Venezuela has suffered no invasion or civil war. In fact, the only war the nation has seen in recent times is the economic warfare that the country’s own government has visited upon its people.

Venezuela’s inability to control the illegal drug trade, with reports of senior officials actively involved, also harms nations in Central America and the Caribbean, undermining fragile democratic institutions in countries ill-equipped to deal with the resulting challenges.

For years, Venezuela has hemorrhaged its professional and educated classes. The politicization and galloping corruption that has transformed national oil company PDVSA, the primary engine of economic growth, from a world leader into a bankrupt disaster, has driven out the human capital and expertise Venezuela can ill afford to lose.

Now, however, the bleeding has become a rout as more than a million Venezuelans of all backgrounds have reportedly departed Venezuela in the past five years. Some estimates put the diaspora at around 10 percent of Venezuela’s population of some 30 million.

Tens of thousands of Venezuelan citizens are crossing the border daily into Colombia, Brazil, and Guyana, or finding their way to various Caribbean islands such as Aruba and Curacao. Without jobs, food, or obvious means of support, they are at the mercy of their neighbors, who themselves have little capacity to deal with such immense flows of people. While the United Nations has not yet offered refugee status, international appeals are underway.

This entirely predictable scenario has been building for years. As John Kennedy once said, the time to fix your roof is when the sun is shining. But it is next to impossible to mobilize governments and others to react until a crisis has begun.

Unfortunately, we are now at that point.

Fortuitously, we are also on the cusp of the next Summit of the Americas, a periodic meeting of regional leaders scheduled to be held this month in Lima, Peru. The official agenda deals with ways to combat corruption while supporting democratic governance. The unofficial agenda will focus on the unfolding crisis in Venezuela.

Although Venezuela’s leader Nicolas Maduro has been disinvited from the Lima summit due to his government’s authoritarian abuses, those from allied nations including Bolivia, Cuba, and some Caribbean countries are planning to attend and will likely prevent a consensus from developing at the summit around an action plan to deal with Venezuela’s crisis.

That’s a shame, but also a reality given bankrupt Venezuela’s continued financial support for its dwindling group of allies and Cuba’s continued backing of its sister regime.

The other nations at the summit have a meaningful opportunity to address the crisis, agreeing on concrete steps to reverse the suffering caused by the Maduro government.

But they must also seek to cure the disease, not just treat its symptoms. There is no solution to Venezuela’s refugee crisis without the restoration of democracy in Caracas. A plan for economic recovery also has to be developed, recognizing that the patience and resources of the international community are not unlimited.

Meanwhile, every day brings increasing repression and hopelessness to Venezuela, and a new flood of refugees seeking escape. Leaders gathering in Lima would do well to acknowledge that both the purpose and the promise of the Summit of the Americas were meant for such a time as this.