Hostage Crisis in the Americas

By Alan W. Dowd, ASCF Senior Fellow

SEPTEMBER 2018—Venezuela is imploding before our very eyes: Venezuelans are starving in the streets; the public-health system has collapsed; some 60,000 Venezuelans are flowing into Brazil and Colombia each month to seek food and medicine; Venezuela’s man-made humanitarian crisis has turned more than 2 million into refugees; the state is unraveling; and the government has turned on its own people, killing hundreds of civilians over the past 30 months. 

Given the American public’s engagement fatigue—and the complicated history of U.S. interaction with Latin America—it won’t be easy for policymakers to make the case for intervening to save Venezuela from itself. But given the mounting costs and dangers, some sort of intervention may be unavoidable at a certain point—whether or not the American people want to intervene. It pays to recall that President George H.W. Bush avoided intervening in Somalia, President Bill Clinton avoided intervening in Bosnia and President Barack Obama avoided intervening in Iraq and Syria—until events, public opinion, American interests, and/or American ideals finally forced them to reverse course and intervene.

A similar phenomenon may be happening today. Even though he has expressed deep reservations about humanitarian intervention, President Donald Trump has observed, “We have troops all over the world in places that are very, very far away…Venezuela is not very far away and the people are suffering, and they are dying.”

America will answer if called upon to help the people of Venezuela, even if reluctantly. The question Trump seems to be contemplating is: Should we wait for the call?

Ideals

Trump is hinting at the moral case for helping the people of Venezuela—and it’s an increasingly compelling one.

According to the UN Human Rights Office, Venezuelan police and security forces have carried out more than 500 extra-judicial killings since the latter half of 2015. There are documented reports of security forces committing acts of torture and sexual assault against detainees.

According to the Organization of American States (OAS), the Maduro regime has carried out 12,000 arbitrary detentions, engaged in the “criminalization” of duly elected opposition politicians, and is guilty of “state-orchestrated human suffering”—withholding food, medical supplies, government services and subsidies from communities, groups and individuals affiliated with regime opponents.

Mercy Corps reports the typical Venezuelan lost 24 pounds last year; 300,000 Venezuelan children are at risk of death from malnutrition; and infant mortality is up 30 percent since 2015.

Preventable diseases like measles, diphtheria and malaria are loose in Venezuela—afflicting hundreds of thousands. And tragically, 88 percent of Venezuela’s hospitals lack basic medicines to treat the most basic illnesses.

Venezuela’s broken healthcare system is a function of Venezuela’s broken economy, which will only get worse in the months to come. The IMF projects Venezuela’s GDP “to fall by about 18 percent in 2018—the third consecutive year of double-digit declines in real GDP,” predicts  “a surge in inflation to 1,000,000 percent by end-2018” (that’s 1 million percent) and concludes that “the situation in Venezuela is similar to that in Germany in 1923.”

Yet the Maduro regime is refusing most international aid, which makes this worse than a typical humanitarian crisis. A more accurate description of Maduro’s Venezuela is a hostage crisis—but on a massive, nationwide scale.

It pays to recall that we’re not talking about some faraway country doomed by geography to an endless struggle for survival. This is not a victim of foreign aggression, civil war or natural disaster. Oil-rich Venezuela is a victim of terrible policies and failed government. “Once rich, Venezuela is now poor,” Vice President Mike Pence recently observed. “Once free, Venezuela is now oppressed. And once a model of stability, Venezuela’s collapse has led to a crisis unlike any in our Western Hemisphere’s history…Venezuela is now essentially a failed state, and the Venezuelan people are suffering,”

Interests

There’s also a national-security case for stabilizing Venezuela.

There are real threats Venezuela’s crisis could spawn: We know that a) jihadist groups seek out and thrive in lawless lands, and b) jihadist groups have made inroads in South America. It doesn’t strain the imagination to contemplate these groups—and their state sponsors—setting up shop in the ungoverned areas of Venezuela. In a similar vein, Russia and China, which already have security and economic ties to the Maduro regime, could use Venezuela’s chaos as a pretext to expand their footprints in South America. As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said of Venezuela, “The Russians are there, the Iranians [and] Hezbollah are there. This is something that has a risk of getting to a very, very bad place.”

A more immediate threat is the likelihood that Venezuela’s instability will infect its neighbors. At least 2.3 million Venezuelans have fled their crumbling country: 600,000 to Colombia; 300,000 to Peru; 290,000 to the U.S.; 119,000 to Chile; 104,000 to Mexico, Panama, the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica; 57,000 to Argentina; 35,500 to Ecuador; 35,000 to Brazil. Some 50,000 Venezuelans move back and forth across the Colombia-Venezuela border daily to access basic necessities not available in their homeland.

In response, Colombia has dispatched its army to border checkpoints to deter and turn back illegal immigration from Venezuela. Brazilian border towns are chasing away Venezuelans and building makeshift barricades.

In short, Venezuela’s crisis is destabilizing South America and impacting the entire hemisphere. Not surprisingly, Pence calls the situation in Venezuela a “threat to our collective security” and warns that “the U.S. will not stand idly by while Venezuela collapses.”

So far, the U.S. response has taken the form of aid to assist Colombia, Ecuador, and other frontline states in sheltering and handling the tidal wave of Venezuelan refugees. But more will be required of America because more problems are looming in Venezuela. “An explosion is coming,” former NATO commander Adm. James Stavridis warns. “And when it does, we should expect a great deal of violence and massive refugee flows.”

To prepare and brace for the worst, Stavridis recommends standing up “a State Department-led interagency working group to craft a strategy for dealing with a possible civil war…planning by the Department of Defense for humanitarian operations…[and] advance stationing of supplies and medicines by the U.S. Agency for International Development in the Caribbean.”

Stavridis, Pence and Pompeo know that Venezuela’s security forces are beginning to splinter into pro- and anti-regime camps, which increases the likelihood that the Venezuelan crisis will devolve from civil unrest to full-blown civil war. Indeed, rebel soldiers have launched attacks against military bases outside Caracas; the number of soldiers arrested for treason is rising rapidly; and an anti-regime group recently deployed drones in an effort to assassinate Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro.

Restoration

The old adage that “people get the government they deserve” arguably doesn’t apply in Maduro’s Venezuela. Although there is a powerful minority that supports the regime, the people have tried to oust Maduro and his coterie of thugs via political means—only to be blocked by the Supreme Court, National Electoral Council, armed mobs, a faux parliament designed by Maduro for the express purpose of bypassing the country’s duly-elected National Assembly, and sham elections that barred the main opposition party from participating.

In response, the OAS Secretary General’s Office bluntly declared, “We do not recognize Nicolas Maduro as the legitimate president of Venezuela.” In addition, the OAS has issued a staggering bill of indictment against the Maduro regime, including state-sanctioned acts of torture, sexual violence, extra-judicial executions and other “crimes against humanity.” And the OAS and has called upon its members “to implement, in accordance with their respective legal frameworks and applicable international law, the measures deemed appropriate at the political, economic, and financial levels to assist in the restoration of democratic order in Venezuela.”

Toward that end, Ecuador is organizing a regional summit to address the Venezuelan crisis. The Colombian government has called on its neighbors to “work together in a coordinated manner, employing similar policies” to address the causes and consequences of Venezuela’s mass-migration.

Pompeo has urged the OAS to suspend Maduro’s Venezuela. Further along the diplomatic track, Washington should rally other partners throughout the Americas to join in openly calling for Maduro’s ouster—and in pledging that Venezuela’s return to constitutional government and reinstatement of the National Assembly will open the floodgates to humanitarian relief, economic aid, technical support and security assistance from every corner of the Western Hemisphere.

However, to avoid the perception of a return of “Yankee imperialism” and to deprive Maduro of fodder for fueling Venezuelan nationalism, Washington should encourage and empower the nations in Venezuela’s neighborhood to take the lead—working through the OAS, CARICOM, Association of Caribbean States, and other regional partnerships where possible and appropriate. Like any hostage crisis, the goal in Venezuela is to rescue and release the innocent. A U.S. invasion could undermine that goal.

As Pence put it, in words that no doubt reassured his South American hosts, “What we do to see democracy restored in Venezuela, we will do together.”

 

Photo: Venezuelan President Nicols Maduro next to a portrait of Hugo Chavez in February 2013. Credit Reuters

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