The Other Venezuela Crisis
Hemispheric leaders will descend upon Peru this week for the Summit of the Americas in an atmosphere of deep uncertainty. While the fight against corruption is the meeting’s theme, the host country’s president only recently stepped down over graft allegations. Much has been made, and rightfully so, of the poor optics of it all. Yet progress must be made on the other central topic, unofficial as it may be. That topic is Venezuela.
While the crisis within Venezuela has dominated regional meetings for several years, the focus next week must expand. The hemisphere urgently needs a strategy to address the crisis around Venezuela as well.
The country’s rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation has sparked a refugee and migrant exodus that could rival some of the world’s largest outflows, with 1.5 million Venezuelans estimated to have fled. The sudden influx of arrivals has overwhelmed neighboring countries and stretched national capacities to respond. Spillover effects are becoming increasingly evident.
Colombia has received nearly half of those fleeing, and Bogota has tightened border controls and visa rules as the flow becomes unmanageable. This has failed to stem the tide, but it has effectively deprived many new arrivals of any path to a legal status. Entering without a valid passport, which is either confiscated by the government or prohibitively expensive in hyperinflation-wracked Venezuela, precludes migrants from working legally, forcing many into destitution.
Without options for legal employment, irregular arrivals become easy prey for human traffickers and criminal organizations. A vicious cycle follows. Fleeing Venezuelans are forced into illicit work to survive, then run the risk of becoming associated with criminality by the local population, and finally become targets of rising xenophobia and hate crimes.
This is already being seen in Panama, Brazil, and throughout the region, but the situation is complicated to a dangerous degree in Colombia. The country is struggling to implement its landmark peace accords and to restore governance and security in post-conflict areas. Now, the remaining armed groups have found in the most vulnerable Venezuelans prime targets for extortion, throwing a wrench into what was already an extremely delicate process.
There is every indication that this exodus is only set to get worse. Last month, the Atlantic Council commissioned a poll in Venezuela to assess the extent of the internal crisis, following an earlier poll in January. In just two months, we found perceptions among the public, pessimistic to begin with, deteriorating across the board. More than 95 percent of respondents now say the medicine supply is insufficient, a 10-point increase from January. The food supply is deemed similarly dire by 90 percent of respondents, including 70 percent of self-identified chavistas, a nearly 25-point increase in the last two months. Three quarters of Venezuelans say the country needs international assistance. The problem, of course, is that the Maduro regime rejects any such help.
The outflows, it is painfully clear, are set to dramatically increase. If the current trend of 5,000 people per day arriving in neighboring states continues, another 1.7 million Venezuelans will have left the country by year’s end.
This makes it all the more imperative that this year’s Summit of the Americas achieve progress on a coordinated, region-wide response. Venezuela’s immediate neighbors do not have the resources to deal with the current influx alone, much less the impending one.
Still, while the region at large needs cost- and burden-sharing agreements, the onus to act is not just on Latin America. The international community has begun to respond, with the UN Refugee Agency submitting a $46 million supplementary appeal for funding, and the World Bank and International Monetary Fund set to discuss funding during spring meetings later this month. These organizations need all the help they can get. The United States has also pledged $2.5 million in emergency assistance to Colombia and is mulling over an additional $10 million for the region.
Welcome as this all is, the unavoidable reality is that a refugee and migrant crisis on the scale we are seeing now will require far more resources -- a recent Brookings Institution assessment puts the estimate comfortably into the billions. It will also require countries to provide refugee status to those that qualify so they can legally work and sustain themselves.
As the broader international community deliberates on additional funding, the Summit of the Americas should aim to secure firm commitments from Latin America’s wealthier nations, and, most importantly, the United States. For Washington, the Summit could offer the chance to set a new tenor in our relations with the hemisphere.
It’s no secret that the Maduro regime is a dictatorship—a view shared by the international community, and, according to new Atlantic Council poll numbers, six in ten Venezuelans. And the Trump administration is rightly going to great lengths to coordinate pressure on the Maduro regime with other regional governments.
But beyond domestic ramifications, the spiraling international ramifications of the crisis demand sustained, focused U.S. leadership as well. As Latin American heads of state have made clear, the region wants and needs humanitarian assistance in the face of this crisis, and Washington shouldn’t hesitate to lead the charge. Doing so shouldn’t be seen as charity, but as a strategic imperative. Successful management of this refugee and migrant crisis will be crucial to the stability of the region -- stability on which many of our national security and economic interests rest.
While we continue regional efforts to address the disaster inside Venezuela, it’s time for a strong, coordinated response to the disaster outside it as well. The costs of meaningful action will be high, but they’ll be nothing compared to the costs of inaction. The upcoming Summit must deliver concrete funding and a broader regional plan of action. We cannot wait.
Jason Marczak is the director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center. He is on Twitter at @JMarczak. The views expressed are the author’s own.