January 29, 2019

3 Things to Watch in Venezuela’s Crisis

By Sung Lee

The path forward in Venezuela remains uncertain since National Assembly President Juan Guaidó took the oath of office and declared himself the legitimate interim president of Venezuela. He was quickly recognized by the United States, Canada, and much of Central and Latin America, even as Russia, China, and Turkey warned they would continue to support President Maduro.

While the Administration insists that no options are “off the table,” it has so far focused on a strong diplomatic and economic response to defend democratic values and encourage a peaceful transition of power. As the crisis unfolds, here are three critical issues to watch as the hunger and political crisis in Venezuela continues to spiral downward:

Growing Humanitarian Crisis

The crisis has been preceded by years of worsening economic conditions in recent years, despite having the world’s largest stock of crude oil. Inflation surpassed 1 million percent last year, pushing 87 percent of Venezuelans into extreme poverty. Facing severe shortages of basic food and medicine, Venezuelans have lost an average 24 pounds and the infant mortality rate has skyrocketed from 15 to 21 deaths per 1,000 live births.

While Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the United States would provide an additional $20 million in humanitarian assistance and reinforced his commitment to help “begin the process of rebuilding their country and their economy,” it has been difficult for any assistance to help Venezuelans inside the country, given President Maduro’s refusal to accept international aid.

Regional Spillover

In addition to the suffering inside the country, more than 3 million Venezuelans – about 10 percent of the population – have fled to neighboring countries, including Peru and Colombia, America’s key strategic partners in the region.

In Colombia, 5,000 to 7,500 Venezuelan refugees arrive every day – threatening the country’s fragile progress toward peace after its own civil war. Peru, a growing economic partner of the United States where U.S. goods exports increased by more than 100 percent in the past decade, has declared a health emergency as it deals with thousands of refugees arriving every day.

As in other conflict areas around the world, the demands of refugees on neighboring countries can even strain countries committed to helping.

Diplomatic Security

While non-emergency U.S. personnel and their families have left the country, America’s diplomats and security officials remain at the U.S. Embassy in Caracas. National Security Advisor John Bolton, declared their safety is “an absolute top priority,” and Secretary Pompeo also warned Venezuelan security forces to “not test the United States on our resolve to protect our people.”

Yet questions about the allegiances and future steps of the Venezuelan military highlight the risks of conflict as the U.S. continues to maintain its presence in the embassy.

Congress has also spoken forcefully on the crisis with bipartisan voices calling for the United States to work with our allies in the region and provide aid to mitigate the crisis.

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) tweeted the United States must “be prepared to work with our regional allies and the international community to provide food, medicine and other humanitarian aid in coordination with President [Guaidó].”

Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee also observed, “for U.S. action to be most effective, we must coordinate closely with the growing international coalition that supports Interim President Guaidó.”

While the world is watching the situation in Venezuela, moments of crisis highlight the importance of American diplomacy, allies, and assistance that may fly below the radar in quieter times.

As the President prepares to address the nation next week and later release his budget request, let’s hope for a strong signal of support for these non-military tools of influence and power critical to advancing our interests around the world.