Venezuela’s Escalating Humanitarian Crisis

March 9, 2020 By Zach Cohen

Colombia’s President Ivan Duque met with President Trump at the White House last week, and at the top of their agenda was Venezuela. Colombia has played a critical role in managing the regional migration crisis, taking in more than 1.7 million Venezuelan refugees—more than a third of the 4.5 million who have fled the country in recent years following political upheaval and economic collapse.

“Colombia cannot do it alone,” President Duque stressed in a recent op-ed, calling for the international community to “rise to the occasion” in the face of this massive humanitarian crisis which poses a threat to stability in the Western Hemisphere as a whole.

Stark Regional Impacts

The crisis in Venezuela has been described as the worst outside of war in decades. The country saw a staggering 10 million percent inflation rate in 2019, and one in three Venezuelans—more than nine million people—face food insecurity, according to a recent survey by the World Food Programme.

The impacts of the crisis extend beyond Venezuela, with drastic repercussions throughout Latin America. The UN predicts that more than 6.5 million people may have left the country by the end this year, putting further strain on neighboring Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, and Chile. With cases of the Novel Coronavirus reported in Colombia and Brazil, and many Venezuelan refugees lacking access to sufficient medical care, it could be devastating if the virus spreads further on the continent.

Colombia has played an outsized role in accepting refugees, despite only recently entering a period of relative stability.  Some of those leaving Venezuela for Colombia are actually members of the Colombian diaspora who fled the country for Venezuela decades ago. While this reflects the significant progress Colombia has made over the past twenty years, thanks in part to sustained U.S. foreign assistance, it is also a reminder of the fragile nature of the progress.

The Venezuela refugee crisis remains on pace to surpass the scope of the crisis in Syria, with no signs of slowing. Despite these alarm bells, the international community has not prioritized addressing the urgent humanitarian needs. Venezuelan refugees have received just $125 in humanitarian aid per capita, as compared to $1500 per Syrian refugee.

U.S. Response

While the international response has indeed been limited compared to in Syria, the U.S. has invested more than $656 million in aid in recent years. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called for a strong response to the crisis, saying the United States stands “united with the Venezuelan people and remain[s] committed to getting them the help they deserve.” Thanks to USAID’s assistance in efforts to vaccinate nine million Venezuelan children, a two-year outbreak of measles in Venezuela was finally declared under control last month.

Congress has also helped respond to the crisis by passing the bipartisan VERDAD Act, which included an authorization for $400 million in humanitarian assistance for refugees and hosting communities, alongside bolstered support for civil society and democracy groups in Venezuela in hopes of reaching a diplomatic solution.

In recognition of growing humanitarian needs, the Administration included a substantial increase in funding for Venezuela in its FY21 International Affairs Budget Request. The Administration requested $205 million—a 2,178% increase compared to its FY20 request. The request for Venezuela is one of the few areas of the International Affairs Budget to see an increase, compared to an overall 22% cut to the budget’s topline.

While the proposed increase is a positive sign that the Administration seeks to strengthen its engagement in one of the worst humanitarian crises the world has ever seen, it is critical that such engagement does not come at the cost of other key diplomacy and development programs around the world.