Of all the refugee crises in the world, from those in Syria to Myanmar to Libya, the one least recognized as a crisis is Venezuela’s. That perception changed in recent days, however, after a tour of Latin America by United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The massive influx of Venezuelans into the rest of the region was a major topic, helping turn a distant issue about the country’s economic implosion into an explosion of empathy for the rising number of refugees.
The shift in concern should add to the diplomatic momentum for a solution in Venezuela, where poverty and hunger are now the norm and President Nicolás Maduro’s dictatorial grip will probably increase after a pseudo-election planned for April.
Providing aid to the refugees could send a subtle message – as it has done in other world trouble spots – that innocent civilians deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
The people in Venezuela already know the state of the crisis. The economy continues to shrink. Basic goods are in short supply. The country now has the highest inflation rate in the world. Its oil production has stagnated while the government has defaulted on some foreign debt payments. The regime needs to rely more and more on the military to quell dissent. And Mr. Maduro has refused humanitarian relief, fearing the country will be forced to make concessions.
A poll this week revealed that 85 percent of Venezuelans say the country is in a “grave humanitarian crisis.” Less than a third plan to vote in the coming election.
In neighboring Colombia, almost half a million Venezuelans have already “voted with their feet” by fleeing across the border. And every day, hundreds more arrive in Colombia as well as in places such as Brazil, Panama, and Argentina. Colombia says the migration is now its top concern. The government has opened its first shelter and made plans for large-scale camps. Mr. Tillerson promised to consider US aid for the effort.
Venezuela’s “deep” crisis, says Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, is the “result of the failed [socialist] revolution led by President Maduro.”
Helping Venezuela’s refugees is one way to encourage the rest of Latin America to unite and take stronger action toward restoring democracy in that country. And sending a message of hope from outside might convince more Venezuelans at home that they are not alone. They deserve both basic goods and basic rights.