Why time is ripe for US to address Venezuela's mess

The nation's political crisis is becoming a humanitarian concern as rising numbers of poor and middle-class Venezuelans flee their country because of growing economic hardship. 

Marco Bello/Reuters
An image of late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is seen as supporters of his successor, Nicolás Maduro attend a rally in support of him in Caracas, Venezuela, Nov. 1, 2016. But many Venezuelans are leaving the country.

Venezuela sits atop the world’s largest oil reserves and its crisis isn't likely to reach Syrian levels. Nevertheless, people are leaving. First, it was the country’s professionals and economically comfortable. Now, even the poor and middle class are pulling up stakes as the economy’s tailspin deepens.

In recent months more than 30,000 Venezuelans have crossed the border into Brazil’s Roraima state – and stayed, straining local services. Countries from Colombia and Chile to the United States are reporting a surge in arrivals of migrants and asylum seekers from Venezuela’s middle and working classes.

The humanitarian dimensions of the nation’s crisis and its growing regional impact are spurring Venezuela’s neighbors, including the US, to be more active in pressing for a resolution of the country’s deep political and economic woes, many regional experts say.

The question is whether President Nicolás Maduro – and Venezuela’s fractured political opposition – are ready for that.

“We are looking at something catastrophic for Venezuela,” from both economic and humanitarian perspectives, says Patrick Duddy, a former US ambassador to Venezuela. “As this becomes a real hazard for Colombia, but also for Brazil,” the realization is growing that “we’re going to have to double down on regional diplomacy,” adds Mr. Duddy, who is now director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

Modest start

A combination of factors – including Mr. Maduro’s suspicions of outside involvement, neighbors’ reluctance to overstep traditional bounds, and US sensitivities about old claims of Yankee heavy-handedness – presents big challenges. Still, there are some signs that Venezuela may be ready to pull back from the precipice.

A Vatican-brokered dialogue between the government and some opposition parties got off to a modest start Sunday, with the two sides agreeing to create working groups to take up topics such as the economy, respect for the rule of law, and human rights.

The opposition, buoyed by a landslide victory in elections last year that gave it control of the National Assembly, has been pressing for a recall vote against Maduro. But both sides agreed to “diminish the aggressive tone” of language employed in the political debate, a Vatican representative said in a post-dialogue statement. On Tuesday, the government released a handful of what the opposition says are hundreds of political prisoners.

Also this week, a top US diplomat arrived in Caracas for several days of meetings aimed at underscoring American support for Venezuela’s struggling political dialogue. On Monday Thomas Shannon, undersecretary of State for political affairs with years of focus on Latin America, met with Maduro in what was the highest level of US-Venezuelan contact in years.

Still, some analysts – citing years of similar “dialogues” that got nowhere – caution that Maduro may simply be stalling for time as he pursues Venezuela’s transition to a socialist, state-run economy. From the perspective of some analysts, Venezuela’s collapse is not so much the result of a political standoff as it is the product of Maduro’s inept and repressive pursuit of the socialist project envisioned by Maduro’s predecessor personal mentor, the late Hugo Chávez.

“Venezuela didn’t commit suicide – it was murdered,” said Roger Noriega, a former assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, speaking last week at a Council on Foreign Relations Forum on Venezuela.

Moreover, Mr. Noriega – one of the architects of the Bush administration’s hard-line approach to Mr. Chávez – says the US must become “more proactive” in resolving Venezuela’s crisis.

“The economic humanitarian collapse is going to happen if we don’t take a much more forceful position,” he said at the Washington forum. “We can either save Maduro, or we can help Venezuela,” said Noriega, now at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “It’s a binary choice.”

Opportune timing?

The time may be ripe for more outside involvement. A number of leftist Latin American leaders friendly to the Chávez project have been voted out and replaced with less ideological governments, while the decades-old guerrilla war in Colombia next door has been all but resolved.

“Conditions have never been better for us to partner with a certain number of countries and develop a regional response,” Noriega says.

Diplomatic efforts with a wary Maduro won’t be easy, says Duke University’s Duddy, who as ambassador was expelled by Chávez in 2008 before returning to serve until 2010. For example, the socialist leader has “rejected any possibility of working with” international financial institutions to develop a plan for stabilizing the country’s seemingly doomed economy.

But with the growing potential for Venezuela’s long crisis to become a larger regional challenge, Duddy says the US and Latin neighbors have new incentives for diplomatic efforts to pull Venezuela back from the brink.

“In the event of serious refugee flows,” he says, ”we have to coordinate how we’re going to handle this.”

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