Venezuela crisis: In Latin America, tough Trump rhetoric increasingly in vogue

Fernando Vergara/AP
Venezuelan migrants waited for free services offered by the city of Bogotá, Colombia, in September. The Bogotá mayor’s office is helping that population with haircuts, healthcare, and toiletries. Such hospitality hasn’t routinely been extended across the region of late.

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When it comes to Venezuela, more Latin American countries are sounding like the Trump administration, which has pointedly said “all options are on the table.” The hardening tone, regional experts say, reflects mounting concerns that the reverberations of Venezuela’s collapse could destabilize the region if unaddressed. Chief among the fears is that the humanitarian crisis leading to the arrival of thousands of destitute refugees could spawn nationalist political movements, potentially setting back Latin America’s embrace of democracy and rising prosperity. But if South American countries are talking tough, some say, they are carrying very little in the way of a stick, as even Washington has little appetite to do much beyond the sanctions it slaps on members of President Nicolás Maduro’s government. “Latin America without the US is not going to make any meaningful changes in Venezuela,” says Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Americas Society and Council of the Americas in Washington. On the other hand, he says, a worsening migration crisis could prompt actions that could increase political upheaval. “These countries just don’t have the capacity to absorb these refugee flows, so at some point something is going to snap.”

Why We Wrote This

Waves of refugees do more than strain resources in host countries. They also raise concerns of an angrier and more extreme form of politics that could undermine democracy.

Vice President Mike Pence knows first-hand about the shift among South American countries to a more interventionist approach to Venezuela’s economic collapse and deepening – and spreading – humanitarian crisis.

Far less clear, some regional experts say, is whether a tougher stance toward Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro gives Latin American countries any leverage to force changes in their collapsing neighbor.

A year ago when Mr. Pence stopped off in Bogotá as part of a swing through the region, his hint that the United States included military force among its “many options” for addressing Venezuela’s “tragedy of tyranny” met with a stern retort from then-Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.

Why We Wrote This

Waves of refugees do more than strain resources in host countries. They also raise concerns of an angrier and more extreme form of politics that could undermine democracy.

“Since friends must tell [friends] the truth, I have told Vice President Pence the possibility of military intervention shouldn’t even be considered,” Mr. Santos said.

But that was then.

At the United Nations two weeks ago, Pence attended a special meeting called by Colombia’s new president, Iván Duque, on South America’s expanding refugee crisis spawned by Venezuela’s downward spiral. He couldn’t have helped but notice the shift.

Mr. Duque – who earlier in September had refused to sign on to a declaration of regional leaders opposing any use of force to end Venezuela’s crisis – pulled no punches in asserting that the “dictatorship” of Mr. Maduro must be brought to an end. And he thanked Pence for cautioning the Venezuelan government not to “intimidate” its neighbors, which have already received nearly 2 million Venezuelans fleeing their country’s dire straits.

Colombia’s embrace of a hard-line approach to Venezuela reflects a broader shift across Latin America to more interventionist rhetoric as the region grows increasingly alarmed at the spillover from their neighbor’s humanitarian and political crisis.

President Trump, in his speech to the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly in September, took a moment to slam Maduro and his destruction via “socialism” of a once-wealthy country.

Yet while virtually no one sees Mr. Trump’s insistence that “all options are on the table” actually leading to a US military invasion to topple Maduro, some regional experts say the hardening tone reflects mounting concerns that the reverberations of Venezuela’s collapse could destabilize the region if unaddressed.

What the crisis could beget

Among the fears: that the humanitarian crisis and arrival of thousands of destitute refugees could spawn nationalist political movements and foment regional tensions, potentially setting back Latin America’s embrace of democracy and rising prosperity.

“We hear more and more ideas like mass deportations of Venezuelans and claims of the crime and poverty they are bringing with them,” says Brian Fonseca, a Latin America expert and director of the Gordon Institute for Public Policy at Florida International University in Miami. Such ideas, he says, are “a ripple effect of this crisis that some are worried has the potential to really shift the political discourse in their countries and feed an angry backlash and nationalist movements.”

Evan Schneider/The UN/AP
Iván Duque (c.), president of the Republic of Colombia, looks toward Vice President Mike Pence while addressing a meeting on regional migration organized by the Permanent Mission of Colombia to the UN, at United Nations headquarters, Sept. 25, 2018.

“If there’s an increasingly hard line on Venezuela and urgent regional demands for answers to its crisis,” he adds, “it is in part because some leaders and others believe we could wake up in a decade and see some serious social and political fractures shaking the region – and could trace it back forensically to the Venezuela crisis.”

To illustrate the kind of political impact that South America’s “migration crisis” could have, Mr. Fonseca cites the Mariel boatlift of 1980, which resulted in more than 125,000 Cubans leaving for South Florida over a matter of months.

“Florida and indeed US politics are still feeling the impact of that migration today,” he says, “and I don’t think it’s exaggerating to consider a potential impact of double that or more” from Venezuelan migrants arriving across South America.

Already more than 1 million Venezuelans have fled to neighboring Colombia, with as many as 5,000 more arriving each day, according to the Colombian government. Another 400,000 are in Peru, with smaller numbers arriving in Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Mexico – and Florida.

Another reason for the shift in thinking toward Venezuela is that the socialist revolution declared by Mr. Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, has lost ideological soulmates in the region, Fonseca says. At the same time, a number of less confrontational leaders have been replaced with others espousing a more interventionist approach. Colombia’s switch from Santos to Duque is a case in point.

“At one point you had allies of Venezuela across Latin America. Maduro could count Argentina, Peru, and Ecuador among his friends, but that’s pretty much dried up,” Fonseca says – citing Bolivia and Nicaragua as exceptions.

Shift not lost on Venezuela

Indeed Venezuelan officials are well aware of the regional shift in attitude.

After the country’s foreign minister, Jorge Arreaza, was barred from entering the meeting Colombia hosted at the UN on the migration crisis and featuring the American vice-president, he blasted his neighbors attending the meeting as “gobiernos sicarios” – hitmen governments – carrying out Washington’s violent agenda toward Venezuela.

The same day Mr. Arreaza made the “hitmen” comment, five South American countries plus Canada signed a petition to the International Criminal Court asking that it investigate the Maduro government for “gross human rights violations” including murder, torture, and forced disappearance.

Yet while others agree that more Latin American countries are sounding more like the Trump administration when it comes to Venezuela, they add that in truth Washington has little appetite to do much beyond the occasional sanctions it slaps on members of the Maduro government (as it did again last week).

That leaves South American countries talking tough, but carrying very little in the way of a stick, they add.

“Latin America without the US is not going to make any meaningful changes in Venezuela, they don’t have the leverage and they don’t have the political will to take actions that could compel a change in behavior,” says Eric Farnsworth, vice-president of the Americas Society and Council of the Americas in Washington.

On other hand, he agrees that a worsening migration crisis could prompt actions that could increase tensions and political upheaval. “These countries just don’t have the capacity to absorb these refugee flows, so at some point something is going to snap.”

The Florida angle

Venezuela has indeed lost regional friends over the past year, Mr. Farnsworth says. But he also notes that the “Maduro regime” has survived longer than many predicted – and he wonders if it might hold on long enough to see Latin America return to a more traditional perspective of non-interference in neighbors’ affairs.

“There’s no doubt that Latin America has moved incrementally closer to an uncharacteristic interventionist stance – in part as a result of a new crop of leaders – and that this movement has sped up with a humanitarian crisis that is affecting all these countries’ interests,” Farnsworth says. “But the question now is whether anything meaningful happens to change Venezuela’s course before the political pendulum swings again.”

Could such a swing even include Trump? Fonseca of Florida International notes that at the UN the president floated the idea of meeting with Maduro to, in Trump’s words, “take care of Venezuela” – and he wonders if Trump might have another “North Korea-type initiative” up his sleeve.

If so, Fonseca cautions that Florida politics are sensitive enough to Venezuela’s calamity and Maduro’s grip on the country that Trump would face a very narrow window for a Venezuela diplomatic gambit that could appear unseemly to expat Venezuelans and other Latino voters in the Sunshine State.

“It would have to be after the midterms, of course, but it would also have to come well before 2020,” he says. “No one can afford to write off the state of Florida.”

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