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As Venezuela’s crises intensify, so do its neighbors’

Why We Wrote This

Crises that seem intractable, like Venezuela’s, can be easy to tune out from afar. This weekend’s explosion is a reminder that the need for solutions is growing more urgent in Venezuela – but also beyond.

Carlos Eduardo Ramirez/Reuters
A woman carrying a baby prepares to attempt a crossing into Colombia from Venezuela across the Simon Bolivar International Bridge in San Antonio del Táchira, Venezuela, Aug. 3.

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On Saturday, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro claimed to have survived an assassination attempt during a televised address to troops. The culprits? Opponents in the United States and neighboring Colombia, according to Mr. Maduro. While the government makes arrests of alleged masterminds, critics see the crackdown as an attempt to distract the nation – and world – from Venezuela's mounting economic, political, and humanitarian crises. Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world, but policies under Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, have left the economy struggling, with inflation expected to reach 1 million percent this year. In a 2017 survey, 80 percent of Venezuelans said they had reduced their food consumption to adapt to shortages, and child malnutrition is on the rise. Now, the president’s blaming Colombia could further strain relations in the region as Venezuela’s neighbors struggle to respond to the large numbers of refugees arriving on their doorsteps. Several nearby countries have welcomed refugees, but many are learning on the fly and struggling to balance national issues with the unprecedented influx.

What happened Saturday in Caracas? According to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, he survived an assassination attempt during a televised address to troops. He claims opponents in the United States and neighboring Colombia – including the outgoing president – are responsible for sending explosives-laden drones to kill him. Some witness accounts say a drone hit a nearby building, while local firefighters said there was a gas-tank explosion at an apartment. While the government makes arrests of the alleged masterminds, critics see the crackdown as an attempt to distract the nation – and world – from Venezuela's mounting economic and humanitarian crises.

Mr. Maduro’s accusations move attention away from the fact that some military members scattered after the blast, instead of rushing to protect the president. Breaking rank after the explosion painted the leader as weak and vulnerable, analysts say. But blaming Colombia could raise military tensions and strain already tough relations in the region, as Venezuela’s neighbors struggle to respond to the large numbers of refugees arriving on their doorsteps. Venezuelans are fleeing in droves amid soaring inflation, medical and food shortages, and human rights abuses.

Why are Venezuelans fleeing?

Food shortages, salaries that haven’t kept up with sky-high inflation, and the overall deterioration of the nation’s health system have driven an estimated hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans out of the country. In a 2017 national survey, 80 percent of Venezuelans said they had reduced their food consumption in order to adapt to shortages. Child malnutrition is on the rise, with 16 out of 23 Venezuelan states showing at least 15 percent of children at risk of dying due to malnutrition, according to research by the Catholic charity Caritas.

“We are in an emergency situation. This is a slow-onset emergency: It kills by wearing [people] down, the family is powerless, and the first to die are children,” Susana Raffalli, a leading nutritionist and humanitarian worker studying malnutrition in Venezuela, said in a July interview with a Venezuelan newspaper.

Nearly 80 percent of hospitals surveyed by the nongovernmental organization Red de Médicos por la Salud reported shortages of vital medicines and supplies, and there has been an increase in preventable deaths. 

What does the political crisis look like?

Politics plays a direct role in the humanitarian situation. Mr. Maduro has consolidated power since taking office in 2013, following the death of Hugo Chávez, who also destabilized independent institutions during his 14 years in power. Maduro and his government have blamed the struggling economy on the country’s business class or outside players, like the United States, accusing them of instigating an “economic war.” Last summer, the government held a highly controversial vote on the creation of a Constitutional Assembly, which essentially overrides the opposition-controlled National Assembly. Within the first month of its creation, the body replaced the vocally critical attorney general with a government ally, created a truth commission meant to investigate “acts of violence” at antigovernment protests, and voted to put opposition politicians on trial for treason, among other moves.

At least 15 opposition and former government leaders are now in exile. The opposition has long been divided and continues to struggle to unify its message.

Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world. Why is the economy struggling?

Venezuela has been rocked by inflation for more than a decade – long before Maduro came to power – with the cost of food and other goods going up more quickly than wages. But with soaring oil prices in the 2000s, Chávez’s government discouraged local food production through social welfare policies that kept prices low for consumers. His policies focused on lifting up the poor, but he spent far more of the oil windfall than he saved for future investment. When oil prices began to fall, that lack of savings came back to haunt Venezuela. The government has focused more on paying off foreign debts – and avoiding default – than paying international importers of medicine or food.

Inflation is expected to reach 1 million percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund. The government has put forth a handful of solutions, like printing new currency that will lob off several zeros from its Bolivar notes and vague pledges to reform the currency exchange laws. Some experts suggest gasoline rationing could become a near-term proposal. 

Are neighboring nations pitching in to help?

Absolutely – but many are learning on the fly, and struggling to balance national interests with this unprecedented influx of refugees. Peru, where an estimated 280,000 Venezuelans have fled, has issued temporary resident visas to some 43,000 Venezuelans, which allow access to education, employment, and healthcare. Meanwhile, Colombia, which has shouldered the brunt of the exodus over the past several years, is struggling to balance its own internal challenges (namely the implementation of the peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and a presidential transition) with the estimated 800,000 Venezuelans in need of support. A rule requiring valid identification to access services in Colombia is making the Venezuelan population there more vulnerable, according to a 2018 Washington Office on Latin America report, making them easy targets for recruitment by criminal groups.

In 2017, the United States pledged more than $55 million to South American governments and NGOs responding to the outflow of Venezuelans. Some 18,300 Venezuelans applied for asylum in the US in 2017, more than triple the applicants in 2015.

Are there any solutions on the table?

The government and opposition have engaged in negotiations without much success. First, in 2016, there were talks brokered by the Vatican, and again this year representatives met in the Dominican Republic. Regional bodies like the Organization of American States have repeatedly failed to pass resolutions calling for an end to repression and human rights violations in Venezuela. That, in part, has to do with a strong anti-intervention sentiment across Latin America. US President Trump reportedly questioned the option of invasion, which most observers agree would have more negative effects than positive. However, after the drone incident, some observers worry the explosion – whether truly an assassination attempt or not – could embolden the use of violence in forcing a government transition.

But others are working to use diplomacy and peaceful tactics to find a solution. At the May G7 meeting, members sent a message of solidarity, calling for “a peaceful, negotiated, democratic solution to the crisis in Venezuela.” And many Venezuelan exiles are working from their new homes around the globe to raise awareness and drum up needed international support.

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