By Savannah Fox of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy – In August, Vice President Mike Pence told reporters in Cartagena, Colombia, “President Trump has made it very clear that we will not stand by while Venezuela collapses into a dictatorship.”
Venezuela is the closest major foreign policy challenge, geographically, for the Trump administration. The autocratic government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, who calls himself the “Son of Chavez,” has systematically consolidated political and economic power within the country, causing severe food and medicine shortages, soaring crime rates, and a rising death count of opposition protestors.
There is no doubt that the United States must act when faced with human rights violations and regional instability, but the White House should learn from past interference in Latin America and focus on alleviating the humanitarian crisis, rather than interfering economically or militarily.
Venezuela’s economic crisis, marked by soaring inflation, has led to shortages of food, medical supplies, and staple goods, pushing the situation on the ground into a major humanitarian crisis. With basic food and medical needs unmet, thousands of Venezuelans are fleeing their homes to neighboring countries.
In 2016 there were 27,000 Venezuelan asylum seekers worldwide, but with the rapid decline of basic human rights in recent months, that number has jumped to more than 52,000 through the first six months of 2017.
The majority of refugees have fled to neighboring countries such as Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Caribbean islands. The influx of asylum seekers, temporary workers, and those seeking medical treatment has overburdened some of these countries, creating growing instability around the region.
Regional instability borne from the Venezuelan crisis will reach far beyond a short-term oil price increase and could prove detrimental for US interests in the region for decades. First, Venezuela’s crisis combined with the violence in the Northern Triangle creates a massive refugee crisis across the continent, for which many countries are unprepared.
Second, the historic peace deal in Colombia could crumble under the instability right over their border. The Colombian insurgency and other paramilitary groups have used illicitly governed border territories in Venezuela to retreat, regroup and recruit young, vulnerable Venezuelans.
Finally, deepened instability in the region would be a threat to US national security with criminal drug cartels capitalizing on the chaos and transnational terrorist groups finding sanctuary in Latin American countries, from Mexico to Brazil.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) placed the responsibility for the humanitarian crisis “at the highest level of government.” Since the beginning of July, the Trump administration has reacted to the growing instability by slapping sanctions on individuals in the Maduro government, most recently in the form of an executive order that prohibits dealings in new debt from the Venezuelan government or its state oil company.
However, sweeping sanctions may not be an ideal policy for the United States. Venezuela could experience a 75 percent cut in total income, hastening the pace of complete economic collapse. Such a collapse would force the Venezuelan government to dive into more dependent relationships with countries such as Russia and China, and lead to an upswing in refugees fleeing elsewhere.
Both outcomes would allow the Maduro government to remain in power longer while creating greater economic strain on neighboring countries in the region.
With a history of distrusting the United States, the same Latin American countries that strongly condemn Maduro have vehemently opposed Trump’s insinuation of military action.
The United States must commit to a peace process that allows Venezuelans to choose their own leaders in a democratic vote, and President Trump must heed the warnings against military intervention from his advisors at the Pentagon, who dismissed the president’s remarks within hours.
Without strong, moral, political, or economic grounds for addressing the complex situation in Venezuela, the United States needs to focus on humanitarian relief. First, the White House must recommit to working with the Organization of American States (OAS) to develop a multilateral approach that will pressure the Maduro government to allow relief aid into Venezuela. The country is in dire need of food, medical supplies, and basic needs that cannot be met by the government at this point.
Second, the United States must support the commission of exiled Venezuelan officials that sent a request to the United Nations Security Council asking that it impose an arms embargo on the country. If the request were accepted, all UN member countries would have to immediately stop all weapon sales to Venezuela. The embargo is crucial to discontinue the sale of arms to a regime that has shown no remorse for using deadly force on its own people.
Third, Washington should give special status to Venezuelans forced from their homes to find refuge in the United States. The Trump administration must do its part to help elevate the strain of refugees concentrated within countries bordering Venezuela.
Putting the needs of the Venezuelan people ahead of the short term economic gains is in the United States’ self interest in order to secure long term stability within the region.
The United States should step up in the region as a leader.
It should work with OAS countries to immediately give relief for the humanitarian crisis as well as find a peaceful, democratic transition of power that comes from the Venezuelan people.