A Delicate Situation: How Tumult in Venezuela Threatens a Continent

By Colin Wolfgang

On January 23, the United States (U.S.) joined a number of countries in recognizing Venezuela’s opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, as its interim president. Within hours, Nicolas Maduro responded by severing diplomatic ties with the U.S. and announcing a 30-day window for the country to withdraw its diplomats. While the U.S. and Mr. Maduro have agreed to a temporary détente and further negotiations, it is apparent that this tumultuous geopolitical story is far from over.

For years, Venezuela has been gradually imploding, with its demise destabilizing the entire region. Between the country’s humanitarian crisis; its vast refugee flows; and the nation’s destructive form of authoritarianism, which many South American leaders seem eager to emulate, there is a growing concern that the continent may not be resilient enough to survive this next wave of chaos. 

In the modern era, Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis is virtually unprecedented for the region. After overwhelmingly relying on domestic oil reserves for years, accounting for as much as 50% of the country’s gross domestic product and 98% of its export earnings, the global decline in oil prices has caused Venezuela’s economy to spiral. This has engendered incredible stress in the general population: the poverty rate today hovers around 90%, and by year’s end, inflation is expected to hit 10 million percent. Economic instability begets civil unrest. Violence has soared, and Venezuela is now home to four of the world’s 10 most violent cities

Neighboring countries have already started to experience the ramifications of Venezuela’s domestic unrest. Approximately 3 million Venezuelans, or 10% of the population, have fled the country. This has put a strain on Latin American countries that were ill-prepared for a seemingly un-ending stream of refugees and are struggling to address the situation. For instance, in August 2018, Brazil threatened to close the Brazil-Venezuela border after violence broke out between refugees and a mob of angry Brazilians. While Colombia has borne the brunt of this issue and welcomed more than 1 million people, the country has been a poor host, as they have lacked the appropriate amount of food, medicine, and other essentials for the Venezuelan refugees.

President Maduro’s leadership has not helped the situation. His authoritarian style of governing has silenced journalists, allegedly pilfered millions from Venezuelan coffers, and focused on maintaining power while his constituents die of hunger and destitution. This has typified the country’s frightening decline in democratic values, and it is worrying that some neighboring countries now wish to emulate it. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro may have won in a fair election, but his brazen populism indicates a willingness to maintain power forcibly. Colombian President Iván Duque Márquez, while slightly less brash, is a right-wing populist who may test the boundaries of democracy by actively seeking to undermine the peace that exists between the Colombian government and the FARCPopulismo may not be out of reach in Argentina, where President Mauricio Macri will struggle to consolidate and maintain power ahead of the October 2019 election. It is not difficult to imagine a Latin America that succumbs to an authoritarian wave, similar to the type of power Mr. Maduro commanded for years.

What is going on in Venezuela has ramifications that extend far beyond its boundaries, and foreign states—especially those neighboring the country—should remain on high alert. The World Bank recorded an infant mortality rate of 25.7 for every 1,000 (for comparison, the U.S. has a rate of 5.7), while the average Venezuelan lost 24 pounds in 2017. Despondence continues to be the norm, as Mr. Maduro clings to power and continues to both starve and sicken his countrymen. With the potential severance of diplomatic relations, the U.S. will not be able to provide humanitarian assistance, and if that is the case, it is likely that many other allies will stop helping the country as well. With Maduro continuing to obfuscate his intentions as the potential leader of one of the most embattled countries in the world, the question is whether or not the rest of the region has both the tenacity and ability to handle what is happening in Venezuela. The alternative—a complete destabilization of the region—should be enough to keep the rest of the Americas cautiously optimistic.

Colin Wolfgang is a public affairs and communications consultant in the New York City area and communications director of the New York chapter of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons