Venezuela: a country on the verge of collapse
Millions have already fled Venezuela in a humanitarian crisis that’s being compared with Syria. Global Insight assesses the impact of the beleaguered economy, the political tensions and the challenges that lie ahead.
For Venezuelans, it’s hard to imagine how things could get much worse. The economy’s in tatters, with inflation reaching 80,000 per cent in 2018. The IMF expects it to soar to 10 million per cent in 2019.
In early March, a nationwide blackout crippled Venezuela’s power supply, plunging much of the country into darkness for several days, exacerbating already chronic shortages of water, food and medical supplies, with difficulties getting international aid into the country meaning many families are surviving on one meal a day.
An estimated 3.4 million people have left Venezuela since 2015. The UN says this figure could rise to over 5 million in 2019 as ongoing economic and political turmoil pushes the country to breaking point. Over a million Venezuelans have sought refuge in Colombia, 500,000 in Peru and 200,000 in Ecuador. Over 500,000 have fled to Argentina, Brazil and Chile.
It’s not just a regional issue either. Outside Latin America, both the US and Spain have already received more than 200,000 migrants from the country, and these figures look set to rise. Matthew Reynolds, the UN Refugee Agency’s Regional Representative for the US and the Caribbean, has described the migrant crisis as ‘on the scale of Syria’.
Barbara Wegelin is a senior associate at Everaert Advocaten in Amsterdam and Refugee Officer on the IBA Immigration and Nationality Law Committee. She believes what has been largely treated as a regional crisis to date already draws parallels with the events in Europe four years ago. ‘Unfortunately, it’s being coined as a regional issue rather than a global crisis,’ says Wegelin. ‘In Syria, there was no doubt in people’s minds that they were refugees, yet they were still treated poorly. For Venezuela, the same applies, but we don’t consider them refugees because it’s viewed as an economic crisis.’
Beatriz Borges, Director of the Center for Justice and Peace (CEPAZ), a Venezuelan non-profit organisation, says the migration crisis has finally caused other countries to sit up and take notice of the deteriorating human rights situation in Venezuela. ‘Our country is facing its biggest crisis in human mobility and that crisis has made other countries wake up to the situation in Venezuela,’ she says.
Venezuela’s government, which has failed to recognise the severity of the humanitarian crisis, is in large part to blame for the mass migration. ‘They’re telling international human rights bodies that they don’t need humanitarian help, but the real issue is they cannot hide anymore as Venezuelans are leaving in a desperate move to survive,’ says Borges.
The mass migration has demonstrated that the crisis can no longer be ignored, either inside or outside Venezuela. ‘The humanitarian emergency is complex and is not a result of a war or an internal conflict,’ says Borges. ‘It’s the result of a combination of political instability and the rupture of democratic institutions in Venezuela and the loss of the rule of law. This isn’t something that happens in one day. It’s the consequence of many years of deterioration.’
Like Borges, Wegelin takes issue with the label ‘economic migrant’, saying it fails to encapsulate the true magnitude of Venezuelans’ plight. ‘If you have to leave the country because your child is dying and because you don’t have access to anything that you need, I think it’s very condescending to then say that you’re an economic migrant and therefore you aren’t deserving of any kind of protection,’ she says.
Catalina Santos Angarita is an employment partner at Brigard & Urrutia in Bogotá and Sustainability Initiatives Officer on the IBA Latin American Regional Forum. She says the mass exodus from Venezuela has had an immense impact across the region. ‘The massive migration of Venezuelans has surpassed the capacities of the host countries, most of them with unemployment, poverty and violence problems,’ she says. ‘This massive migration has not only accentuated the already existing problems substantially, but came accompanied by xenophobia, health crisis and vulnerability to all forms of exploitation and abuse, especially in the case of irregular migrants.’
Several Latin American countries were forced to tighten their entry requirements in 2018 after struggling to cope with the influx of migrants. However, as the time and cost to renew passports in Venezuela became increasingly arbitrary, 11 countries in the region vowed to allow Venezuelan citizens to enter their countries with expired documentation.
‘Getting a passport in Venezuela has become just about impossible,’ says Michael Camilleri, Director of the Peter D Bell Rule of Law Program at Washington, DC-based think tank Inter-American Dialogue. ‘I’ve heard that the cost of navigating the system and bribing state employees at different stages of the process to get a new passport is around $5,000.’ As Camilleri notes, Colombia, which has already taken in the most migrants, is one of the first countries to live up to its promise. ‘The decision by Colombia is a good sign and hopefully it leads to other countries taking the same steps,’ he says.
Fourteen countries in the region have joined forces to form the Lima Group, which supports democratic transition in Venezuela and has donated considerable humanitarian aid to the country. Nevertheless, Fernando Peláez-Pier, a founding partner of Hoet Peláez Castillo & Duque in Caracas and former IBA President, believes more should be done in the region and internationally to help the migrants. ‘The countries that have been most affected in Latin America have been making efforts, but it is definitely a serious social problem,’ he says.
Santos Angarita argues that recipient countries like Colombia need greater international support to help them cope with the sheer volume of undocumented migrants. ‘I believe that all these local efforts should be accompanied by financial and infrastructural aid from international organisations, especially for the countries that receive the biggest impact of this massive wave of migrants,’ she says.
Though Latin America is shouldering the brunt of the migrant crisis, there’s growing evidence that some European countries may also have a legal responsibility to protect Venezuelan migrants (See box: Shouldering the burden). Yet, the prospects for international dialogue are far from straightforward.
In May 2018, Nicolás Maduro was re-elected President amid widespread allegations of vote-rigging and electoral fraud. In January 2019, six days into Maduro’s second term, opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself interim President until the country could hold free, fair and democratic elections. Canada, the US and a growing list of European countries have recognised Guaidó as the country’s leader. Maduro retains little support in the region, with Bolivia and Nicaragua among the exceptions. Further afield, China and Russia, the country’s biggest investors, have both remained loyal to the incumbent government.
In 2007, Venezuela severed its ties with the IMF and World Bank after clearing its debts. Guaidó has, however, called on the IMF to help alleviate the country’s economic woes. But, before the country can receive financial aid from the IMF, all 189 member countries must first recognise Guaidó as the country’s leader.
On 30 April, as part of the final phase of his so-called ‘Operation Freedom’, Guaidó made his boldest attempt yet to galvanise support from the country’s armed forces and public sector employees in a bid to overthrow the Maduro government. Guaidó then called on the US to intervene militarily to resolve the political impasse.
Julia Buxton, a Venezuela expert at the School of Public Policy at the Central European University, says such a move could undermine the best prospects for international dialogue. ‘I think the key thing is to try to multi-lateralise mechanisms rather than the constant US assumption that the situation in Venezuela can be handled purely through Latin American and bilateral US–Venezuelan dialogue,’ she says.
Several other countries have vested interests in safeguarding Venezuela’s future. For more than a decade, China and Russia have lent billions of dollars to the country in exchange for cheap oil. Buxton says both must be involved in negotiations to give Venezuela a real chance of a peaceful transition. ‘In order to really step up and support the protection of human rights of civilians in Venezuela to try to resolve this situation, Russia and China really need to be seen as pivotal actors,’ she says. ‘If they feel excluded they will support an increasingly authoritarian situation.’
Peláez-Pier says the US–Russian negotiations will be crucial going forward, but also points to the role of Cuba. Although the country disputes the number of troops it has on the ground in Venezuela, some estimates say there may be as many as 20,000 Cubans in the country and Cuba continues to support the Maduro government. ‘Cuba has a lot of control over a series of institutions in Venezuela,’ says Peláez-Pier. ‘It will also be a key piece in this complex chess board that is grappling to resolve the situation and take us out of this crisis.’
Shouldering the burden
Latin American countries may have received the most Venezuelan migrants, but as many as 15,000 undocumented migrants are believed to have fled to the Dutch island of Curaçao, swelling the island’s population by almost ten per cent. Representatives from Refugees International visited the island in February 2019 and identified a ‘dire situation’ in which many migrants were being forced to live underground and were vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, detention and deportation.
This echoed earlier reports by Amnesty International of immigration raids, indefinite detention and illegal deportation of Venezuelans seeking asylum on Curaçao. In February, the Dutch government said it would provide technical assistance with asylum procedures and agreed to make Curaçao into a humanitarian hub for Venezuelan aid.
However, Barbara Wegelin, a senior associate at Everaert Advocaten in Amsterdam, believes the Netherlands could risk breaching its international legal obligations if it fails to safeguard the interests of migrants on the island. ‘The Netherlands is legally responsible for migration issues in its overseas territories,’ she says. ‘It needs to step up now and support Curaçao and the other islands, but most of all support the refugees in that region rather than consider this a faraway issue that has nothing to do with Europe.’
The Charter for the Kingdom – the principal legal document that regulates the constitutional relationship between the Netherlands’ four constituent countries – makes it clear that the Netherlands has a humanitarian responsibility to do more, according to Karel Frielink, Managing Partner of BZSE Attorneys at Law Curaçao.
‘If one of the countries, for instance Curaçao, demonstrably fails to protect human rights, the Charter contains a so-called guarantee function (Section 43(2)), which can ultimately lead to intervention by the Kingdom government,’ says Frielink. ‘Curaçao is a small island and cannot solve these problems alone.’
Wegelin says the Dutch government must act before it’s too late: ‘This issue deserves more attention, but that attention won’t happen unless politicians in Latin America ask the Netherlands to support them because they’re ill-equipped. Europe was also ill-equipped in 2015 and most countries are not prepared for massive movements of people who need help.
Time to act
International organisations have also been under pressure to act. UN agencies and leading humanitarian organisations refused to participate in a US attempt to deliver aid to Venezuela on 23 February amid concerns it was part of an attempt to destabilise the Maduro government. UN spokesman Stéphane Dujarric said, ‘Humanitarian action needs to be independent of political, military or any other objectives. The needs of the people should lead in terms of when and how humanitarian assistance is used.’
In March, the UN carried out a preliminary technical mission to investigate the human rights situation in Venezuela. It’s hoped this will act as a precursor to a country visit by UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet in the coming months.
As a Venezuelan human rights defender, Borges knows only too well the challenges on the ground. ‘They don’t have water, they don’t have working internet,’ she says. ‘At the same time, our work is so risky as we are the only ones that are documenting what’s happening right now and we are the line between the opposition and the government.’
There are more than 900 political prisoners in Venezuela, according to human rights organisation Foro Penal. This figure continues to rise. A little over a week after the failed military uprising on 30 April, Guaidó’s deputy, Edgar Zambrano, was detained by the country’s intelligence agency. The arrest followed an order by Venezuela’s Supreme Court to charge Zambrano and six other National Assembly deputies with treason for their alleged involvement in the day’s events.
At least three members of Venezuela’s opposition government have sought refuge in foreign embassies in Caracas since the country’s Congress stripped them of their parliamentary immunity. Spain has said it will not permit Venezuelan authorities to enter its embassy in the capital, which currently houses opposition figure Leopoldo López, who played a pivotal role in the anti-government protests in 2014.
Such arrests come in the wake of a broader human rights crackdown in the country (See box: Afiuni sentence raises renewed human rights concerns). ‘Apart from political persecutions, there’s a broader concern about economic and social rights of all individuals in Venezuela,’ says Verónica Hinestroza, Senior Programme Lawyer at the IBA’s Human Rights Institute. ‘There are women who don’t have enough money to feed and clothe their children, and who are being forced into prostitution. It’s a terrible situation.’
The exodus from Venezuela
Many human rights defenders have been forced to flee the country. Borges is currently coordinating her team at CEPAZ, which is based in New York. ‘In my organisation, we have a network of activists and have focal points in more than ten countries working for Venezuela outside the country,’ she says. ‘This is the way we’ve been able to keep working and doing something for our country.’
Borges, like others, has been frustrated by the progress made by the UN and other international bodies to offer a helping hand. ‘To move the wheels of the international bodies has been difficult and it takes time,’ she says. ‘They have the knowledge, the capacity, the teams and resources to put into Venezuela to save lives. Now there are no doubts that the origin of the humanitarian situation is political. That’s something that’s taken us three years to make the international community understand, to say together in one voice and not to forget the Venezuelan people. Now they have to act.’
Eleanor Openshaw is New York Director and head of regional advocacy at the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR). Despite reservations about the UN’s proactivity on Venezuela so far, she says the UN will be essential to resolving the crisis and expects the country to be high on the agenda at the upcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council in June.
‘The UN understandably has to walk a somewhat fine line, particularly as contexts become more complicated,’ says Openshaw. ‘It’s incredibly difficult to get the UN to focus on anything that’s seen as preventative,’ she says. ‘That sounds ironic as there’s huge attention on Venezuela but it’s largely about the migration issue, which has been one reason why so many states have become active on the issue. Yet civil society is saying there’s a deep problem here with the UN that needs to be sorted because the UN agencies in Venezuela are going to be key players in the transition out of the situation that the country currently finds itself in, whatever direction that may take.’
Buxton agrees the UN should play a significant role in Venezuela’s future. ‘What we need to see here is the UN brought in as a facilitator for dialogue and mediation, as ultimately this isn’t something that can come only from the US and certainly not something that can come from the Lima Group,’ she says. ‘I think the UN should, in effect, be waiting in the wings to come in and really step up the support around security sector reform and monitoring.’
The International Criminal Court has also been monitoring events in Venezuela since uprisings in April 2017. The Court opened preliminary examinations in the country following a referral by six other States Parties. In November, Luis Almagro, Secretary General of the Organization of American States, criticised the ICC’s progress and called on the Court to be ‘an external force that changes the trajectory of the Venezuelan dictatorship’.
Openshaw says the ICC’s interest is welcome, but it’s had little impact to date. ‘One would hope that the fact that the ICC is paying attention would act as a deterrent effect on the actions of certain state officials and government representatives in Venezuela, but it’s too distant a concept presently,’ she says. ‘The immediate problems are far too acute.’
In December, the Office of the Prosecutor published a report stating that it would ‘continue to record allegations of crimes committed in Venezuela to the extent that they may fall within the subject-matter jurisdiction of the Court.’
On the home front
The dwindling economy and heightened US sanctions have forced numerous companies to downsize their Venezuelan operations or withdraw from the country altogether. Nevertheless, some law firms are doubling down rather than turning their backs on the country. In February, Holland & Knight, which has had a strategic alliance with Tinoco Travieso Planchart & Nuñez Abogados in Caracas for more than 20 years, announced it was establishing a focus team to assist clients with interests in the country.
Hans Sydow is a partner at Tinoco Travieso Planchart & Nuñez and Regional Fora Liaison Officer on the IBA Latin American Regional Forum. ‘Virtually all economic fields will require private participation,’ he says.
‘In this context, the economic restructuring will require a transformation of the framework of rules in order to offer guarantees and incentives to local and foreign investors, as well as the accompaniment of potential investors. Thus, the legal activity will be a fundamental piece in the reconstruction of the country.’
For Borges, whatever happens in the coming weeks and months, Venezuelans will need to be at the forefront of any dialogue and decision-making to secure a viable future for the country. ‘We need the company of the UN and international bodies as we don’t have the possibility of a free election without international support,’ she says. ‘We need international technical assistance. We cannot do it alone, but we have to be the protagonists of the solution. They will work with us, but Venezuelans need to lead the change.’