How to End Venezuela’s Nightmare
Venezuela’s problems will not be solved without regime change. And that could – and should – happen after January 10, when the international community will no longer recognize the legitimacy of Nicolás Maduro's presidency.
CAMBRIDGE – Wishing a problem away is seldom an effective strategy. While the international community has had its attention focused on other issues, the Venezuelan catastrophe has deepened. If current trends continue, it will only get worse.
A day’s work at the median wage now buys 1.7 eggs or a kilogram of yuca, the cheapest available calorie. A kilogram of local cheese costs 18 days of median-wage work; a kilo of meat costs almost a month, depending on the cut. Prices have been rising at hyperinflationary rates for 13 straight months and inflation is on track to surpass the 1,000,000% mark this month. Output continues to fall like a stone: OPEC reports that in October 2018, production was down 37% year on year, or almost 700,000 barrels a day.
According to Alianza Salud, a coalition of NGOs, new malaria cases in 2018 have shot up by a factor of 12 since 2012, bringing the total to more than 600,000, which is 54% of all cases in the Americas. Large swaths of Venezuela’s territory have been ceded to criminal organizations, including terrorist groups such as Colombia’s FARC and ELN, which collude with the National Guard in the production of gold and coltan, as well as in drug trafficking.
As a result, Venezuelans have been leaving in droves, creating a refugee crisis of Syrian proportions, the biggest ever in the Americas. Given that Facebook reports having 3.3 million Venezuelan users abroad, my research team at the Center for International Development at Harvard University estimates that there must be at least 5.5 million overall. Of those tweeting only from Venezuela in 2017 by November over 10% had left the country. Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, despite their valiant efforts, are facing increasing difficulties in coping with the refugee flow.
It is patently obvious that Venezuela’s problems will not be solved unless and until there is regime change. After all, both the regime and the economic collapse are the consequence of the elimination of basic rights. Venezuelans cannot invest and produce to satisfy their needs, because economic rights have been taken away; and they cannot change wrongheaded policies, because their political rights have been taken away. A turnaround will require the re-empowerment of Venezuelans.
Fortunately, an end is in sight to this nightmare, but it will require coordination between the Venezuelan democratic forces and the international community. January 10 marks the end of President Nicolás Maduro’s term, which started with his election in 2013. His election to a second term in May of this year was a sham: the major opposition parties and their candidates were prevented from running, and the United States, Canada, the European Union, Japan, and the major Latin American countries, among many others, refused to recognize the outcome. That means they do not recognize the legitimacy of Maduro’s presidency after January 10.
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The logical solution is for the National Assembly, elected in December 2015 with a two-thirds opposition majority, to resolve the constitutional impasse by designating a new interim government and a new military high command that can organize the return to democracy and end the crisis. However, they are wary of doing so, because they fear that they will be ignored at best, or, at worst, jailed, exiled, or tortured to death and thrown out of a tenth-floor window, as happened in October to Fernando Albán, a Caracas city councilor. Unless the Armed Forces respect the National Assembly’s decisions, they will be hard to enforce.
That is why this solution requires coordination between the international community and Venezuela’s democratic forces. Those forces are unsure of how much international support they will receive, and the international community is unsure of the democratic forces’ plans and cohesion.
As with any coordination problem, there are good and bad self-fulfilling outcomes. For now, because the international community has not made clear who will be recognized as Venezuela’s legitimate government after January 10, and what level of support will be provided, Venezuela’s democratic forces have been unable to coalesce around a solution.
But the Venezuelans have been doing their homework and laying the organizational groundwork for change. Political parties, trade unions, universities, NGOs, and the Catholic Church have come together in an initiative called Venezuela Libre. They have organized congresses in each of Venezuela’s 24 states, attended by over 12,000 delegates, and, on November 26, they held a national event to issue a manifesto delineating a path back to democracy. In addition, they have been working on a detailed economic plan, amply discussed with the international community, to overcome the crisis and restore growth.
This is an excellent opportunity for the international community to move toward a coordinated solution: an explicit refusal to recognize Maduro after January 10, coupled with recognition of the National Assembly’s decisions regarding the transition government and help implementing them. And a clear message should be sent to the Venezuelan Armed Forces that the National Assembly’s decisions must be respected.
A solution to the Venezuelan catastrophe is not only desirable, but also possible. The world cannot afford to let this opportunity slip. January 10 can become a new beginning.