Venezuela’s deepening misery (“Capital in Dark,” P&C, July 23, 2019, A5) has been reported with increasing frequency in the last 24 months, and this is no surprise to those of us who have monitored the country’s decline over more than a decade. According to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, as early as 2013 Venezuela’s per capita murder rate was twice that of Mexico and about 10 times that of the United States.
According to Freedom House, there have been three phases of Venezuelan emigration. The first began in 1999 when Hugo Chavez came to power and was mainly middle-class entrepreneurs and students. The second wave began in 2012 as a result of the collapse of the commodities boom and Chavez’s election to a fourth term as president. The third and current wave of lower-class people, likely former Chavistas, began in 2015 as the humanitarian crisis spiraled out of control.
The magnitude of the calamity is staggering. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that today there are about 4 million Venezuelan “refugees and migrants” outside this country of 32 million. A comparable percentage for the U.S. would equal eight times the population of South Carolina. A Brookings Institution report estimated the total of Venezuelan refugees could reach 8 million.
For comparison, UNHCR estimated 5.6 million Syrians had left that country of 20 million, and there are 6.6 million internally displaced Syrians.
The presence of Venezuelan refugees has put pressure on neighboring countries. According to UNHCR, in June 2019 Colombia recieved about 1.3 million Venezuelans, three times the population of Charleston County. Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Brazil and Argentina accepted between 750,000 and 130,000 each.
Venezuela’s Latin American neighbors, who have their own social problems, have been relatively generous to Venezuelan refugees, according to a report titled “The Regional Response to the Venezuelan Exodus” by researcher Luisa Feline Freier de Ferrari of the University of the Pacific in Lima, Peru. Latin America has relatively liberal refugee laws deriving from the 1984 Cartagena Declaration, which focused on refugees fleeing right-wing military dictatorships. The rise of leftist governments in the region after 2000 deepened refugee protections, and courts in Brazil, Ecuador and Peru have held accountable governments trying to shirk their legal responsibilities to Venezuelan refugees.
But some Latin American leaders, according to Feier, whose presentation I attended at the 52nd annual meeting of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) in Boston in May, have politicized their responses. Geopolitically, Venezuelan allies, most notably Bolivia and Ecuador, did not officially recognize until recently that the crisis existed and therefore could not effectively respond to refugees. In contrast, some conservative governments have been generous in their support of Venezuelans on their soil, in part because the crisis signals the failure of their ideological opponents.
The so-called Lima Group was founded in 2017 by Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and Canada, and it opposes the undemocratic Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro. The rival Quito Process, led by Ecuador, includes many of the same Latin American countries and focuses on protecting Venezuelan immigrants while remaining agnostic on the Venezuelan regime.
Freier’s presentation at the LASA meeting was exceptional, and LASA, whose position is sympathetic to the social goals the Chavez government was founded upon, has been slow over the years to report on the unfolding human tragedy.
Because the news outlets informing democratic input into U.S. foreign policy rely on information from international experts, LASA’s silence on Venezuela is disappointing. Experts can be sympathetic to the need to address the region’s crushing poverty and inequality, but should also obey inner analytical and moral compasses signaling when a society has reached a tipping point and the unintended effects of policies outweigh their good.
Brian Norris, Ph.D., has made 28 professional trips to Latin America since 1997 and lived in the region for five years. He is author of a book and scholarly articles on the region and is visiting assistant professor of political science at Denison University.