Why the UK should pay attention to the Venezuelan crisis
In Venezuela, the world’s largest oil reserve and once the richest country in Latin America, two men are fighting for power: Nicolas Maduro, the sitting president, but no longer recognised as such by a large part of the international community, and his opponent Juan Guaido, who has the support of the US and most of Latin America. Since January 2019, the battle between democracy and dictatorship respectively embodied by Guaido, who has proclaimed himself interim president, and Maduro’s authoritarian rule has caused one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.
Shortages in food and medical supplies, a collapsed economy and disruption to all social services have led to a humanitarian crisis. In April 2019, the UN estimated that 90% of Venezuelans were living in poverty and about 7 million needed humanitarian assistance. As a result, Venezuelans have been fleeing to neighbouring countries — and what is now considered to be the largest displacement of people in Latin America is happening without international commotion. Although Venezuela is not at war, its refugee crisis could eclipse Syria’s: since 2015, 4 million Venezuelans have left the country compared to over 6 million who have fled Syria since 2011. Yet, according to The Economist, the international aid donors have only given $100 for each Venezuelan migrant, compared with $5,000 for each of the refugees from Syria.
A study from the Regional Inter-Agency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela shows that, as of 5th September 2019, over 1.5 million Venezuelans are now settled in Colombia; but recent waves of migrants are poorer than the first ones and Colombia is now looking at tightening its entry requirements. Migrants might help boost Colombia’s slow economy, but the poorest and most vulnerable ones could be exploited by employers or recruited by criminal or terrorist groups, such as the FARC — and this would contribute both to undermining Bogota’s peace agreement with the guerrilla group and to the lack of involvement from the international community, especially the Western powers.
Besides the US, the West’s approach to the situation so far has been limited. However, there are many reasons why they should play a more prominent role in helping resolve the crisis. The US’s strategy of imposing oil sanctions in an attempt to weaken Maduro’s government, like in Iran, has destabilised the global economy and has pushed Venezuela further to the orbit of its ideological cousin Russia. Secondly, a migration influx from Venezuela to neighbouring countries who are unable to ensure sufficient medical equipment and resources for all newcomers might lead to a health crisis, which would undoubtedly spread across the Americas; let us not forget that the UN recorded 400,000 cases of malaria in 2017 in the country, which represented a 70% increase from 2016.
Foreign involvement in the political crisis has been mainly orchestrated by the United Nations to try and work around the different alliances and fight of ideologies, but it has proven difficult. Both Maduro and Guaido have tried to get humanitarian aid from the outside: while Maduro still denies that Venezuela’s current situation is that of a humanitarian crisis, he has previously accepted external aid as pure ‘cooperation’ and thanked China, Russia and Turkey – three of his allies. However, back in February, the 50 countries which support Guaido’s interim presidency tried to import several tonnes of humanitarian aid stockpiled in Colombia, Brazil and the Dutch island of Curacao. As the supplies were sent mainly from the US, all trucks had to turn around following orders from the Maduro government which denounced this operation as a pretext for military intervention.
Meanwhile, at the UN headquarters, Russia, China and a few ideological allies have attempted to undermine the crisis in Venezuela by saying the Security Council had no justification for meeting, as the current situation did not present any issues for global security and peace - an argument reinforced by the Russian Ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, who argued that ‘If there is any threat (…), it is the shameful and violent acts from the United States and their allies which aim to oust a legitimately elected president of Venezuela’. Yet, nine out of the fifteen current Members of the UN Security Council have disagreed, calling the exodus of millions of people a threat to the stability and growth of neighbouring countries.
Although the UK openly recognised Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president, its direct involvement – and not as part of the EU - has been thin. In an interview with Nicolas Maduro and BBC journalist Orla Guerin, Maduro revealed that the UK has frozen some of Venezuela’s assets in the Bank of England but he hoped the international law would be respected and the funds given back to him, a request opposed by many: giving gold to Maduro’s government, they say, would feed the corruption even more.
In the same interview, Maduro asked publicly the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, to “open her ears wide and see the aggression and not be partners in crime in what could be an invasion, a war in Latin America. The extremist group that is in the White House is willing to do anything.” Strengthening its relationship with the Trump White House will inevitably have consequences for the UK’s global reputation – and not necessarily good ones.
While the UK would undoubtedly continue to support the opposition in Venezuela, the opportunities to invest there remains an important step in the journey towards a newly Global Britain. The benefits for UK businesses, which already have an excellent reputation for the quality of their goods and services, exporting to Venezuela could include low tariffs and the potential for large profit margins, as well as access to MERCOSUR, the region’s largest trade bloc.
If the UK is to benefit from these advantages, it should play a part in helping to resolve the current crisis. Doing so will send a clear message to its critics that the UK can and will still operate as a global player after Brexit. Instead of hedging its bets politically, the UK should lean on its credentials as a deliverer of humanitarian relief, and focus first and foremost on the plight of Venezuela’s suffering population. The good will derived from this will be far more lasting than any amount of political chicanery.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of Strategy International.