What Is Happening In Venezuela?
Venezuela is facing a national crisis on an immense scale. Over the course of 2018, hyperinflation in the Latin American country has rocketed, with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicting that it will rise to 1,000,000 percent by the end of the year. Prices have been on the rise since the 1990s, with the problem being widely attributed to a 50 percent fall in oil production since the start of the century. The problem has also been exacerbated by the poor governing of the country by socialist presidents Hugo Chávez (1999-2013) and Nicolás Maduro (2013-present). Throughout 2018 prices have regularly risen by over 50 percent per month meaning the bolívar has become near worthless, with a chicken costing 14.6 million bolívar.
This economic crisis has led to mass migration, with Human Rights Watch (HRW) labelling the situation as ‘the worst humanitarian crisis we’ve seen in Latin America in decades’. Unable to afford food and medicine, according to UN figures 2.3 million Venezuelans have fled to neighbouring countries since 2014. This constitutes a staggering seven percent of the country’s population, and the Red Cross estimate that one million of these migrants have gone to Colombia. Families are being forced to separate and Latin American charity Casa Don Bosc claims that the number of children living on the streets has risen by 50 percent. Many of those forced to leave their homes are vulnerable to human trafficking, prostitution and gang violence.
What Is Being Done About It?
Maduro’s attempts to resolve the crisis have thus far been unsuccessful and have received widespread criticism. In August, the Venezuelan government introduced the sovereign bolívar as their new currency, and slashed five zeros from the figures on bank notes, as well as increasing the minimum wage by 3000 percent. Despite Maduro’s confident claims that these actions amount to ‘a revolutionary formula’, the number of those fleeing the country has continued to rise with many believing that the only way forward is for Maduro’s corrupt government to relinquish power.
The international response from neighbouring South American countries has been largely commendable thus far as they have tried to support the millions of migrants leaving Venezuela by offering them legal rights such as work permits, education and health care. Latin American countries have historically been known to offer mutual support to migrants, with many governments embracing the 1984 Cartagena Declaration, which goes beyond the 1951 Refugee Convention in broadening the definition of ‘refugee’ to include people fleeing from ‘seriously disturbed public order’.
Particularly admirable actions include Brazil’s active effort to relocate migrants from northern border towns where they faced considerable xenophobia, to cities such as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro where work opportunities are greater. Ecuador’s organisation of a summit in September, during which eleven countries agreed an eighteen-point declaration calling for increased collaboration, was also praiseworthy.
Meanwhile, the efforts of the international community beyond Latin America have been limited. The U.S. had contributed only $55 million by August, weary of offering further aid because of the current political climate surrounding migrants and the view that the Venezuelan government should be seen as cautionary example of the results of socialism. Similarly, the UN Refugee Agency has attempted to raise $46 million but had only succeeded in producing half of this figure by August. Marcos Tourinho from the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo says that the UN Security Council is not in the position to offer further aid because Venezuela is not yet sufficiently considered a ‘threat to international peace and security’.
Why Is This Not Enough?
Despite a historical trend of Latin American countries supporting each other in times of crisis, the responses thus far from the international community have been insufficient considering the scale of the economic and migrant problems currently facing Venezuela. The sheer number of people fleeing to neighbouring countries is proving too high for Latin American governments to cope with, and has led to the recent imposition of limitations on migration. They have been generous in supporting Venezuelan refugees but they now need more support from the wider international community.
Peru and Ecuador, for example, were forced by this pressure to introduce passport checks for Venezuelan migrants who would usually be permitted to travel across the continent with I.D. cards alone. Whilst this move was quickly overruled in Ecuador, the extra check has remained in place in Peru, preventing many Venezuelans from entering as the process to acquire a passport there can currently take up to two years. Peruvian Prime Minister César Villanueva has repeatedly asserted that this does not signal that Peru is ‘closing the door’ to Venezuelans, but rather is a necessary step to take as I.D. cards are easy to forge.
The response of Maduro’s government also warrants deep criticism for its lack of success and their complete unwillingness to relinquish power. Their refusal to publish and share economic information is rooted in a belief that the economic crisis has been caused by ‘imperialist forces’ that seek to halt the so-called ‘Bolivarian Revolution’, and has also been hugely detrimental to improving the situation.
However, the main focus should not be on Maduro but on the people of Venezuela and the effects the economic crisis is having on their livelihood. Countless reporters and economists across the world have spoken out against Maduro, even labelling him an ‘economic illiterate’, and yet they are not providing an alternative response. Some of the most significant historical cases of hyperinflation, including Greece during the occupation and 1920s Weimar Germany, exemplify the crucial need for outside help in resolving economic crises. Venezuela’s economy and people are facing catastrophic problems and Latin America needs our help.
An Alternative Response
Maduro’s government is not likely to relinquish power, and using military means to enforce this would be inadvisable. Our opinions of his government therefore need to be left to one side in seeking alternative ways to deal with the situation. Regardless of views on socialism or political corruption, the millions of Venezuelans who cannot afford to support themselves in their own country deserve our attention. Efforts to freeze ill-gotten assets and to investigate and publicise proven corruption within Maduro’s government do not need to halt, but rather should continue simultaneously alongside active formation of plans to help Venezuela now.
Firstly, leading economists across the world should insist on working with Maduro and his government to create a solution to the economic crisis of hyperinflation. This would require two-way collaboration; Maduro must agree to share economic information and accept that there is a crisis that warrants international attention and economists must put aside their judgements of Venezuelan politics for the good of international peace and stability. Conferences need to be arranged where both sides approach the problem neutrally and use historical cases of reduced hyperinflation alongside economic theory to create a set of actions specific to Venezuela.
Secondly, in the meantime a greater international effort must be made to support the migrants fleeing Venezuela. The economy cannot be expected to stabilise in the short term and so temporary solutions must be created to increase the safety and wellbeing of Venezuelans who have been forced from their homes. Currently, the amounts of money being offered to support Venezuela are too low. Sums need to be increased and economic support should also be provided to the Latin American countries already taking in the migrants. The UN Security Council should put aside judgements on the Venezuelan government and reprioritise the situation as one that needs urgent attention.
José Miguel Vivanco, America’s Director at the HRW, has commented that ‘while many [Latin American] governments have made exceptional efforts to welcome fleeing Venezuelans, the growing scale of the crisis requires a uniform, collective response’. This comes following a HRW report (‘The Venezuelan Exodus: The Need for A Regional Response to an Unprecedented Migration Crisis’) that proposes a temporary protection regime for migrants fleeing to surrounding countries, a sharing of costs amongst Latin American governments with more financial support going to those countries taking in higher numbers of migrants, and an increased effort to address the root causes of the economic crisis including asset freezing.
All of these proposals are commendable and should be applied by governments across the continent. However, I argue that this cannot be made possible without also increasing practical and financial support from the wider international community. Latin America is trying to collaborate and support the people of Venezuela but governments are starting to reach their limits and the UN needs to step up to fill this gap.
Venezuela has political problems which are causing many governments and economists from outside of the continent to withhold support in resolving the economic and migrant crises being faced. However, now is the time to put these judgements aside and stop ignoring Venezuela. If we do not increase the financial aid and economic advice being offered to Venezuela and its neighbouring countries, this national crisis will turn into a continent-wide one.