Venezuela is in the throes of one of the worst humanitarian crises in the Western Hemisphere. The numbers continue to set records: an exodus of 5.6 million people since 2015 marks the largest migration crisis in Latin America’s recent history, and an economic contraction of 80% since 2012 marks the deepest recession in modern history. By comparison, the Great Depression of the 1930s caused the U.S. economy to contract by 30%.
Inflation in Venezuela has averaged about 2,300% each year, which has sent workers racing to buy basic goods once they are paid before the money loses more of its value. What was once South America’s richest country is now among the poorest. Crippling food, water, and medical supply shortages have led to surges in maternal and infant mortality. What’s more, exact figures are hard to find because the Venezuelan government has long stopped publishing statistics.
But perhaps most extraordinary is that, since 2018, Venezuela has had two competing presidents. When President Nicolás Maduro first took office in 2013, the country’s economy was already in shambles. As falling output and rising prices spurred civil unrest, Maduro tightened his grip on power. Still, in 2016, opposition parties won a majority in the National Assembly with Juan Guaidó as their leader. For fear of losing power, Maduro created a Constituent National Assembly, which he filled with government supporters and superseded Guaido’s National Assembly. President Maduro was re-elected in 2018, but the vote was widely dismissed as illegitimate. In 2019, Mr. Guaidó declared himself interim president and has been vying for international recognition ever since.
More than 50 countries, including the United States, as well as the United Kingdom, and the European Union, recognize Juan Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela. However, Nicolás Maduro remains in control of the nation’s security forces and still resides in the presidential palace. His rule has become increasingly authoritarian, says Human Rights Watch (HRW). For years, HRW has been reporting on arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial killings, attacks on free speech, and the harassment of human rights activists and humanitarian workers in Venezuela.
Until now, the response from the U.S., E.U., and several Latin American countries has been targeted sanctions against high-level officials implicated in the abuses. Former U.S. President Donald Trump slapped punishing sanctions on Venezuela in an attempt to drive Marudo out of office. The attempt failed, accelerating the economic decline and, in effect, punishing Venezuela’s already-suffering citizens. According to Al Jazeera, Maduro has insisted that he will not compromise if the U.S. continues to bully him into submission. He says any policy demands made on the Venezuelan government are “game over.”
The reality is that President Maduro has been forced to make a number of major concessions already. After years of damaging hardline policies, it seems as though he has pulled a page right out of the International Monetary Fund’s stabilization handbook. Maduro has eliminated various price controls and subsidies, which were hugely inefficient and cost the government money it does not have. He has eased restrictions on imports, which Venezuelan citizens rely heavily upon. He has also loosened his grip on the exchange rate to allow more dollars to flow into the economy. This has provided much-needed stability to economic transactions and is slowly bringing private enterprise back to life.
While rural areas continue to suffer, in Caracas these changes are already making a big difference. Supermarket aisles are no longer barren and customers no longer need to carry stacks of banknotes to pay for basic items. Still, Venezuela is far from being out of the woods. According to the United Nations (UN), some 60% of households live in poverty, and 7 million people require humanitarian assistance. Not until Wednesday, July 7th, did Maduro finally allow the UN World Food Programme to begin distributing food in the country.
The attention of Western forces, however, has been on the political front. On June 25th, the U.S., E.U., and Canada announced they were willing to “review” the sanctions hanging over Venezuela if progress is made in negotiations about holding “credible” elections. Preparations are underway for Norway to act as the mediator in talks between Maduro and Guaidó scheduled to take place in Mexico next month. There is also talk of a delegation from the E.U. providing electoral monitors for November’s gubernatorial and mayoral elections, The Hill reports. If credible electoral authorities can establish basic democratic institutions, there is hope it could set the stage for next year’s elections for state and municipal legislatures, and eventually the presidential election in 2024.
However, signs of progress were clouded by the arrest of Freddy Guevara last week. On Monday, July 12th, the opposition leader and close ally of Juan Guaidó was detained on a highway in Caracas by government authorities. Venezuela’s Attorney General said Guevara would be charged with “the crimes of terrorism, attacks against the constitutional order, conspiracy to commit a crime, and treason.” At the time of Guevara’s arrest, Guaidó attempted to leave his home to help him but was threatened by armed men who surrounded his car. The U.S. Department of State condemned the arrest, though, at the time of this article, there has been no mention of whether it will change Washington’s commitment to easing sanctions in exchange for democratic reform.
The arrest is a poignant reminder of the fragility of political progress in Venezuela. Despite signs that Maduro is more willing to cooperate with Western forces, he claimed just two weeks ago that the CIA and U.S. military were planning to assassinate him. Skepticism remains on both sides. The E.U. was quick to note that its election commission was visiting Caracas purely on an exploratory basis before November’s poll. “We don’t want to validate an election that doesn’t deserve it,” an E.U. diplomatic source warned. “There’s still a long way to go to normalization.”
Certainly, initiating a gradual shift towards democratic reform will have a number of positive spillover effects. With credible institutions and responsible leadership in place, Venezuela will be better positioned to stabilize the economy, end extreme hunger, control the COVID-19 pandemic, and lift millions out of abject poverty. Yet, even tectonic shifts in the political landscape will be too slow and too uncertain to bring immediate relief to many Venezuelan citizens. Attempts by the U.S. and E.U. to advance democratic reform must be supplemented by apolitical humanitarian efforts.
Maduro’s decision to allow the UN World Food Programme into the country last Wednesday is a chance to build momentum. Multilateral aid organizations like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank should seize the opportunity to get more aid into Venezuela. It is critical that these organizations not be affiliated in any way with Western political forces, especially the United States. But it is even more critical that organizations act now.
According to a 2019 report by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, almost half of Venezuela’s poor have fallen into this condition only recently. It is considerably more difficult to lift families out of poverty as time goes on, as many begin selling their productive assets and allowing their children to drop out of school. This can lead to a vicious cycle. Venezuela’s economic and humanitarian backsliding needs to be halted before Western forces can hope to foster long-term political stability. Easing sanctions may do that, but first the relief must come from apolitical sources in order to build trust. Without it, negotiations will proceed cautiously. Meanwhile, millions of Venezuelans will continue to suffer.