CAMBRIDGE – The Venezuelan crisis is moving relentlessly from catastrophic to unimaginable. The level of misery, human suffering, and destruction has reached a point where the international community must rethink how it can help.
The Year Ahead 2018
The world’s leading thinkers and policymakers examine what’s come apart in the past year, and anticipate what will define the year ahead.
In July, I described the unprecedented nature of Venezuela’s economic calamity, documenting the collapse in output, incomes, and living and health standards. Probably the single most telling statistic I cited was that the minimum wage (the wage earned by the median worker) measured in the cheapest available calorie, had declined from 52,854 calories per day in May 2012 to just 7,005 by May 2017 – not enough to feed a family of five.
Since then, conditions have deteriorated dramatically. By last month, the minimum wage had fallen to just 2,740 calories a day. And proteins are in even shorter supply. Meat of any kind is so scarce that the market price of a kilogram is equivalent to more than a week of minimum-wage work.
Health conditions have worsened as well, owing to nutritional deficiencies and the government’s decision not to supply infant formula, standard vaccines against infectious diseases, medicines for AIDS, transplant, cancer, and dialysis patients, and general hospital supplies. Since August 1, the price of a US dollar has added an extra zero, and inflation has exceeded 50% per month since September.
According to OPEC, oil production has declined by 16% since May, down more than 350,000 barrels a day. To arrest the decline, President Nicolás Maduro’s government has had no better idea than to arrest some 60 senior managers of the state-owned oil company PDVSA and appoint a National Guard general with no industry experience to run it.
Rather than taking steps to end the humanitarian crisis, the government is using it to entrench its political control. Rejecting offers of assistance, it is spending its resources on Chinese-made military-grade crowd-control systems to thwart public protests.
Many outside observers believe that as the economy worsens, the government will lose power. But the organized political opposition is weaker now than it was in July, despite massive international diplomatic support. Since then, the government has installed an unconstitutional Constituent Assembly with full powers, deregistered the three main opposition parties, sacked elected mayors and deputies, and stolen three elections.
With all solutions either impractical, deemed infeasible, or unacceptable, most Venezuelans are wishing for some deus ex machina to save them from this tragedy. The best scenario would be free and fair elections to choose a new government. This is Plan A for the Venezuelan opposition organized around the Mesa de la Unidad Democratica, and is being sought in talks taking place in the Dominican Republic.
But it defies credulity to think that a regime that is willing to starve millions to remain in power would yield that power in free elections. In Eastern Europe in the 1940s, Stalinist regimes consolidated power despite losing elections. The fact that the Maduro government has stolen three elections in 2017 alone and has blocked the electoral participation of the parties with which it is negotiating, again despite massive international attention, suggests that success is unlikely.
A domestic military coup to restore constitutional rule is less palatable to many democratic politicians, because they fear that the soldiers may not return to their barracks afterwards. More important, Maduro’s regime already is a military dictatorship, with officers in charge of many government agencies. The senior officers of the Armed Forces are corrupt to the core, having been involved for years in smuggling, currency and procurement crimes, narco-trafficking and extra-judicial killings that, in per capita terms are three times more prevalent than in Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines. Decent senior officers have been quitting in large numbers.
Targeted sanctions, managed by the US Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), are hurting many of the thugs ruling Venezuela. But, measured in the tens of thousands of avoidable deaths and millions of additional Venezuelan refugees that will occur until the sanctions yield their intended effect, these measures are too slow at best. At worst, they will never work. After all, such sanctions have not led to regime change in Russia, North Korea, or Iran.
This leaves us with an international military intervention, a solution that scares most Latin American governments because of a history of aggressive actions against their sovereign interests, especially in Mexico and Central America. But these may be the wrong historical analogies. After all, Simón Bolívar gained the title of Liberator of Venezuela thanks to an 1814 invasion organized and financed by neighboring Nueva Granada (today’s Colombia). France, Belgium, and the Netherlands could not free themselves of an oppressive regime between 1940 and 1944 without international military action.
The implication is clear. As the Venezuelan situation becomes unimaginable, the solutions to be considered move closer to the inconceivable. The duly elected National Assembly, where the opposition holds a two-thirds majority, has been unconstitutionally stripped of power by an unconstitutionally appointed Supreme Court. And the military has used its power to suppress protests and force into exile many leaders including the Supreme Court justices elected by the National Assembly in July.
As solutions go, why not consider the following one: the National Assembly could impeach Maduro and the OFAC-sanctioned, narco-trafficking vice president, Tareck El Aissami, who has had more than $500 million in assets seized by the United States government. The Assembly could constitutionally appoint a new government, which in turn could request military assistance from a coalition of the willing, including Latin American, North American, and European countries. This force would free Venezuela, in the same way Canadians, Australians, Brits, and Americans liberated Europe in 1944-1945. Closer to home, it would be akin to the US liberating Panama from the oppression of Manuel Noriega, ushering in democracy and the fastest economic growth in Latin America.
According to international law, none of this would require approval by the United Nations Security Council (which Russia and China might veto), because the military force would be invited by a legitimate government seeking support to uphold the country’s constitution. The existence of such an option might even boost the prospects of the ongoing negotiations in the Dominican Republic.
An imploding Venezuela is not in most countries’ national interest. And conditions there constitute a crime against humanity that must be stopped on moral grounds. The failure of Operation Market Garden in September 1944, immortalized in the book and film A Bridge Too Far, led to famine in the Netherlands in the winter of 1944-1945. Today’s Venezuelan famine is already worse. How many lives must be shattered before salvation comes?