South America: Venezuela Humanitarian Crisis Roiling Region

By Michael McCarthy*

A line of Venezuelan migrants at a Colombian border checkpoint.

Venezuelan migrants at a Colombian border checkpoint. / Colombia Reports / Wikimedia

The humanitarian crisis driven by both Venezuela’s increasingly dire economic situation and political repression is taxing all of northern South America, with no remedy in sight.  In what UN High Commissioner for Refugees officials call “one of the largest mass-population movements in Latin American history,” an estimated 2.3 million Venezuelans – about 7 percent of the country’s population – have poured out of the country since 2014.  According to UNHCR, more than half of them suffer from malnutrition, and a significant percentage suffer from diseases, such as diphtheria and measles, previously thought to be under control.  The crisis is posing economic and security challenges to neighboring countries:

  • Colombia has seen the greatest flow. About one million refugees have crossed the border since 2015, but arrivals have peaked – reaching about 5,000 per day – as the Venezuelan economy hits new lows.  Venezuelans’ fears that Colombia’s new president, Iván Duque, will close the border have driven part of the surge, but Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s recent policy announcements – including a fórmula mágica that includes controlling inflation by lopping five zeros off current prices – are main drivers, according to most observers.
  • Ecuador received more Venezuelans in the first half of 2018 than in all of 2017 (340,000 to 287,000). Confronted with severe disruptions in border communities, Quito has declared a month-long “emergency” in four border provinces and has sent doctors and other personnel to help mitigate the impact of the arrival of several thousand Venezuelans a day.  Ecuador has announced that it is now denying entry to persons without passports.  Quito last week called for a regional summit on the crisis in mid-September.
  • Peru is the largest refugee hosting country in the Americas, but it has now begun to demand official documentation.
  • Brazil has taken in several tens of thousands of Venezuelans, but the influx is provoking local tensions. A regional judge closed the border – a decision overturned by the Supreme Court – and locals in the border city of Pacaraima took matters into their own hands vigilante-style, burning down a tent city and chasing about 1,200 Venezuelans back across the border.  Argentina and Uruguay, which last granted residency to 31,000 and 2,500 Venezuelans, are beginning to feel pressure to slow the flow.
  • Guyana is also upset because Venezuelans claiming Guyanese citizenship are arriving with claims to properties held by others since at least the 1980s. As the International Court of Justice takes up Georgetown’s case on its decades-old border dispute with Venezuela, the refugees’ arrival is an unwelcome distraction.

The United States and European Union have offered assistance, mostly to Colombia.

  • Earlier this month, Washington announced it would give Colombia an additional US$9 million in aid to provide water, sanitation, hygiene and some medications to Venezuelan migrants – bringing the overall U.S. commitment to over US$46 million over the past two years. USAID has cast the aid as supporting a “regional response” to the problem, but Washington’s closest ally, Colombia, will receive the overwhelming share.  U.S. Defense Secretary Mattis has announced he’s sending a hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, to Colombia and “possibly other destinations” to help.
  • In June, the EU committed €35.1 million (US$40.2 million), mostly for “emergency aid and medium-term development assistance” for people remaining in Venezuela and for neighboring countries affected by the crisis, and the EU Commission promised it would mobilize its migration and asylum program to provide help for migrants.

Assistance from the U.S. and EU, as well as any future help from multilateral development banks, is crucial but, ultimately, these interventions are palliatives.  Durable solutions will have to come from within Venezuela and from regional initiatives.  The summit proposed by Ecuador will produce little without strong leadership that at the moment appears absent.  The Organization of American States seems fatigued by the issue, and its Secretary General’s personalization of the struggle against Maduro over the past year has left him few options as well. UNASUR has been severely weakened – most recently by Colombian President Duque’s announcement of his country’s definitive withdrawal from the group – and its interlocutors from past efforts to find a solution in Venezuela have refrained from public comment.  The leadership of UN refugee specialists is critical, but the Security Council is very divided over the Venezuela crisis and the Secretary General has failed to gain traction with efforts to take a more active political role to address the Venezuelan crisis.  With Maduro’s fórmula mágica for resolving Venezuela’s economic challenges having next to no possibility of helping, the hemisphere should not be surprised that the flow of refugees will surely continue.

August 28, 2018

* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow with the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies.  He publishes Caracas Wire, a newsletter on Venezuela and South America.

Spain: Too Distracted to Play in Latin America?

By An Observer*

Rajoy Latin America

Photo Credit: La Moncloa Gobierno de España and Heraldry (Modified) / Flickr & Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Spain’s political crisis and problems facing the European Union have undermined Madrid’s ability to pursue interests in Latin America at a time of new opportunities.  Amidst countless months of lameduck government and the failure of either the Partido Popular (PP) or the Partido Socialista (PSOE) to form a government, the country is also tied in knots over corruption scandals, including some touching a Cabinet member and the royal family, and Cataluña’s persistent challenges to central authority.  Even before the current mess, Prime Minister Rajoy had shown only modest interest in Latin America, and King Felipe hadn’t yet demonstrated the mettle of his father, who once famously told Venezuelan President Chávez to shut up at an Ibero-American Summit.  Adding to Spain’s distractions are a series of EU challenges, ranging from refugee crises to terrorism and the Mediterranean countries’ debt overhang.  Spanish elites, who remain committed to the EU vision, are seized with concerns about Brexit, the UK’s flirtation with withdrawal, and perplexed by the absence of a renewed integration project.

Madrid’s declining role coincides with changes in Latin America that would normally grab its attention.  President Obama and Raúl Castro’s historic normalization of diplomatic relations has opened the door to at least one major U.S. hotel firm signing contracts to refurbish and manage several Cuban hotels – an industry in which Spain previously had extraordinary advantages.  Having played “good cop” with Cuba for many years, compared to Washington’s “bad cop,” Madrid’s future role on the island is at most uncertain.  The election of market-friendly President Macri in Argentina, where the previous government nationalized a Spanish energy company and adopted other policies causing bilateral estrangement, also represents an opportunity for Spain.  The near-completion of peace talks between the Colombian government and guerrillas should be the crowning jewel of a foreign policy in which Spain made a strong political investment early on, but Madrid has receded to the role of bit player.  At a time that Latin Americans continue to espouse support for CELAC and other regional organizations that exclude Spain (and the United States), Spain-sponsored Cumbres Iberoamericanas since 1991 have – even more than the U.S.-sponsored Summit of the Americas – lacked dynamism and produced little as the beacon of the Spanish transition was dying down

By turning inward, Spain risks losing what remains of its special cachet as Latin America’s link to Europe and as a country that made a successful transition to democracy with inclusion, human rights, vibrant media, and increasing transparency.  Its political capital in the region is running low, and budgetary constraints have diminished its aid budgets (from 0.5 percent of GDP to 0.13 percent).  But opportunities remain.  Big Spanish companies – Telefónica, Banco Santander, BBVA, Repsol, and others – and numerous mid-sized firms have shown interest in Latin America.  Cuba’s reluctance to embrace U.S. ties too tightly and too fast gives Spain important space to play a role if it wants.  Moreover, Spain’s diplomatic skills, critical for Central America’s peace processes and elsewhere, could still be a positive force in that subregion.   If it weren’t for former Spanish Prime Ministers’ contradictory roles in Venezuela, where U.S. baggage undermines Washington’s approach to political, economic, and security problems, Spain could be active there too.  But the Prime Minister and his cabinet have not given the Foreign Ministry the green light to get more deeply involved.  It’s not too late for Spain to turn things around and get back into the game in Latin America.  For that to happen Spain needs more consistent governance.

April 18, 2016

* The writer is long-time non-academic observer of Spanish foreign policy in Latin America.