There is a failed state at the heart of our hemisphere. Once the richest and most stable democracy in Latin America, Venezuela’s democracy, economy and society have collapsed in recent years, in that order. The time has come for governments around the world to take strong action by naming and shaming the perpetrators of the crimes committed against the Venezuelan people and by standing with Venezuela’s beleaguered democratic movement.
Today Venezuela is amongst the most corrupt nations on Earth. Since 2016 inflation has increased by 50,000,000 per cent, and many of its people are starving. The UN Human Rights Commissioner has found that the government uses food as a weapon, has engaged in extrajudicial killings, and is keeping hundreds of political prisoners. Human Rights Watch and The New York Times have been forced from the country. The minimum wage is less than $4 per month — not enough to buy a single kilogram of beef — and the average Venezuelan has lost 24 pounds.
This implosion has set off the largest migration in South America’s history — displacing more people than the Colombian civil war, which lasted for 50 years. In total, it is estimated that almost five million Venezuelans have fled the country since 2015, similar to the number who have fled Syria’s civil war.
The humanitarian crisis is heartbreaking. It was also avoidable. Venezuela’s neighbours chose democracy and open economies, imperfect as they may be, and the result is a growing middle class, ever stronger institutions, and great hope for the future.
What we are seeing today in Venezuela did not happen overnight. For two decades, the government systematically attacked independent institutions including the courts, Parliament, the media, labour unions and even student government. Widespread state corruption has destroyed private enterprise.
Indifference and wilful blindness by too many taught the Venezuelan regime that democratic and human rights abuses would go unpunished. The signs were clear, but the process was gradual: each violation was a baby step towards dictatorship rather than a giant leap, and so the world stood by with its arms crossed.
Now, the world is waking up to the crisis. Governments in South America are accepting record numbers of Venezuelans, waiving passport requirements, and providing basic necessities to hungry and sick refugees. President Iván Duque Márquez and the Colombian people — who have accepted the largest share of Venezuelan migrants — should be singled out for praise for their welcoming embrace of their desperate neighbours.
The European Union has strongly condemned Nicolás Maduro’s regime while welcoming and supporting Venezuela’s legitimate Interim President, Juan Guaidó. Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, and more recently, Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne, have shown tremendous courage and leadership in the hemisphere and on the world stage. They have shown moral clarity by unambiguously condemning the Maduro regime’s abuses. Just as in Venezuela, opposition to Maduro spans the political spectrum from left to right.
Strong words in co-ordinated statements show the Venezuelan people that they are not alone, and tell the Venezuelan military and state that they will be subject to international isolation until free and fair elections are held and the rule of law is reinstated.
But the Maduro regime knows it cannot win a fair election. The president and his cronies live in fear of being held to account for their crimes, so a negotiated end to the crisis looks less likely every day. Sanctions that limit the travel of corrupt regime officials and make it more difficult to plunder Venezuela’s natural resources — especially gold and oil — have stung, but also created an opening for the malign influence of Cuba and Russia.
In a sad irony, Hugo Chavez came to power on a campaign to end the influence of foreign imperialism, but instead turned over the nation’s gold and oil reserves to Russia, China and Cuba in return for cash to pay military salaries and corrupt regime officials.
We must step up efforts to alleviate the suffering of innocent Venezuelans. Yet Venezuelan refugees have received less than three per cent of the financial support that Syrian refugees have received. We can and should help both, particularly when Venezuela is in our hemisphere.
But supporting refugees is not enough. It alleviates their suffering, but it does not address the root cause of their suffering. To do so, governments throughout the Americas and Europe must begin a co-ordinated effort to identify and seize assets of corrupt regime officials. Those names must be published for the world to see.
The proceeds of that effort, along with additional funds from aligned governments, should be put toward providing material support to the democratic movement in Venezuela. Civil society, universities, unions and Parliamentarians have risked their lives to stand up to the regime.
Millions of Venezuelans, many of them students, have taken to the streets in opposition to the regime. Far too many have paid with their lives. The West did not hesitate to support the Solidarity movement in Poland, and Venezuela’s democratic movement is the modern-day descendant of Solidarity.
Venezuela’s legitimate president, Juan Guaidó, has shown tremendous courage and recently told the world “we cannot do this alone.” Now we must heed that call and stand with the Venezuelan people.