Two dozen Amazon tribes people – men, women and children – camp under the open sky on the side of a freeway. The voiceover tells us that we are in Boa Vista, capital of the Brazilian state of Roraima, on the Venezuelan border. Poverty, begging and neglect; nothing new there, apart from the origin of these people, that is. The tribesmen and women smile at the camera; they are the Warao. One of them, a young man, sums up his odyssey: weeks of travel, mostly on foot, to cover the 560 miles separating Tucupita, capital of Delta Amacuro State in Venezuela, from Pacaraima, in northern Brazil.
The Warao, who today number between 20,000 and 30,000, are one of Venezuela’s four main indigenous groups. For the first time ever, they are leaving their homes, forced out by hunger, illness, a lack of medicine, military violence and armed groups. Here, there is something new to see. The Warao have weathered everything – 300 years of European conquest and colonization, the bloody guerrillas of the 19th century, those hunting for rubber, illegal gold prospectors, tuberculosis and AIDS – without leaving their homeland, the Orinoco region, named after the language which the tribe has spoken for millennia. However, they appear unable to weather 21st century socialism.
They are not the only ones fleeing the country of their birth. Accompanying them are 12,000 Venezuelans who have arrived in Brazil since 2014. More than 350,000 of their countrymen have also emigrated to Colombia in the last 10 months alone. According to Human Rights Watch, applications by Venezuelans to move to Argentina have more than doubled since 2014, and in the case of Chile, they have quadrupled. This year alone, Venezuelans have been the largest group to apply for Uruguayan residence and, over the same period, there have been over 10,000 applications in Peru. In 2016, Venezuela also became the country with the highest number of asylum seekers to the U.S. On top of all this, these figures are from before the chaos of July, brought about by the regime’s imposition of a Constituent Assembly, in the face of four months of civil protests, violently repressed; an assembly which has no constitutional legitimacy and signals the death of what remained of the country’s democracy.
The Venezuelan migration crisis, as it must surely now be called, began before Maduro came to power and represents the largest threat to the region. The severe humanitarian crisis that Venezuelans are suffering has been caused by a government which has overseen the decline of the country’s gross domestic product by 40 percent in just four years, leaving Venezuela the world’s most indebted country, according to Harvard economist Ricardo Hausmann. According to Hausmann, “Venezuela’s economic crisis eclipses all others in the history of the U.S., Europe or the rest of Latin America.” After years of delays in the search for a solution, it appears that the international community, above all, the countries in the region, those who will be most affected by the tsunami, are showing signs of wanting to intervene. That is no reason to be alarmed. Let’s not beat around the bush; in a case like Venezuela, the right to intervene humanely has to be exercised, albeit intelligently.
For example, economic sanctions would not be effective on a government like that of Venezuela, which has remained unharmed despite the country’s material and economic collapse. It is not the first time that a tyrannical regime has decided to sacrifice its people instead of relinquishing power. It is what Ceausescu did in the 1980s, it is what has kept Mugabe in power for three decades in Zimbabwe and it is what has kept Bashar Assad in charge of what remains of Syria. If the U.S. imposed sanctions on Venezuelan oil, the population would hardly suffer more than it does now. From 2013-2017, Venezuela’s oil production, which had already fallen by a quarter in the previous decade, fell by 17 percent. On top of this, the quality of what it is exporting has fallen so much that one of the main U.S. importers, Phillips 66, has reduced its imports from the country by over two-thirds this year alone. Sanctions on Venezuelan oil are now redundant, the regime has already destroyed its production.
This is a regime that sustains itself economically with oil sales that are dependent on the current and future exploitation of regions like the Orinoco Belt and the arco minero or “mining arc” of the same region – a territory of over 70,000 square miles that is rich in bauxite, iron, coltan*, diamonds and gold – to half a dozen countries including China and Russia. This is before we even mention drug trafficking, the primary source of income of at least one of the four factions in the country’s army. After 18 years of undivided government, Chavism has finally managed to diversify the country’s economy, although not for the good of the Venezuelan people.
If the Venezuelan crisis isn’t stopped, this tsunami could seriously affect other countries in the region. The country is a tinderbox of misrule, with multiple violent focal points to be found in the military, and it is armed to the teeth. In a country of 31 million people, there are believed to be over 15 million light arms, and the prospect of Russian military equipment, including ground to air missiles, in which Chávez invested billions of dollars, falling into the hands of one of the many contraband networks supported by the government does not bear thinking about.
The Venezuelan regime remains in power today thanks to a repressive military and police apparatus, and with intelligence designed and controlled by Cuban officials and civil servants. This is the aforementioned elephant in the room. It is well known both inside and outside of Venezuela, but the topic is normally avoided, perhaps because the extraordinary resilience of Castroism ensures there will be no easy solution to the Venezuelan problem. It also comes down to the fact that, for Cuba, Venezuela represents not only an economic supporter – the country continues to export oil to the country for next to nothing, albeit in smaller quantities than previously – but also the last bastion of Cuba’s geopolitical ambitions. For the Cuban regime this is a symbolic moment; Venezuela is a staunch supporter of the region’s oldest dictatorship. How do we convince Cuba to withdraw its “advisers,” the number of which is falling, but which stood at 45,000 when Maduro came to power, and, above all, in exchange for what?
Without a doubt, this will be the most difficult hurdle for those who sit down to negotiate Venezuela’s future. Let us hope that this moment comes sooner rather than later, before there is nothing left of the Land of Grace.
*Editor’s note: Coltan is short for columbite-tantalite, a dull black metallic ore.