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US needs to respect Latin American leadership on Venezuela crisis

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The ever-worsening crisis in Venezuela will be a significant challenge confronting Vice President Mike Pence on his trip to Latin America this Friday. As the 8th annual Summit of the Americas takes place this weekend in Lima, Pence needs to recognize the significant efforts of regional leaders to address the Venezuela crisis and avoid the temptation to take ownership of the issue.

Sliding into default and officially in hyper-inflation, Venezuela’s economy is projected to contract by 15 percent this year. Data from August 2017 showed that 60 percent of Venezuelans went to bed hungry because they could not buy enough food. All of this has led about a million and a half Venezuelans to emigrate, straining the institutions and resources of most countries in the region.

{mosads}Change does not appear forthcoming from inside Venezuela, as the Maduro government has moved up presidential elections, trying to take advantage of disarray in the opposition as well as a large segment of the population’s disillusionment with the country’s electoral institutions. It is an excruciating situation and will rightfully be at the center of discussion at the summit.


If there has been any upside to the past year, it is the degree to which countries in the region have worked together to pressure Venezuela. During the course of 2017, it was Latin American countries that led the discussion on the application of the Organization for American States’ Democratic Charter on Venezuela. That effort ultimately failed, but after the Maduro government pushed forward with an unconstitutional call to rewrite the constitution, 12 countries in the region — including Canada, Chile and Mexico — came together as the Lima Group. They refused to recognize Venezuela’s Constituent Assembly and have said they will not recognize next month’s presidential election. Two more countries since have joined.

More recently, six countries in the region, led by the Dominican Republic, put together a dialogue process, which was not ultimately successful but generated much more concrete and focused talks than previous efforts. Just last week, Panama likewise sanctioned Venezuelan officials — and immediately suffered reprisals from the Maduro government.

It is hard to overstate how big of a deal it is for Latin American countries to so robustly pressure each other over human rights issues. The idea of sovereignty and non-intervention have been at the very core of Latin American political identity for over a century. In part, this is because Latin America has a long history of abusive leaders who are loathe to point out their peers’ human rights violations lest they themselves become targets of similar critiques.

Another reason behind the value that Latin American nations place on national sovereignty is the history of U.S. interventions in the region. Historian John Coatsworth lists 41 US interventions from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century that were “successful” in generating regime change, and many more that were not successful or aimed for a lower-level change of course.

Few North Americans know this history, but most Latin Americans do. It leads to a rejection of interventionism in general, and a suspicion of U.S. leadership in particular. Vice President Pence and the officials who accompany him would do well to remember this as they head to Lima. Trying to demonstrate leadership on Venezuela would be counterproductive. So would strong statements demanding that Latin American countries show leadership.

This would be true for any U.S. administration, but especially this one. Recent polling shows President Trump to be extraordinarily unpopular in Latin America. His approval there is just 16 percent overall and substantially worse in some of the countries best poised to effectively pressure Venezuela, such as Mexico (7 percent), Argentina (11 percent) and Chile (11 percent), or countries that could effectively engage Venezuela such as Uruguay (11 percent), Costa Rica (13 percent) and Nicaragua (14 percent).

An unpopular U.S. administration trying to take ownership of the Venezuela crisis would effectively raise the political costs for regional leaders who already are doing so. The likely result is that they will back off, and concentrate on other pressing issues.

Even more damaging would be any mention of a military option with reference to Venezuela. That would force leaders in the region to focus on the dangers of the Trump administration, rather than the dangers of the Maduro government. What’s more, suggestions of a military option further divides the Venezuelan opposition between those who think there is a political solution to the conflict, and those who think foreign military intervention would be a nice short cut and that an attempted political solution would only delay it.

There are constructive ways the United States can address the crisis. First, it could seek to address the growing refugee emergency. Colombia has received over 600,000 Venezuelan migrants and refugees in the past two years. The United States has promised $2.5 million in aid to Venezuelans fleeing to Colombia, to go along with the European Union’s $2.6 million. That is a start, but the United States also needs to make a significant contribution to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ request for $46 million to address the 1.5 million Venezuelan refugees abroad. The United States also could lead by example by providing temporary protected status for Venezuelan refugees in the United States.

Second, high-level contacts between United States’ officials and the Maduro government — such as the visit to Caracas last week by Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Pete Sessions — have to be cultivated so that if and when pressure on the Maduro government has an impact, officials interested in change will have a channel through which to seek it.

As urgent as the Venezuela crisis is, the United States needs to take a step back and recognize the unprecedented nature of the regional response to it. That needs to be acknowledged, respected and engaged.

David Smilde is a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Charles A. and Leo M. Favrot Professor of Human Relations at Tulane University.

Tags Dick Durbin Donald Trump Mike Pence Pete Sessions South America Venezuela

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