Venezuela's mass migration poses a danger to the Western Hemisphere

Venezuela's mass migration poses a danger to the Western Hemisphere
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Latin America is erupting in one political crisis after the other. The chaos follows ongoing protests and instability in Haiti, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, Honduras and, lately, Chile, a stable country that generally tops the rankings in economic freedom. After a trip to Pyongyang to expand ties with North Korea, one of Venezuela’s most powerful men, Diosdado Cabello, sanctioned by the U.S. government for narco-trafficking, recently said: “What is happening in Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Argentina [and] Honduras is a gentle Bolivarian breeze, and a hurricane is coming,” when referring to the role of the Bolivarian revolution in the recent conflicts and its ability to undermine the region’s stability. 

The regional chaos is exacerbated by Venezuela’s mass migration, which beyond a humanitarian crisis poses a dangerous threat to the Western Hemisphere because it’s weaponized by the Maduro regime. 

The majority of the 4.3 million Venezuelans who have fled their country — driven by hyperinflation, crime and food and medicine shortages, which all stem from the Bolivarian revolution — have stayed within the region. An estimated 1.4 million Venezuelans have settled in Colombia; nearly 860,000 in Peru; 288,000 in Chile; 330,000 in Ecuador; 130,000 in Argentina; and 178,000 in Brazil. About 300,000 Venezuelans are in the United States and more than 255,000 in Spain, according to the U.N. International Organization on Migration.

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A small percentage of these Venezuelan migrants appear to be undercover subversive agents embedded by the Maduro regime and his regional and extra-regional allies. Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno has blamed Venezuela directly over the protests in the country last month. Furthermore, Defense Minister Oswaldo Jarrin said “criminal elements” were using the marches as cover to loot, destroy property and commit acts of “terrorism” aimed at weakening the country. Julio Borges, commissioner for Foreign Relations of Venezuelan Interim President Juan Guaidó, recently stated that 41 of the 57 foreigners arrested in Ecuador’s protests last month were Venezuelan nationals.   

Kelly M. Greenhill, a researcher at Harvard University, focuses on “new security challenges,” including civil wars and the use of forced migration as a weapon, and argues that “strategic engineered migration refers to in- or out-migration that is deliberately induced or manipulated by state or non-state actors.” This description aptly fits the crisis in Venezuela, which goes beyond the result of an incompetent government or grave socio-economic conditions. The Venezuelan refugee crisis is the product of a wicked revolution built on a political-military strategy that converges armed groups and criminal elements in Venezuela and beyond. 

In 1999, Hugo Chavez, a former lieutenant colonel who led a failed coup d’état, took power and started the Bolivarian revolution. Chavez’s lust for power used an insurgency-style, revolutionary model with external support to implement profound changes within Venezuelan society and its institutions. This turned a once prosperous country into a brutal tyranny. In 2013, after Chavez’s death, Nicolas Maduro rose to power and doubled down on this strategy — not only to disrupt anti-regime protests through intimidation and violent repression in Venezuela but to converge criminal and terrorist networks.

The two most prominent crime-terror groups in Venezuela are the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). According to the Colombian Foreign Ministry, the ELN has a presence in at least 12 states within Venezuela, and FARC leaders who abandoned the peace accord, such as Iván Márquez and Jesús Santrich, appeared in August in a video inside Venezuela announcing a return to the armed struggle.

This is combined with at least eight major armed criminal groups in Venezuela that engage in various forms of illicit activity under the protection of the Venezuelan Armed Forces. Pro-government militias (“Colectivos”), paramilitaries such as the “Rastrojos,” criminal gangs such as the “Pranes,” and even Islamist terrorists, namely Hezbollah, use the Maduro regime as a protective shield, which cedes the monopoly on violence.

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In short, Venezuela has become what some have called a “Mafia state” with organized crime and terrorist groups controlling vast swaths of Venezuelan territory through transnational illicit networks involved in drug trafficking, money laundering, illegal mining, kidnapping, etc. that spills across borders. The Center for a Secure Free Society, a national security think tank based in Washington, has gone a step further and labeled Venezuela a “parallel state” that combines a “criminalized state” with a revolutionary framework that draws its source of support from external state actors: Russia, Iran and China, or the VRIC.

“We are fulfilling the plan, you understand me,” Maduro recently said, hinting at the well-orchestrated plan behind the Bolivarian revolution, which functions less as a hierarchy and more as a regional network. It is a network that grows stronger as it gains territory; therefore, the goal of the revolution is to expand its territory by destabilizing all of Latin America. Mass migration and increasing refugee outflows from Venezuela is the method.

According to the Organization of American States, the man-made humanitarian crisis in Venezuela could push refugee outflows to as high as 8.2 million next year. 

The math is simple. The more refugees that flow out of Venezuela, the easier it is for these transnational and transregional threat networks to spread north, south, east and west. The only way to prevent the Bolivarian “hurricane” from destroying the Western Hemisphere is to stop the Bolivarian revolution that gave life to this threat network and has figured out how to weaponize mass migration. 

José Gustavo Arocha is a research fellow for the Center for a Secure Free Society. He is a retired lieutenant colonel from the Venezuelan Army and former political prisoner (2014-2015). Follow him on Twitter @ArochaJG.