Guy W. Farmer: Venezuela on the brink
March 2, 2019
My heart aches for Venezuela, a beautiful and once-prosperous nation on the northern coast of South America where I lived and worked for seven years during my diplomatic career. Over the past 20 years two socialist dictators — Army Col. Hugo Chavez and his protege, Nicolas Maduro, a former bus driver — have managed to transform one of the richest countries in the Western Hemisphere into a Third World hellhole where young mothers sell their babies in order to buy food for their families.
And now, Maduro has ordered his soldiers to shoot fellow Venezuelans who are attempting to bring relief supplies into the country to feed a starving population. Some of those soldiers are beginning to desert and I expect a trickle of deserters to turn into a human flood that will sweep Maduro out of office.
Although media attention has been focused on the failed Hanoi summit between President Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, last Monday's meeting at Cucuta, Colombia, between Vice President Mike Pence and Venezuela's Interim President, Juan Guaido, was almost as important. Guaido was joined by other Latin leaders, including the presidents of neighboring Brazil and Colombia, where millions of suffering Venezuelans have taken refuge.
So how can the United States encourage a peaceful transition to democracy in Venezuela? That's not an easy question to answer because any "made in USA" solution to the Venezuelan crisis will be rejected by our Latin American friends. As retired Ambassador Joseph Sullivan, an experienced career diplomat, told me recently, "It will be critical to make sure that Venezuelan democrats and major Latin American countries stay in the lead in supporting a return to democracy. … We shouldn't be trying for a political win, but should be happy with a positive outcome that Venezuelans and Latin Americans get credit for." Good advice, Mr. Ambassador.
Guaido, the 35-year-old head of the National Assembly, has been recognized as the interim president of Venezuela by the U.S., Canada, Japan, the Lima Group of Latin American democracies, and the European Union. In accordance with the Venezuelan Constitution, Guaido took over as president in mid-January after Maduro inaugurated himself following a clearly fraudulent election last May. Over the past six years of Maduro's misrule, Venezuela has become a humanitarian disaster with chronic food shortages and inflation approaching 10 million percent — that's right, 10 million.
One of the most knowledgeable and respected Latin America correspondents, Andres Oppenheimer of the Miami Herald, describes Venezuela's current plight this way: "If the latest IMF (International Monetary Fund) and World Bank projections materialize, hunger and violence will escalate even further and millions more will try to flee the country. According to a recent Brookings Institution study, 8.2 million Venezuelans – including three million who have already left the country – will flee the country over the next two to three years." This in a country with a population of 32 million.
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Another longtime Latin America correspondent, Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post, wrote that "poorly informed leftists (including socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont) are peddling the notion that the political crisis in Venezuela is the product of yet another heavy-handed U.S. 'intervention' in Latin America. . . . On the contrary, the movement to oust the disastrous populist regime founded by Hugo Chavez is being driven by Venezuela's own neighbors," and Venezuelans themselves.
Pence assured Guaido that the U.S. will support a return to democracy for Venezuela, and added pointedly that "all options are on the table." If Maduro understands his precarious position, he'll take the money and run sooner rather than later.
Guy W. Farmer lived and worked in Venezuela from 1968 to 1970 and from 1986 to 1990.