The numbers are barely imaginable. According to the Eurasia Group’s Ian Bremmer, there are now 550,000 Venezuelan refugees in Colombia.
700,000 Rohingya in Bangladesh
600,000 Syrians in Germany
550,000 Venezuelans in Colombia (by far the least talked about crisis)
— ian bremmer (@ianbremmer) February 13, 2018
Colombia’s well-regarded Semana magazine puts the number at one million. With countless unofficial crossing points along a lightly governed 2,200-kilometre border, it’s impossible to tell. What’s clear is that more and more arrive every day, and Colombia’s border region can hardly cope.
In northern Brazil, too, Venezuelans keep arriving. This, in itself, is remarkable: unlike the densely populated Venezuela-Colombia border, our border with Brazil is remote: half jungle, half savannah, and hundreds of miles from a city. Yet Venezuelans are now desperate enough to brave the trek to Brazil in numbers. Malarial and famished, they end up at local hospitals. A State of Sanitary Emergency has been declared in Brazil’s northern Roraima State as sick Venezuelans overwhelm a hospital infrastructure that was never designed with a refugee crisis in mind.
To judge from the sick, hungry, desperate people trudging to the border, you’d think a terrible calamity had struck Venezuela: a war or a series of devastating earthquakes. But no. Venezuela is a victim of a different type of disaster: a mix of rigid ideology and runaway authoritarianism at the hands of a leadership clique in deep denial about the impact of its own policies.
For 19 years, Venezuela has tried to create a state-controlled economy, administered by people deeply hostile to private enterprise. Prices have been fixed for nearly everything, industries nationalised, and private firms harried purposefully into bankruptcy.
To judge from the sick, hungry, desperate people trudging to the border, you’d think a terrible calamity had struck Venezuela
Food production, to pick the most obvious example, collapsed after most large farms were expropriated in 2002-2006, alongside the seed, fertiliser, and agrichemical industries. The peasant communes meant to replace them barely got off the ground. Without access to modern inputs, and with aggressive price controls on output making farming a sure money-loser, Venezuelan agriculture regressed two generations, returning to the subsistence-farming practices last seen before the green revolution. With the price of agricultural goods fixed below the cost of production, there was no reason to bother growing surpluses for sale to the cities. So farmers didn’t.
For years, the government made up the shortfall with imports, financed by record-high oil prices. When oil prices collapsed at the end of 2014, the trouble set up by years of wrongheaded policies came home to roost: having decimated domestic production, we suddenly couldn’t afford imports either.
The results have been disastrous. In 2016, 93 percent of Venezuelans said they could not afford enough food to feed their families. A country that had the fourth highest GDP per capita on earth in 1950, ahead of countries like Canada and Sweden, was no longer able to feed itself.
The issue isn’t just that the chavista policies originated by the late president Hugo Chávez have failed. The deeper problem is that the new government of President Nicolás Maduro is in profound denial about that fact. For more than two years now everyone from the president of Colombia to Pope Francis has been beseeching the Venezuelan regime to accept international humanitarian aid to at least meet the short-term emergency facing Venezuelan households.
Time and again, they’ve been angrily rebuffed.
Immersed in its own far-left propaganda, the government sees offers of aid through a deeply paranoid interpretative frame. In official discourse, economic difficulties are always only the result of a foreign conspiracy to undermine the workers’ revolution. In chavista discourse, Venezuela is a threat to the capitalist powers because it shows a different world is possible. It is therefore, under this skewed logic, in the crosshairs of a far-flung, CIA-orchestrated sabotage plot determined to undermine it.
Offers of “humanitarian aid” are, from this perspective, just a plot to humiliate and discredit the regime, at best. At worst, they’re the rhetorical cover for an imperialist attack against the revolution. This is why every call for Venezuela to accept aid is met with defiance: a determination to double down on the very policies causing the crisis in the first place.
In a way, the problem is circular: the country needs aid only because the government refuses to accept its own role in creating a crisis. If the government had the insight and humility to accept that its policies are at the root of the crisis, it wouldn’t really need aid — at least not beyond the very short term. Venezuela has plenty of fertile land, water, natural resources and well-educated people: governed with a modicum of common sense, it would have no trouble feeding itself.
In the absence of reform, however, aid may not do much good, and could even do some harm. Amid deep price distortions and pervasive corruption, aid would likely end up being sold off on the black market or smuggled abroad, fattening regime leaders’ bank accounts and doing little to alter the situation on the ground. Worse, the regime would try to channel it selectively to its own supporters only, turning it into yet another tool for social control.
What Venezuela needs, then, is not aid: it’s sane governance.
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If our democracy still worked, none of this would be a problem. Given a chance to speak their minds in a free and fair election, there’s little doubt Venezuelans would pick a government able to end the economic chaos quickly. But Venezuela’s democracy has collapsed just as surely as its economy: the presidential vote slated for April 22nd is openly rigged.
Faced with the overwhelming suffering ordinary Venezuelans are having to endure, the reflex to offer aid is understandable. But the limits of this strategy are painfully clear. Without a basic change in political direction, aid won’t help very much.
It may even hurt.
(TOP PHOTO: Jhonathon, 19, from Venezuela, stands at the entrance to his bedroom in the Colombian border town of Cúcuta. CREDIT: Paul Smith/UNHCR)