If Venezuela Implodes, Will Its Neighbors Be Ready?
Scraping the bottom of the oil barrel.
Venezuela is slipping toward a humanitarian crisis. News of its latest economic low point, or of President Nicolas Maduro's most recent political tantrum, tends to eclipse this slow-motion disaster. Yet the danger of a Venezuelan implosion is growing.
Perhaps you're aware that Venezuela has the world's highest inflation rate, a collapsing currency and every prospect of defaulting on its debts next year. You may have read about shortages of consumer goods (everything from milk and bread to beer and condoms), and the effort required to obtain hard currency (kidnapping purebred dogs to sell in Brazil is one way).
Here are some things you might have missed. In the country with the world's largest oil reserves, transplant patients have resorted to veterinary medicines to stay alive. Coagulants for treating hemophilia are available only for emergencies. Medicines of every kind are getting hard to find outside the cities. Malaria and dengue fever are on the rise; so is malnutrition, although the government stopped publishing weekly epidemiological bulletins last November and denies that thousands of doctors are resigning and emigrating.
Every day, Venezuelans form lines at stores that are almost bare. On July 31, a man was killed and several dozen people arrested in the city of San Felix as angry shoppers looted grocery stores and attacked state-owned vehicles. The potential for more frequent and deadlier breakdowns in public order is plain, especially now that Maduro has stepped up military raids on "hoarders" who amass "contraband" goods.
Venezuelans pinning their hopes on December's parliamentary elections will likely be disappointed. Leading opposition politicians have been jailed or disqualified from running. Maduro has promised to exclude election monitors from the European Union or the Organization of American States. He has said he'll refuse to accept the ruling party's defeat. The opposition is ahead in the polls, but it's divided.
Fixing Venezuela's economy will require measures -- ending fuel subsidies and price controls, freeing up exchange rates, cutting public spending -- that will be painful because they've been delayed so long. Such a program calls for political cooperation, not the widening repression to which Maduro is resorting.
Venezuela's neighbors have a special interest in averting this disaster. Brazil and Colombia are distracted by their own troubles, but they can hardly afford to ignore the turmoil at their borders -- especially with Maduro using territorial disputes to whip up nationalist fervor. From outside the region, China has bankrolled Venezuela's profligacy with more than $50 billion in loans that lock in oil supplies and sweetheart deals; it too should want to keep its debtor from the brink.
There's a limit to what outsiders can do. But big neighbors and creditors have influence and should start exercising it. Last month, the United Nations called Venezuela to account for its use of preventive detention, human rights abuses, censorship and retaliation against those bringing complaints to the UN. The OAS should keep pressing for election monitors and should consider assessing Venezuela's political conditions under the Inter-American Democratic Charter.
The U.S., meanwhile, should try some creative diplomacy. The Obama administration can use its opening with Cuba, and its forthcoming meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, to press both countries to push for better Venezuelan behavior. It should also intensify its own recent overtures to Maduro. True, he has given the U.S. little cause to lift the sanctions and travel bans it rightly put on a handful of Venezuelan officials. These should be kept in place -- with a wider target list held in reserve.
At the same time, the U.S. should offer the Venezuelan people generous humanitarian assistance -- supplies of badly needed medicines, powdered milk and other basic foods. Its quarrel is with Venezuela's rulers, not their victims.
(Corrects reference to parliamentary elections in fifth paragraph.)
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