Venezuela has so far resisted international efforts to resolve its deep dysfunction, and the US military’s Southern Command says the country’s turmoil could affect the whole region.
Regional groups and international actors have worked over in recent months to bring the government of President Nicolas Maduro and the political opposition to the table and a resolution.
Those efforts have thus far achieved little, and Navy Adm. Kurt Tidd, chief of US Southern Command, raised the situation to the US Senate in his most recent posture report, delivered last week.
“Venezuela faces significant instability in the coming year due to widespread food, and medicine shortages; continued political uncertainty; and a worsening economic situation,” Tidd said in written testimony submitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee. “The growing humanitarian crisis in Venezuela could eventually compel a regional response.”
Efforts by outside parties to shepherd Venezuela toward a resolution have been complicated, especially because Maduro has in the past used the specter of international interference to blunt criticism at home and abroad.
The Organisation of American States has, in recent weeks, attempted to get the Maduro government to allow elections and back off its crackdown on protests and civil society, with access to international credit lines and expulsion from the regional body as its carrot and stick.
“Venezuela has to re-democratize itself in order to refinance itself,” OAS chief Luis Almagro told The Wall Street Journal. “No one is putting money into Venezuela. With a dictatorship in power, every minute is like an earthquake for the country.”
“The entire region is watching closely what happens in Venezuela,” Tidd told the Senate during a question-and-answer session, adding:
“As you’re well aware, when I mention the word ‘Venezuela,’ tomorrow in the newspapers in Caracas will be stories that US SouthCom is engaged in operations against Venezuela.”
“Nothing could be further from the truth, but the reality is the enormous economic stability that is taking place in Venezuela affects the entire region. The OAS is watching very closely and taking, I think, important action.”
International attention appears to have affected the Maduro government’s posture.
A pair of decisions late last month by the Venezuelan supreme court, which is closely aligned with the government, attempted to strip the national legislature of many of its powers — a wildly unpopular manoeuvre for most Venezuelans.
The move drew swift international condemnation, with more than a half-dozen of Venezuela’s neighbours calling on Caracas to respect democracy. And Maduro’s own attorney general criticised the move — a rare show of dissent within party ranks.
Recent street protests — mostly peaceful but at times marked by violence, including confrontations between security forces and demonstrators and the death of a 19-year-old shot last week in Caracas — appear to have been stirred up after a long lull, in part by the regional response to government actions.
“They really have just activated in the last two weeks,” David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, told the BBC of the protests. “And I think that’s in large part because of the actions of the international community — the discussions, the denunciations on the part of regional countries and multilateral institutions.”
Where the crisis in Venezuela, home to the world’s largest oil reserves, goes from here remains unclear.
It’s not yet known what the Trump administration’s stance will be. Maduro, likely encouraged by Trump’s warm words for Russian President Vladimir Putin, has tried to court the US president, but Trump has met with Venezuelan opposition leaders and appears to be showing little interest in dealing with the Maduro government.
More US involvement may not be for the better, however, as Washington “is probably the least important and effective actor in the region for mediating in the Venezuela conflict,” Smilde told Business Insider in the days after Trump’s election.
The Maduro government appears to be working to undermine the opposition to secure an advantage in future elections that many have called for.
Earlier this month, opposition leader Henrique Capriles was barred from holding public office for 15 years, and he warned his partners in the opposition coalition they could soon receive the same sanction.
Opposition parties are also being required to “revalidate” themselves through petitions with a minimum number of signatures.
Many of those parties worry the government could still dissolve them by disallowing large numbers of those signatures.
The opposition, for its part, has called for the removal of judges they accuse of orchestrating a judicial “coup,” further stoking worry about the country’s democratic stability.
While Maduro himself claims to be open to local elections and his government has shown some signs of assenting to international demands, either because of promises of aid or rebuke, it has been far from welcoming.
On Sunday, Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez told Latin American countries that have recently criticised Maduro to “get their noses out of Venezuela.”
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