A bizarre standoff is taking place along Venezuela’s border with Colombia, as the beleaguered Nicolás Maduro steadfastly refuses to allow emergency shipments of food and medicine to enter his country.
Maduro’s refusal is confusing at first: Venezuelans are facing a chronic food crisis that has seen the average person lose over 20 pounds of body weight in the last year, and medicine shortages that have caused people to die of treatable ailments in unprecedented numbers.
To understand why a leader would refuse aid in those circumstances, you have to grasp the hostage-taking dynamics that now drive Venezuela’s political crisis.
In a hostage situation, the perpetrator’s negotiating position hinges entirely on his willingness to hurt his hostages. Hostage-takers see any measure that improves the well-being of hostages as a concession. Above all, they need to establish the seriousness of the threat they pose to their hostages — and refusing them food and medicine certainly accomplishes that.
It’s not just a metaphor.
For years, the Maduro regime has used hostage-taking tactics literally: jailing political opponents and then offering to free them in return for political concessions from its opponents.
On Oct. 5, to take just one example, Maduro’s secret police jailed Fernando Albán, a Caracas-area city council member and close adviser to one of Venezuela’s highest-profile opposition leaders, Julio Borges. Albán’s arrest was seen as a way of pressuring Borges. Four days later, Albán died in custody.
The government claimed Albán committed suicide by jumping out of a window. But the story made no sense. Journalist Luz Mely Reyes soon unearthed architectural blueprints of the building where he was held that showed the 10th floor bathroom, from where he supposedly jumped, has no windows. Morgue workers also alleged Alban’s autopsy report had been forged to hide signs of torture. The United Nations is now investigating the case, but to Borges personally, and to Venezuelans generally, there’s little to investigate: The message from Albán’s killing came across loud and clear.
Today, virtually the whole of the democratic world is denouncing the regime and its criminal tactics. Following a plainly unfair election last year, countries as far afield as Romania, Australia and Iceland have refused to recognize Maduro as the legitimate leader of Venezuela. Nearly every major democracy in the Americas and in Europe is demanding Maduro step aside and allow free and credible elections to take place. The United States, for its part, has sanctioned Venezuela’s crucial oil industry — a drastic move that cuts off funding to the people who tortured Albán, but also to the food imports that had kept Venezuelans (barely) alive.
Maduro has responded the way hostage-takers do: by threatening to hurt his prisoners if he does not obtain concessions from the other side. In a recent interview, his foreign minister was explicit: The government will only accept shipments of badly needed humanitarian aid if control of Venezuela’s assets abroad is restored to Maduro.
The cruelty in this is shocking, but it’s not mindless — it’s strategic. Isolated, out of money and facing rejection from nearly everyone in Venezuela, Maduro seems to have grasped that the last card he can play is his willingness to brutalize his 30 million hostages.
The United States must tread carefully. Trying to take down this hostage-taker by force would put the lives of his hostages in even more immediate danger. Military action could easily spin out of control and destabilize Venezuela for a generation to come.
The best course of action continues to be what it has been: to cut off the flow of funds to the hostage-taker and entreat his henchmen in the military to turn on him. Even this is a high-risk gambit, but then, there aren’t any good options when you’re dealing with a character like Maduro.
At the same time, the international community needs to do more to ensure adequate humanitarian supplies are ready to be moved in when the logjam is broken. A recent donor conference at the Organization of American States saw pledges of $100 million from countries ranging from Argentina to Germany.
It’s a welcome start, but we should be clear: It’s not nearly enough to feed a country of 30 million. Venezuelans were already chronically malnourished before this most recent crisis started, and experts estimate an aid package for 2019 will need to be in the billions of dollars, assuming Maduro can be persuaded either to accept the aid or flee the country.
Today, Venezuela sits on the edge of a dizzying variety of possible calamities. Why? Because it’s led by a president who isn’t merely indifferent to the suffering of his people, but actively embraces it as a source of strategic strength.
And that’s what hostage-takers do.