As hundreds of thousands of desperate Venezuelans flee their country, in many cases on foot, their Latin American neighbors face a critical test: whether they can respond effectively to a crisis that threatens their own stability without the leadership of the United States.
So far, they are flunking — and they know it. “The answer is, we can’t,” says Colombia’s ambassador in Washington, Francisco Santos. “It’s sad to say, but we can’t.”
Since his arrival a few weeks ago to represent the new Colombian government under President Ivan Duque, Santos has been attempting the near-impossible: to induce a Trump-obsessed Washington to focus on the most serious political and humanitarian crisis in the Americas in decades. Under the disastrous management of its authoritarian socialist regime, Venezuela’s economic output has plummeted by half in five years. A staggering 60 percent of the population say they have lost weight because of a lack of food. Some 2 million people out of a population of 31 million have already left the country — and more are pouring out, at a rate exceeding 15,000 per day.
Santos says Colombia is absorbing 5,000 of those daily refugees, on top of 1 million already in the country. It’s all but overwhelming for a relatively poor country that is still trying to recover from decades of violent disorder in its own countryside. “This could generate a crisis of unprecedented proportions in Colombia,” he said during a visit to The Post. “And not just Colombia. This can be a destabilizing force in all of Latin America.”
Between 1890 and 1990, there wasn’t much question of what would happen when trouble of this magnitude developed in the Western Hemisphere: The United States would step in, for better or worse. It would broker an election, or support rebels, or back a coup, or, if it had to, invade. But despite some occasional bluster, President Trump is merely the latest of three consecutive presidents to dodge the mess in Venezuela. His administration has taken some half-measures, such as sanctions against senior regime leaders, and contributed funds to refugee relief efforts.
But the United States has no more sought to lead a response to Venezuela than it has one to end the civil war in Syria. As in the Middle East, that has left a vacuum that allies have struggled to fill and adversaries have taken advantage of. China just handed the flailing regime of Nicolás Maduro another $5 billion loan; Russia has helped it hang on to its refineries and gas stations in the United States.
In Latin America, an ad hoc coalition of a dozen nations, not including the United States, formed last year in an attempt to broker a solution. The “Lima group” tried to pressure the Maduro regime to hold a fair presidential election, and when that failed, announced it would not recognize the result. Six of its members, including Argentina, Canada, Chile and Colombia, last week referred Venezuela to the International Criminal Court.
But these are largely symbolic measures. They will do little to weaken the Maduro regime, which has already survived months of mass demonstrations by killing hundreds of protesters, and blocked five military coup attempts. A Cuban-run intelligence apparatus has proved brutally effective in rooting out internal opposition: Some 600 military officers are believed to be under detention, and much of the civilian opposition leadership has been jailed or driven into exile.
So what can be done? Santos believes a solution will require a reversal of the U.S. retreat from regional leadership. “I would say [the Americans] would have to lead the pack, and many of the other countries would accompany the U.S. in a solution for this disastrous situation,” he said. Does that mean a U.S.-led military intervention? Santos doesn’t quite go there; but like the secretary general of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, he is saying that “all options must be considered.”
As a practical matter, a straightforward U.S. invasion of Venezuela is a nonstarter. It would polarize Latin America, and even if there were little armed resistance, it would be difficult to find or construct an alternative government. But some in the region are beginning to think about a different and more plausible scenario: a multilateral humanitarian intervention, which could follow a palace coup against Maduro — or, perhaps, another desperate rebellion by a population deprived of food, medicine, water and power.
The United States is no more ready for that contingency than it is to address the consequences of another few million Venezuelan refugees pouring into Colombia. Santos is right: It’s time to start working on it.