A Venezuelan hauls food bought in Colombia back to Venezuela along the border between the two countries in Paraguachón, Colombia. (Guillermo Legaria/Getty Images)
Deputy Editorial Page Editor

On June 7, the U.N. Refugee Agency and the International Organization for Migration announced that the number of Venezuelans who had fled the country had surpassed 4 million. One million people of the fewer than 30 million remaining in what was once Latin America’s richest country had poured across its borders in just seven months. “The pace of the outflow from Venezuela,” said a statement by the two agencies, “has been staggering.”

The news didn’t get much attention in Washington. Following a failed attempt by the Venezuelan opposition to provoke a military uprising on April 30, President Trump chewed out his advisers, stopped talking about the country and moved on to his next “maximum pressure” target, Iran.

That’s a source of mounting frustration for Venezuelans and their Latin American neighbors, who don’t have the option of moving on — and who are saying their region will be facing a disaster of epic proportions within months unless Venezuela can be stabilized and the tide of refugees arrested.

At a private conference on Venezuela this month, sponsored by the Americas Society/Council of the Americas, I heard a host of senior Latin American diplomats, regional experts, and present and former U.S. officials speak with alarm about where the crisis may be headed. The scenarios they discussed included the spread of famine conditions; the outbreak of civil war involving competing factions of the military or the Colombian rebel groups that now control large parts of the countryside; or a palace coup that would replace the charmless and incompetent president, Nicolás Maduro, without changing the rest of the authoritarian regime that surrounds him.

The most plausible and most disturbing forecast was this: By December, an additional 1 million Venezuelans will pour into Colombia and other nearby countries — and the region will be unable to cope with them. The Trump administration will find itself facing demands that it mount some kind of intervention to stanch a crisis on the Venezuelan-Colombian border far worse than anything ever seen on the U.S.-Mexican frontier.

Meanwhile, the claim that the United States is responsible for the humanitarian catastrophe, now confined to the Maduro regime and the fringe left, will have gravitated to the mainstream. That’s because even though the ban on Venezuelan oil purchases that Trump rashly ordered in January failed to accomplish the goal of forcing regime change, it has had a devastating economic effect.

Venezuela had already experienced a historic economic collapse by the end of last year, with severe shortages of food, medicine, power and water. Oil exports, virtually the only source of the dollars Venezuela needs to import 95 percent of its food, had fallen by half. But the plunge since the U.S. oil ban went into effect has been stunning. In the first half of this month, according to Russ Dallen of Miami-based Caracas Capital, loadings of ships for oil exports had dropped below 600,000 barrels a day — compared to average exports in 2018 of 1.2 million barrels a day.

Most of the oil now being shipped, Dallen says, is going to Russia, China and Cuba, who don’t pay for it. Russia and China are collecting on debts, while Cuba, like a colonial master, is exacting tribute from its client. The regime is frantically selling off gold from its reserves; that plus drug trafficking may bring in $1 billion a month, enough to keep the Chavista elite in champagne. But the rest of the country is literally starving.

Trump administration officials profess to be untroubled by the prospect of being blamed for creating Latin America’s first modern famine. They say they still expect the regime to crumble, allowing a transition to democracy led by opposition leader Juan Guaidó. But the assessments of senior diplomats and regional experts at this month’s conference were predominately pessimistic. Many said they thought it unlikely that the Venezuelan military could or would overthrow the regime; while its senior officers are up to their necks in drug trafficking and other corruption, lower ranks are heavily monitored and dissenters quickly purged.

For lack of better options, Guaidó’s alternative government has been negotiating with Maduro for the past few weeks, but almost no one believes a deal will happen. Latin American and European nations are hoping to push the regime into scheduling elections. But a fair election would require a complete reconstruction of the deeply compromised electoral system — and senior regime figures have said over and over that they will never accept an election defeat.

Every new proposal for “dialogue” between the Maduro regime and the opposition simply causes another stampede of refugees for the border, one senior diplomat grimly observed. That mounting mass exodus is the real mover of the crisis. Sooner or later, it will force Venezuela back onto Washington’s agenda.

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