The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Venezuela is a tragedy, not a terrorist threat

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Venezuela is a country in crisis.

The economy is in shambles. By the end of this year, experts predict inflation there will hit 1 million percent, one of the highest rates in history. Public services and health care are nearly impossible to come by. Blackouts are common, water is scarce, and public transportation has all but stopped running.

Crime has become rampant: Four of the world’s 10 most dangerous cities are in Venezuela. There is so little food that 60 percent of Venezuelans say they’ve lost weight. Diseases once largely eradicated, such as diphtheria and tuberculous, are soaring. Things are so bad that parents are leaving their children at orphanages because they can’t afford to feed them.

It’s obvious that Venezuela needs help. Instead, the Trump administration is now threatening to add it to the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. Just four governments — Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria — have received that designation, which is given to states accused of repeatedly providing “support for acts of international terrorism.” My colleagues John Hudson and Lena H. Sun called it “a dramatic escalation against the socialist government of Nicolás Maduro,” the country’s leader.

Qualifications for the list, which was created in 1979, are vague. Joseph DeThomas, a former State Department official and professor of international affairs at Pennsylvania State University, has called placing countries on it “more of an art than a science,” saying that “political and diplomatic context plays a considerable role in such designations.” States on the list can face sanctions, bans on arms-related sales, prohibitions on economic assistance and other punishments.

But it’s a questionable tool, and there’s little evidence that it has helped keep the United States safer. A report by the Brookings Institution from 2008 argued that the whole idea of a list of state sponsors of terrorism is outdated and counterproductive.

“The very concept of a binary list, with countries either on it or off, is flawed and often does more harm to U.S. interests than good,” the report’s authors wrote. “Once a country is listed it is hard to remove even if it does not support terrorism (as Sudan has found out), and the list provides little incentive for partial or incomplete counterterrorism cooperation (which is all several countries are realistically likely to give)."

The authors argued that the list fails to accurately capture which states support and condone terrorism. Pakistan, which has long aided a range of terrorist groups, is not on the list. Fifteen of the 19 terrorists who carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were from Saudi Arabia, yet that country has never been included. What’s needed, the report said, is an international consensus on what constitutes state-sponsored terrorism — and clear punishments for those that meet the definition.

And even if the list were important and clearly defined, it’s not obvious why Venezuela belongs on it. Republican lawmakers such as Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) have argued that the Maduro government has ties to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia and the FARC, a paramilitary group in Colombia. But experts say that’s largely untrue. “I suspect this will be based on hearsay and sources of questionable integrity,” David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, told my colleagues.

It’s possible that adding Venezuela to the list could further weaken the Maduro government by making it harder for American oil companies to keep doing business with Venezuela. But that’s unlikely to actually help push Maduro out of power. In fact, it could have the opposite effect, allowing him to argue that imperialist America is the real enemy and cause of the country’s woes.

Ultimately, adding Venezuela to the list would make it harder for the United States to provide humanitarian aid and global leadership on the issue. And support from the United States is needed if the international community is going to tackle the crisis, which is spreading across South America.

Nearly 2 million Venezuelans have fled to neighboring countries such as Colombia and Brazil in the last year. Venezuelans are leaving their home country at a rate of 15,000 a day, inundating the health systems and public services of nearby countries.

In one town in Brazil, hospital workers say they are swamped, and police say 911 calls have risen 1,000 percent. Schools are struggling to absorb the influx of Spanish speakers, and migrants have been forced to live on the streets. Other places report similar pressures. Francisco Santos, Colombia’s ambassador to the United States, has said his country is struggling to absorb the people streaming over its border.

"This could generate a crisis of unprecedented proportions in Colombia,” he said recently. “And not just Colombia. This can be a destabilizing force in all of Latin America.”

In response, an ad hoc delegation of Latin American countries formed the “Lima group.” Its dozen members states pushed for fair and free elections in Venezuela last year. They’ve also worked to broker a peaceful transfer of power away from the Maduro government and even sued the administration in the International Criminal Court.

But without the backing of the United States, it’s hard to imagine any of these largely symbolic gestures will have a long-term impact. What Venezuelans need now is help, in the form of food and medicine and aid. “So far, the Trump administration has offered less than $70 million in humanitarian aid, and it has denied nearly half of Venezuelan asylum applicants,” a Bloomberg opinion columnist pointed out. “If the U.S. government feels compelled to act, it should start here.”

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