South America has been a special part of my life for four decades. I have lived many years in Brasil and Peru. I am married to an incredible lady from Argentina. I want to share South America with you.
Terrorism, “unfair” trade deals and immigration. Few foreign policy issues have played in the US presidential election. One that may define it, though, has so far gone unmentioned: Venezuela. The country has long been a sleeping dog that neighbours have preferred to let lie. That may not be possible much longer. Increasingly, the country’s multiple crises are becoming international issues.
This month, in scenes reminiscent of the fall of the Berlin Wall, about 130,000 Venezuelans flooded across the previously closed Colombian border to buy the basic goods, such as food and medicines, that they could not find at home. The number of Venezuelans asking for asylum has soared. Applications to the US have doubled since last year. Brazil and Guyana are also reportedly deporting Venezuelan refugees seeking food.
Malaria has meanwhile re-emerged after Venezuela was the first country to eradicate it from populated areas, in 1961. It is possible other diseases could emerge, threatening regional public health. There is also Venezuela’s role as a conduit for illegal drugs smuggled north to the US, and east into Brazil, Africa and thence Europe.
Caracas’s usual response to criticism is to deny the problems or blame someone else. Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, this month said he was “very worried” by Venezuela’s budding “humanitarian crisis”, which is caused by “political instability”. In response, Venezuela’s UN ambassador called the description “strange” and questioned Mr Ban’s information. More recently still, Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay blocked Venezuela from assuming the rotating presidency of the Mercosur regional trade group. As Brazil’s foreign minister put it: “Venezuela cannot even look after itself.” Venezuela’s president Nicolás Maduro’s characteristic reply was that Mercosur had been taken over in “a rightwing putsch”.
The country needs a new government soon, and certainly before the 2018 elections. Thankfully there is a constitutional process that could speed change: the so-called recall referendum. Mr Maduro has naturally resisted this opposition initiative as it could oust him. Yet although the authorities that he controls have stalled the process, they have not killed it. That is testament to Mr Maduro’s poor standing among even the chavistas he claims to represent. One July poll revealed only 7 per cent of them want him re-elected.
Mr Maduro’s exit is therefore inevitable; almost everyone wants him gone. The big question is how it happens. If the referendum is held before January 10, fresh elections will be called. This is what the opposition and the hemisphere’s biggest countries want. If the vote is held afterwards, Mr Maduro’s vice-president will finish his term. Events may precipitate change sooner. The opposition plans a mass rally for September 1. On past form, rogue agents from either side may disrupt the march. Might the army or national guard fire on civilians to restore order? It is possible. And, if they do, what will be the international response?
Blood in Caracas could shift the debate in the US election. More importantly, it would require an active Latin American response. Unasur, the regional body trying to broker opposition and government talks, is the obvious candidate — although any deeper Venezuelan involvement would also mark a terrible irony. Hugo Chávez, Mr Maduro’s mentor, proclaimed the group to be South America’s “armour against barbarism” when he co-founded it 12 years ago. Unless the international community can help to ease Venezuela’s tragic situation, those may well prove to be his truest words.