Andres Oppenheimer

Democratic debates ignored the hemisphere’s biggest crisis: Venezuela | Opinion

No one mentioned Venezuela either night. From left, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, former Housing Secretary Julian Castro during the first Democratic presidential debate in Miami on Wednesday.
No one mentioned Venezuela either night. From left, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, former Housing Secretary Julian Castro during the first Democratic presidential debate in Miami on Wednesday. Getty Images

How sad. At the much-awaited Democratic presidential debates Wednesday and Thursday, none of the five moderators or any of the 20 presidential hopefuls mentioned the biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis in the Western Hemisphere: Venezuela.

They didn’t mention it even in passing, despite the fact that the debates were taking place in Miami. Tens of thousands of Venezuelan exiles have settled in Miami over the past few years, fleeing their country’s dictatorship. You can hardly take an Uber in this city without finding out that the driver is a Venezuelan exile.

And yet, none of the five NBC debate moderators — all of them excellent journalists — asked a question about Venezuela or inserted the issue into a larger question. And none of the presidential hopefuls referred to the Venezuelan crisis when they were allowed to spend significant time talking about immigration and foreign policy.

In a way, all of them — journalists and presidential hopefuls — fell into the trap of focusing on Trump’s political agenda.

They talked extensively about Trump’s bogus claim of an alleged “invasion” of undocumented immigrants. That’s exactly what Trump wants them to be talking about.

Like many populist demagogues, Trump uses hatred of immigrants to energize his base. That’s the issue that helped him win in 2016, and the one with which he hopes to win in 2020. And we in the media are falling for it, just like we did the last time.

No matter how repetitive it sounds, journalists should remind their audiences constantly that Trump’s alleged “immigration crisis” is a fabrication.

Despite the pictures of caravans of Central American migrants that Trump loves to talk about, there are fewer undocumented people in the country than a decade ago. The total number of unauthorized immigrants living in the United States fell from 12.2 million in 2007 to 10.5 million in 2017, according to the non-partisan Pew Research Center.

The democratic presidential hopefuls should have called Trump’s bluff, and should have pivoted — at least for a few seconds — to Venezuela.

About 4 million Venezuelans have fled their country’s economic debacle and its cruel dictatorship over the past five years, according to United Nations figures. The Venezuelan exodus is already affecting economies across Latin America, and diplomats privately warn that it could destabilize neighboring countries.

About 1.3 million Venezuelan migrants and refugees already have moved to Colombia, while 770,000 have gone to Peru, 288,000 to Chile, 263,000 to Ecuador, 130,000 to Argentina, 168,000 to Brazil, and 94,000 to Panama, according to U.N. estimates.

There are an estimated 82,000 Venezuelan asylum seekers in the United States. The Trump administration has so far denied them Temporary Protected Status, or TPS.

And those figures may only be the beginning of an exodus that, at its present levels, will surpass the Syrian refugee crisis by next year, according to Organization of American States (OAS) estimates. OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro told me recently that the Venezuelan exodus may reach 10 million people over the next four years.

Most of the Venezuelan exiles are fleeing because they are starving. Venezuela’s inflation rate may reach 10 million percent this year, the world’s highest, according to the International Monetary Fund.

There are widespread shortages of food and medicines. Most Venezuelans can’t get a full meal a day. A recent report by Human Rights Watch and Johns Hopkins University shows maternal and infant mortality rates rose by 65 percent and 30 percent respectively in just one year.

Democrats should pay more attention to the Venezuelan crisis. They should denounce their presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders for his scandalous refusal to call Maduro a dictator, and stress that the next U.S. president should repair the damage Trump has done to the world’s democracies by antagonizing European allies, and by criticizing friends such as Mexico and Colombia.

Only a world-respected U.S. president with strong allies in Europe and Latin America — instead of one who bullies allies and befriends tyrants like the leaders of Russia and North Korea — will be able to create a united front that can topple Maduro. Democratic candidates should make that point, and start talking about Venezuela.

Don’t miss the “Oppenheimer Presenta” at 8 p.m. Sundays on CNN en Espanol. Twitter: @oppenheimera