One of the things that surprised me the most during a lengthy interview with Juan Guaidó, the Venezuelan National Assembly president who is recognized by the United States and more than 50 countries as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, was his forecast that the number of Venezuelan exiles may “easily” reach 8 million by next year.
It’s a mindboggling figure, because it would be twice the 4 million exiles that, according to a recent United Nations report, have already fled the country since dictator Nicolás Maduro took office five years ago. Eight million people would amount to 25 percent of Venezuela’s population.
Twice the current number of Venezuelan exiles would cause a much bigger economic, and perhaps political, earthquake for many Latin American countries.
Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil and other countries already are struggling to accommodate the growing numbers of Venezuelans joining their schools systems or using their hospitals. Shamefully, the Trump administration so far has refused to grant Temporary Protected Status — temporary residency — to tens of thousands of Venezuelan exiles in the United States.
Venezuela’s economy has plunged by 65 percent over the past six years, inflation is reaching 10 million percent this year and 21 million Venezuelans go to sleep hungry every night, according to International Monetary Fund and United Nations figures.
Furthermore, the Maduro dictatorship’s military and para-military forces have killed at least 6,856 oppositionists since the beginning of 2018, according to a recent report by U.N. High Commissioner of Human Rights Michelle Bachelet. That compares with the political atrocities committed by South American military dictatorships in the 1970s.
Asked about the Trump administration’s new economic sanctions on Venezuela, which ban U.S. transactions with state-owned Venezuelan businesses, Guaidó told me in the Aug. 12 interview that, “They seek to prevent the regime’s use of those resources to finance irregular (para-military) groups or to steal the Venezuelan people’s money.”
Dismissing Maduro’s claims that Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis has been caused by U.S. sanctions, Guaidó said that, “The sanctions went into effect three days ago, whereas the 65 percent contraction of the economy has been taking place over the past six years. The Maduro regime bears total responsibility for the crisis.”
Asked about the Cuban presence in Venezuela, Guaidó told me that there are “between 2,000 and 3,000 Cubans who are carrying out intelligence, counterintelligence, repression and even torture” for Maduro’s armed forces.
Guaidó said that Maduro may soon try to close the National Assembly, the last democratic institution left in the country. About 25 opposition members of Congress have been stripped of their congressional immunity by the regime, and several of Guaidó’s top aides — including his chief of staff — have been arrested on phony charges.
I asked Guaidó whether he’s not fearful that international pressure to restore democracy in Venezuela may weaken in the near future.
While the United States, the European Union, Colombia and Brazil remain firmly behind Guaidó, Mexico’s new left-of-center government has moved closer to Maduro and declared itself “neutral” on Venezuela. And Argentina may follow Mexico’s steps if the radical populist party of former Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner wins the Oct. 27 elections, as seems likely.
Guaidó responded that governments come and go, noting that El Salvador’s new government, for instance, has switched sides to support him. He added that Maduro, too, is becoming weaker, as nearly 90 percent of Venezuelans want him to leave power, according to a recent Meganálisis poll.
“Time is running against (all) Venezuelans, including Maduro, who is collapsing,” Guaidó told me. “What’s important is to take advantage of the window of opportunity we have to prevent an even bigger humanitarian catastrophe” and to “step up international diplomatic pressures to end the suffering of the Venezuelan people.”
He’s right. Unless the international community steps up its pressure on Maduro, the number of Venezuelan exiles will soar, Venezuela will be left with a starving population depending on meager food subsidies from a repressive dictatorship, such as Cuba, and neighboring countries will be flooded with millions more Venezuelan refugees. Venezuela will be an even bigger hemispheric crisis than it is now.
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