Venezuela’s neighbors abetted the meltdown

Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in Venezuela to support a referendum on the rule of President Nicolás Maduro.
Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in Venezuela to support a referendum on the rule of President Nicolás Maduro. Bloomberg

With the Venezuelan economy in a free fall, massive shortages and President Nicolás Maduro renewing a state of emergency and calling for military exercises, the question of political upheaval and state collapse in Venezuela is no longer a matter of if, but when. And when it does happen, Venezuela’s neighbors will have themselves to blame for letting it get this far and this bad.

As much as President Maduro would like to blame the United States in some fevered conspiracy, the truth is that Venezuela’s fragile institutional conditions and brewing popular crisis stem from the neglect of the regional community, not the gringos to the north.

For years, countries such as Brazil, Colombia, Chile, and Argentina have stood on the sidelines as, first, President Hugo Chávez and, later, Nicolás Maduro, systematically dismantled the checks and balances of democratic governance, squeezed human rights and corrupted the state.

On the one side, there are the economic interests such as Brazil’s now-discredited Petrobras and Odebrecht, agri-business companies in Argentina and Brazil and Colombia’s commercial sectors that actively invested and gained rich profits in the once-booming oil-based Venezuelan economy. That alone is not the governments’ fault. After all, that is what businesses do: seek profit and when they are rolling in it — and these companies were in the go-go years of Venezuela’s spending spree — encourage their governments to let them go about their business.

No, the real responsibility in Venezuela’s ugly demise and the long-term fall-out has been the region’s willingness to stand by or, in some cases, even support the destruction of regional norms and institutions intended to prevent exactly this sort of degradation of human rights and institutional democracy.

It’s happened on three tracks.

▪ First, countries like Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia and Argentina — under the Kirchners — have led an attack against hemispheric institutions such as the inter-American system for human rights while countries in the Caribbean that have benefited Venezuela’s oil give-away program, Petro Caribe, have stood on the sidelines.

▪ Second, in the Organization of American States (OAS), member states have refused to press for the Inter-American Democratic Charter over the crushing of democratic rights and the arrest of political opponents in Venezuela. Such efforts could have helped enforce limits to the deterioration of democracy. The countries that have remained silent include the bloc of Caribbean countries and Brazil, Colombia, and Chile.

▪ Third has been the emergence of new regional organizations such as UNASUR and CELAC, which claim to defend democracy and human rights but have neither the normative structure nor political will to do so. While UNASUR has been actively supported by countries like Chile, Uruguay, Colombia, and — especially — Brazil, it has failed to effectively defend democratic institutions and rights in several critical moments.

When it has “observed” elections, as in the 2013 president elections and the 2015 legislative elections, UNASUR has limited its role to “accompanying” the partisan state electoral commission — a laughable standard and one that has weakened popular trust in electoral process. And when last year UNASUR — led by former president of Colombia, Ernesto Samper — attempted to mediate the situation in the country after a violent crackdown on protestors, in which 42 people were killed, the mission failed to cool tensions and restrain the government.

As a result, what the region is left with now is not just a country on the brink of an institutional meltdown — the likes of which the hemisphere hasn’t seen in recent history — but a regional normative system that is in tatters.

When looking for whom to blame for the inevitable mess that will be left behind, don’t look to Uncle Sam, though Maduro would like you to. Venezuela’s regional neighbors should look at themselves as the ones that enabled this nasty crisis and the messy aftermath.

Christopher Sabatini is a lecturer at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). He and Amy Williams are co-founders of Global Americans and the on-line journal, LatinAmericaGoesGlobal.org. This article draws from their report: “Liberals, Rogues & Enablers”