Sophie Coombs | Latin America Fellow
Since hitting a crisis point in 2015, Venezuela has seen approximately 5.4 million of its own citizens migrate or seek asylum overseas. Driving this mass exodus, are decades of corruption and mismanagement at the hands of Hugo Chávez and Nicolas Maduro–the former and current president of the country’s socialist Bolivarian Revolution. Hyperinflation, chronic food shortages and the decaying health system leave many with no choice but to emigrate. Nonetheless, the international community along with many Venezuelans themselves have optimistically envisaged what life could look like after Maduro.
Long term implications of the crisis
Despite considerable foreign aid efforts and disciplinary trade sanctions, the country’s humanitarian crisis continues to worsen, and its long-term consequences continue to emerge.
The fallout of the Bolivarian revolution has essentially emptied Venezuela of its skilled professionals and academics. Among the Venezuelan diaspora are geoscientists dismissed from the dysfunctional state oil company, biochemists turning their backs on empty laboratories and paediatricians now working as au pairs to make ends meet.
The mass emigration of highly qualified individuals, or ‘brain drain’, presents a significant challenge for the country’s long-term future–which will depend on the creation of new industries, the diversifying of the economy and the rehabilitation of universities and training.
Those left behind are likely to suffer complications from untreated chronic illnesses, compounded by widespread malnutrition–a factor that increases the vulnerability of the population, posing further challenges to post-Maduro Venezuela.
A domestic population trapped in survival mode, and the mass exodus of some of the nation’s most talented professionals paint a grim picture for a country looking to rebuild after one of the worst humanitarian crises of the 21st century. What do these challenges mean for Venezuela and how will they impact the eventual rebuilding effort?
Reviving Venezuela’s democracy
To mitigate the long-term issues associated with the crisis, Venezuela must first attain political stability and repair its democratic institutions. However, all this hinges on Maduro’s resignation or removal from office–something which appears to be an increasingly unlikely prospect. Nonetheless, in March 2020, the US State Department released its Democratic Transition Framework for Venezuela in preparation for such a future.
The “day after” the Maduro regime would likely see an influx of urgent aid to combat food insecurity and help curtail the wider ramifications of chronic undernourishment. The US government also envisages economic relief for Venezuela in the early days of the transition, with plans to suspend trade sanctions, promoting a potential short-term revival of the nation’s oil industry.
Central to Venezuela’s transition is the act of restoring faith in political institutions destroyed through the rule of Chávez and Maduro. Addressing the human rights abuses committed during the Bolivarian revolution will be key to this process. To obtain justice for victims and firmly leave state-led obscurantism in the past, a truth commission should be established with the assistance of outside observers. Venezuela’s interim government should mirror Colombia’s approach to negotiations with the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and adopt a restorative justice strategy when trying those responsible for human rights violations. In such a scenario, those found guilty would pay reparations, concede assets and perform community service instead of facing jail time – which would incentivize cooperation while promoting disarmament and demobilization.
While the US has unveiled grand plans to help guide Venezuela’s transition to democracy, the effort will have to be international in nature, considering the strong anti-U.S. sentiment brewing since Chávez’s rise to power in 1999. Latin American and European nations such as Chile, Argentina and Spain, who have completed their own transition to democracy in recent decades could provide valuable oversight for the country.
Long term outlook for Venezuela
Once economic relief and the actions of the interim government have pacified the crisis situation in Venezuela, steps must be taken to address the long-term issues associated with the country’s collapse.
First on the agenda is diversifying Venezuela’s economy by creating new industries outside of the petroleum sector–a need made all the more pressing by the country’s commitment to the 2015 Paris Agreement. Attention should be placed on Venezuela’s existing hydroelectric infrastructure as well as its considerable potential for producing solar and wind energy, which could see it become Latin America’s renewable energy powerhouse.
While Venezuela’s economy is in ruins, those among its 5.4 million strong diaspora are rich in experience, skills and ideas. Repatriating some of the country’s valuable human capital may provide the impetus needed to not only recover but build on Venezuela’s existing industries. The Portuguese government’s Programa Regressar (Program Return), a repatriation initiative developed in response to the mass emigration of Portuguese citizens post global financial crisis, provides a possible model for Venezuela once it has achieved economic stability.
For the moment at least, the situation in Venezuela looks set to worsen before it improves. As the situation continues, the challenges for the transition team become even greater, exacerbated by the effects of the pandemic and the sheer length and severity of the crisis. For those holding out hope for Venezuela’s future, Maduro’s removal from power cannot come soon enough.
Sophie Coombs is the Latin America Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.