Venezuela, once the richest country in Latin America, is currently in the midst of an economic collapse of unprecedented magnitude. Falling oil prices and political corruption have sent the country into a spiral of hyperinflation and hunger that has forced 1.8 million people to flee in the past two years alone.
President Donald Trump has been very outspoken about his concern for Venezuela, stating in a speech to the U.N. that “the Venezuelan people are starving and their country is collapsing,” and pleading that “every country represented here today be prepared to do more to address this very real crisis.”
Yet the Trump administration’s response to this crisis has been to impose sanctions and refuse refugees. If it really wants to help Venezuelans, it needs to mitigate the effects of the crisis by supporting refugees rather than economically crippling their impoverished home country and turning those seeking asylum away.
Under the leadership of President Nicolas Maduro, Venezuelans are suffering from hunger, sickness and political oppression. According to Secretary General Luis Almagro of the Organization of American States, newborns in Syria have a better chance of survival than those born in Venezuela today. Unable to eat more than one meal a day, the average Venezuelan lost 24 pounds in the last year and medicine shortages have resulted in outbreaks of easily preventable diseases like measles and diphtheria.
Maduro’s blatant contempt for human rights and for the democratic rule of law have also contributed to the mass exodus. After the country’s opposition leaders won a majority of seats in the National Assembly in 2015, Maduro stripped power from the legislature and stacked the Supreme Court with his supporters to block impeachment attempts. Prior to the presidential elections in May, the government also jailed political opponents and barred them from running.
The United States has long employed sanctions as a foreign policy tool to try to bring about regime change, yet academic research shows this objective is rarely achieved. Instead, a country’s most vulnerable often end up suffering the most from sanctions. A report by the Brookings Institute in 1998 found that sanctions tend to bolster authoritarian societies by enabling governments to better control distribution of goods due to scarcity. They also hurt the emergence of strong middle classes and trigger large-scale immigration.
In the case of Venezuela, Trump’s sanctions, which prohibit the country from borrowing or selling assets in the U.S. financial system, have been unsuccessful and have contributed to the economic collapse that has left nearly 90 percent of its population in poverty. Since almost all of Venezuela’s export revenue comes from oil, cutting off the government’s access to dollars leaves the economy unable to pay for imports of food and medicine.
Polls show a majority of Venezuelans and a plurality of opposition supporters are against the current U.S. sanctions. This is not to say that measures targeting Maduro’s oppressive government are unwarranted. The fight to restore democracy in a country with dwindling separation of powers and freedom of speech, among many other problems, should continue — but the humanitarian impact of these interventions must be addressed.
The hypocrisy underlying the Trump administration’s outspoken concern for Venezuelans should also not be overlooked. At a time when the number of people seeking asylum worldwide is at a historical high, Venezuelans top the list in the United States — but Trump lowered the national refugee quota to below 45,000, the lowest it has been since the enactment of the Refugee Act in 1980.
While Trump fervently criticizes Maduro for his brand of nationalist populism, he fails to acknowledge that he himself has adopted of one of the worst aspects of this ideology — xenophobia. But despite Trump’s harsh policies and rhetoric, most Americans still believe the United States has a responsibility to take in refugees. As previous administrations have shown, we have the resources to take in more refugees and the large diaspora of Venezuelans that already exists in the United States would ease their transition.
The number of Venezuelan families fleeing their home for neighboring countries has also seen a sharp increase in recent months. The U.N. Refugee Agency expects 1.7 million Venezuelans to leave the country just this year, which will put a huge strain on the already fragile economic and political landscapes of nearby host countries such as Colombia and Brazil.
As the wealthiest nation in the hemisphere, and with a long-standing tradition of leadership in the region, the United States has a responsibility to help relieve the burden that Venezuela’s crisis is putting on its close neighbors. It is also in our best interest to do so, as the stability that we have spent decades promoting in these countries is now threatened by the mass displacement of Venezuelans and the backlash it creates.
Vice President Mike Pence recently pledged $16 million in aid to help Venezuelan migrants in Colombia. While a good start, it is only a drop in the bucket considering that Brookings’ estimate for the cost of caring for Venezuela’s migrants ranges between $2.8 and $5.2 billion. As the crisis nears the size of Syria’s, to which the United States has contributed more than $6.5 billion in aid, the Trump administration must extend our legacy of humanitarian leadership to the dire situation taking place in our own backyard.
If the Trump administration professes to care about the Venezuelan people, threatening the government with more sanctions and with military intervention won’t help the already reeling population. As thousands flee the country every day in search of food and medicine, and with no change in government on the horizon, the administration needs to practice what it preaches and do more to help those desperately seeking refuge.