Latin America's Burning Question: What to Do About Venezuela?

6 MINS READApr 2, 2018 | 09:00 GMT
Mass migration from Venezuela won’t be easily ignored by any politician, no matter their leanings.
(John Moore/Getty Images)
  • The Lima Group, an organization of countries created to assist the United States in pressuring Venezuela's government toward free and fair elections, will continue to raise the pressure on Caracas.
  • The group's members, including Brazil, will share with the United States financial intelligence on the Venezuelan government's illicit actions, which will facilitate the drafting of criminal indictments or sanctions against the country.
  • But the election of leftist presidents in Colombia and Brazil later this year could reduce the countries' cooperation with the United States and delay heavier financial investigations into Venezuela.


Everyone agrees on Venezuela's diagnosis, but agreeing on the best course of treatment is another matter entirely. The economic and political situation in Venezuela has become too dire for its neighbors to ignore, but countries in the region are having a hard time deciding how to arrest Venezuela's slide into authoritarianism and economic catastrophe. More than a dozen countries from North, Central and South America have publicly committed to supporting free elections in Venezuela and sharing financial intelligence on the country, although two of Venezuela's most critical neighbors, Colombia and Brazil, are at odds regarding the best course of action for the country. And with presidential elections scheduled later this year in Colombia and Brazil, all bets are off as to whether states in the region will succeed in taking concerted, united action to solve the Venezuelan problem. (Mexico is also headed to the polls later this year, but the outcome is unlikely to change its stance on Venezuela.)


The Big Picture

The United States is trying to steer Venezuela’s government away from one-party rule through heavier sanctions. To raise pressure on Caracas, it will enlist the help of regional countries with intelligence-gathering capabilities Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Chile and Mexico to craft indictments or sanctions against Venezuelan leaders. Colombia and Brazil, however, may soon elect more leftist leaders, which could threaten their cooperation with Washington when it comes to exerting greater pressure against the Venezuelan government. (Mexico might also elect a leftist leader, but the country will likely continue cooperating with the United States when it comes to Venezuela.)

Tightening the Screws on Caracas

Following a year of diplomacy, the United States and prominent South American allies Colombia and Peru managed to secure agreement among 14 American countries, from Canada to Argentina, to support free polls in Venezuela as part of what has been dubbed the Lima Group. Fearful of suddenly losing power, the Venezuelan government has opposed the idea of free elections in the next presidential vote on May 20 — meaning the Lima Group's position is essentially one of regime change. Until now, the group has been a largely powerless organization that has failed to raise pressure on Venezuela. Recent moves, however, suggest the body will soon coordinate action with the United States to add some teeth to the efforts to prevent Venezuela's slide into one-party rule.

A G-20 finance ministers' meeting earlier this month in Buenos Aires reflected the group's move toward a more active role in steering Venezuela toward free elections. During the summit, prominent members of the Lima Group agreed to collaborate not only in ensuring fair elections in the country but also in providing intelligence to counter alleged financial crimes involving Caracas. The information is meant to help international authorities open criminal investigations, secure indictments or craft sanctions against Venezuelan leaders. Washington already uses such measures as tools to pressure Venezuela's government, and such an agreement would allow the Lima Group to play a more active role in assisting the U.S. response to Venezuela's crisis.

The waves of migration caused by Venezuela's impending implosion have affected Colombia and Brazil most severely, although the two neighbors have pursued widely divergent policies on how to deal with its root cause – the country's foundering economy. Colombia backs heavier U.S. sanctions as part of an attempt to drive the Venezuelan government from power so that a successor can begin addressing the profound economic deterioration. Brazil, by contrast, has long espoused a policy of non-intervention in Venezuelan affairs, restricting itself to encouraging political dialogue between the opposition and the government to steer them toward free elections. At present, however, the gap between Colombia and Brazil may be narrowing after the Brazilian Finance Ministry agreed during the G-20 summit that it would coordinate financial actions against Caracas. As a result, Brazil will likely allocate some of its sizable intelligence resources to the Lima Group.

Uncertainty at the Ballot Box

But amid the growing regional convergence, looming elections could throw a wrench into the works. If Gustavo Petro, the leftist frontrunner in Colombia's upcoming presidential election, takes the presidency in a June runoff, his administration and his constituents would likely take a dimmer view of fulfilling Washington's wishes on Venezuela. Last year, Petro urged Colombian lawmakers to respect the outcome of a controversial vote in Venezuela to create a National Constituent Assembly, arguing that it was a product of the country's right to self-determination. It was a departure from the prevailing view within the Colombian government and those in neighboring states, which decried the poll as an illegal attempt by the Venezuelan government to consolidate political power. The situation would be quite different if one of Petro's main challengers, the right-wing Ivan Duque, gains power. His government would be unlikely to question U.S. plans for Venezuela.

In Brazil, which holds its presidential vote in October, a centrist leader such as Marina Silva or a leftist one such as Ciro Gomes could also try to roll back Brazilian cooperation with the Lima Group and the United States in an effort to preserve Brazil's half-century-old foreign policy of non-intervention in the affairs of other South American states. But much like a Colombia under Duque, Brazil could back harsher sanctions on Venezuela if the far-right Jair Bolsonaro takes office.

The sheer weight of the Venezuelan crisis, however, may temper ideological concerns regardless of who leads Colombia and Brazil. The flow of Venezuelan refugees into other countries will only grow in the coming years, and even leftist administrations will find it difficult to ignore the ramifications of this mass migration. In Colombia and Brazil, hundreds of thousands of migrants could soon be competing with unskilled locals for work and, in some cases, could even bring in contagious diseases such as measles, considering that Venezuela's health system has collapsed. The presence of migrant communities in border regions is also likely to precipitate violence, as locals and new arrivals fight over work and access to public resources. This dynamic will raise pressure on Colombian and Brazilian leaders to address the migrant issue. To this end, both countries are likely to reinforce their security presence in border regions during the coming years, regardless of who voters elect later this year.

Latin American leaders are already convinced that Venezuela is a problem requiring a fix, but now they face the challenge of deciding how. Getting Colombia and Brazil — the two countries most affected by the Venezuelan crisis — on the same page is a key part of that challenge, but elections this year in both countries may end up delaying direct action for regime change in Venezuela. But maintaining the status quo will only perpetuate — if not accelerate — the large migration already underway, and as that happens even the most reluctant of potential governments in the neighborhood will begin beating the drum for political change in Venezuela.

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