The Organization of American States is meeting in D.C. this week for its 48th General Assembly. There were a host of issues on the agenda, but chief among them is what to do about Venezuela, which continues its slow economic and political collapse. Adding to the urgency of finding a viable approach to Venezuela is a recent report released by the OAS last week, finding widespread evidence of crimes against humanity committed by state security forces.
It is the most recent reminder that the situation in Venezuela is more than just a political drama; it has become a crisis in desperate need of international attention.
Venezuela’s current economic collapse is the result of nearly 20 years of political and economic policies dating back to the election of Hugo Chavez as president in 1998. Chavez succeeded in reducing poverty and increasing opportunities for the country’s poor, but it came at a cost. By nationalizing much of the country’s farmland and manufacturing industry, while enacting stringent price controls and drastically expanding presidential powers, Chavez made Venezuela increasingly dependent on both its main oil exports and his own power for survival. High oil prices and his cult of personality made this feasible, but it did put the country on delicate political and economic footing.
Upon Chavez’s passing in 2013, the job of keeping Venezuela afloat fell to its new president Nicolas Maduro. As vice president and Minister of Foreign Affairs under Chavez, Maduro was seen by many as the most capable within the government’s inner circle and an obvious successor to Chavez and his Bolivarian Revolution. But the stunning drop in oil prices from an average of $109 a barrel in 2012 to just $40 a barrel in 2016 sent the Venezuelan economy into a tailspin. Having already lost a significant amount of human capital following Chavez’s nationalization efforts, there was little else for the country to rely on economically. However it is the political choices made by Maduro that has led to today’s humanitarian crisis.
During the 15 years of Chavez’s rule, government respect for human rights eroded, especially in the areas of freedom of the press and the rule of law. Rather than correct this trajectory upon coming to power, in many ways Maduro doubled down, continuing with Chavez’s policies while further consolidating power in the executive branch. In 2014 as the economic situation deteriorated and protests erupted over the lack of food, medicine and other basic necessities in the country as a result of hyperinflation, Maduro reacted by launching crackdowns on protesters, human rights activists, opposition politicians and the media. Since then, both the protests and government crackdown has continued as an estimated 1.5 million Venezuelans have fled the country, looking for basic goods and trying to escape the growing political oppression back home.
These are the reasons why the situation in Venezuela has dominated debates at the OAS for the last five years, but an OAS report released last week adds another layer of concern.
Beyond finding just human rights abuses by the government, a panel of experts found evidence of extensive crimes against humanity committed by the government and state security forces since 2013.
In particular, the panel found evidence that more than 8,000 people have been extrajudicially executed since 2015 and more than 12,000 people have been arbitrarily detained since the presidential elections in 2013. In addition to that, the panel found evidence of murder and the targeting of opposition members by state security forces as a means for the government to maintain absolute control over the civilian population.
The report is important as the OAS has been on the frontlines of trying to find a diplomatic solution to the Venezuelan crisis. By noting such serious crimes ocurring, the report makes clear that a diplomatic solution while Maduro remains in power may not be possible, and the legacy of the crisis will likely extend far past his rule.
It also comes just months after the International Criminal Court opened a preliminary examination into possible state crimes committed since at least April 2017. A preliminary examination is not a proper investigation, but rather a look into whether it is likely crimes covered by the ICC’s jurisdiction – war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide – have occurred. What the OAS report demonstrates is the answer to that questions is almost certainly a “yes.” This will inevitably place the court in a precarious situation: pursue a formal investigation and possible charges against a government that is already internationally isolated, or drag out the process in the hopes that eventually cooler heads will prevail in Venezuela?
Making this calculus even harder is the fact that Venezuela is not actually at war. Although the economic collapse it experienced is rarely seen outside of times of armed conflict, it is corruption, the erosion of democratic norms and self serving policies for the government elite that has created the mess. Thus, can an economic war be grounds for prosecution by the ICC?
Much like the preliminary examination into the drug war in the Philippines, which was announced at the same time as Venezuela’s, by undertaking these examinations the ICC is signaling its willingness to get involved even in cases where traditional armed conflict is not present. As Mark Kersten points out, this could be a way for the court to try and influence state behavior before it is called on to intervene more directly. However, in the case of Venezuela, it is unlikely that such influence will provide concrete results.
What is clear for now is there is no end in sight for the crisis in Venezuela. Maduro won re-election last month in what many opposition leaders and international observers consider to be a sham election. One of his campaign promises was national reconciliation with the opposition. To that end, he recently released 79 prisoners who were supposedly arrested for anti-government activities, but even that is viewed with skepticism by observers who claim they are actually government supporters. It is yet another sign that the democratic erosion experienced over the past 20 years cannot be righted overnight, and probably not by those who led the institutional collapse. In the meantime, thousands of people continue to flee the country in the largest refugee exodus in the Western Hemisphere, and the government seems content to continue oppression as business as usual.
It may turn out that the OAS report is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to uncovering the crimes committed by state forces. But the report lays bare just how serious the crisis has become and the need for international resolve right now.