Gaining Temporary Protected Status and Losing Hope: Venezuelans In and Outside the Country
“I’m staying in Venezuela because I’m an optimist.” This is the chorus of a very popular song released by Venezuelan singer Carlos Baute in 1996. The song goes on to say, “There’s no ill that lasts a thousand years, or a body that could endure it.” The whole thing is set to an upbeat, lively rhythm with drums. A few years after the optimistic song came out, Baute left Venezuela, joining the millions of Venezuelans who have fled the country’s deteriorating economic, political, and social conditions. Last month, President Joe Biden granted temporary protected status to Venezuelans who are already in the United States, and while this is an important action to protect a vulnerable group of people, the safety and well-being of millions of Venezuelans are still at risk in their own country — the one they hope to save. These Venezuelans, too, need assistance. The Biden administration should prioritize helping Venezuelans in Venezuela by seeking to lower the costs of exit for President Nicolás Maduro and his inner circle, rather than for regular Venezuelans.
Approximately five million Venezuelans have scattered all over the world. An estimated 208,000 of them, including Baute, now reside in Spain. An additional 300,000 live in the United States (and are eligible for Temporary Protected Status). Yet, despite reports of ongoing migration out of Venezuela, an estimated 28 million people continue to live inside the country. This is no small feat for a group whose emigration is news the world over. Put another way, about 84 percent of Venezuelans have remained in their country. A policy to help Venezuela should focus on where the overwhelming majority of Venezuelans are, and that is not the United States. It’s their own country.
Venezuelans who have emigrated, especially those who have come to the United States, need help. Abroad, they are facing xenophobia, hunger, and illness. Earlier this year, Peru increased its military presence along its border with Ecuador in a bid to stem the flow of Venezuelan migrants into its territory. In Ecuador, Venezuelans were facing increased restrictions and xenophobia driven in part by outrage over the 2019 murder of an Ecuadorian woman by a Venezuelan migrant. Certainly, conditions aren’t uniformly bad: Argentina still allows Venezuelans to enter without a passport, and President Iván Duque of Colombia recently unveiled a program that will allow Venezuelans to stay and work in Colombia for up to 10 years. Given the situation in the region, it’s surely the right thing to offer protections to such a vulnerable group. Yet, inside their own borders, an even greater number of Venezuelans face grave hardships. There are reports of Venezuelans eating fewer than two meals per day and of people in the once-prosperous city of Caracas searching trash cans for food. The country is seeing a rise in COVID-19 cases, though exact numbers are unknown due to the government’s lack of transparency. Women are more at risk in Venezuela, too, with femicides rising since 2018, including a recent string of horrific murders in the rural part of the country.
Offering temporary protected status to Venezuelans in the United States temporarily alleviates some of the suffering of part of this group, and while it might have been the best first step Biden could take in addressing this issue, it should be only the first of many steps. Temporary protected status is, just as its name clearly says, a temporary solution. The protection offered to the 300,000 or so Venezuelans in the United States does little to address the suffering of the millions of Venezuelans still in their country, a group that outnumbers those in the United States by a factor of 100. The millions of Venezuelans who continue to reside in the South American country are inhabiting a country that is strategically important to the United States. This is because, first, Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves and significant natural gas reserves, assets that will continue to be important even as we continue to make progress in addressing climate change. Second, Venezuela’s privileged location at the northernmost part of South America gives it direct access to both the Caribbean and the Atlantic seas. China has already tried to take advantage of its location by investing $520 million to build a new container terminal in the Venezuelan port of Puerto Cabello. American disengagement from Venezuela allows greater space for investment from challengers to the United States in the region. And third, working energetically towards re-democratization in Venezuela would display American commitment to democracy and human rights. Abandoning these values is tantamount to forfeiting the competition. Advancing human rights is in the strategic interest of the United States and not in opposition to it, as others have argued.
The temporary protected status includes employment authorization for Venezuelans in the United States as well as the opportunity for them to remit money home. There is one potential negative second-order effect from this. The influx of money from abroad could be a potential boon for Maduro if it lessens some of the pressure he is facing from the economic situation. Maduro is attempting to move the country away from the embattled bolívar fuerte, the country’s official currency, which hyperinflation has rendered nearly worthless (one U.S. dollar is valued at about two million bolívares fuertes today). A strong sign of this is that in a recent interview, Maduro thanked God for the existence of the U.S. dollar, a far cry from the days — as recently as 2018 — when he forbade transactions in the currency. As he seeks ways to legalize the U.S. dollar as an alternative currency in the country, he could also seek ways to intercept remittances coming from Venezuelans in the United States. Intercepting remittances would give Maduro access to what he needs more than anything: money. Maduro could seek to capitalize on remittances through taxation or through a change in the exchange regime. Last year, India, for example, announced it would levy a tax on remittances from its expats. A similar tax in Venezuela could bring some income to Maduro. A change in the exchange rate regime would allow Maduro to extract even more revenue from remittances. Setting limits on who can withdraw the remittances and in what currency they are withdrawn would give Maduro the opportunity to access some of this income. His predecessor, Hugo Rafael Chávez, exercised this type of power almost 20 years ago when he changed the currency system in Venezuela, a policy that benefitted special interests in the country. While finding ways to get money and resources into the hands of Venezuelans is good, allowing the 1 percent of Venezuelans who are in the United States to send money home will create more opportunities for graft and perhaps exacerbate the inequalities between people who have “fe” (Spanish word for faith, used sometimes as an acronym for “family abroad” by Venezuelans in Caracas) and those who don’t.
One of the most encouraging things about the announcement of temporary protected status for Venezuelans is that it signals a willingness to engage with the issue of Venezuela. The best hope for the millions of people who remain in the South American country clinging to prayer and optimism is that other countries will remain engaged. Turning attention away from Venezuela for any reason risks further isolation of Caracas and creates space for Maduro to further normalize authoritarianism in a country that was once a beacon of democracy in the region. Chávez was able to gain control of all branches of government during a time when US attention was turned elsewhere. While Freedom House classified Venezuela in 2009 as “partly free” due to the “politically motivated disqualification” of opposition candidates in the 2008 elections, it wasn’t until 2017 that the organization first rated Venezuela “not free.” This designation came four years after Chávez’s death and 10 years after the government shut down independent TV station RCTV, a move that caused Polity, another democracy index, to severely lower Venezuela’s score. Hoping that the situation will resolve itself is hoping for a miracle. Venezuela’s previous dictatorship — that of General Marcos Pérez Jiménez from 1952-1958 — ended with a coup that ushered in democracy. Coups, however, do not guarantee a democratic transition. In fact, of the 49 coup attempts that have happened around the world since 1990, only 15 have brought about democratization. Those are not great odds.
There is still much the United States can do to encourage peaceful democratization in Venezuela. Pursuing conditions that might bring about the necessary dialogue is a big challenge, but one that the U.S. needs to rise to if it wants to pursue lasting protections for all Venezuelans and not just temporary ones for a few. Of all the dictatorships that ended in Latin America during the third wave of democratization, all but two ended with the dictator’s voluntary exit: Augusto Pinochet’s rule over Chile ended when he lost a plebiscite and Argentina’s military dictatorship likewise ended through elections, for example.
There are four possible fates for departing autocratic leaders: survival, exile, jail, and death. Fear of the worst of these fates incentivizes dictators to pursue a negotiated solution. This was certainly the case for the military junta in Brazil, which negotiated a slow fade into democracy, and the military junta in Argentina, which negotiated immunity.
A negotiated transition is not the only way out of a dictatorship, but it might be the one with the highest likelihood of success. Though a number of dictators in the region exited through exile, including the infamous resignation — issued from Japan — of Peruvian leader Alberto Fujimori, exile no longer has the appeal that it used to. The 1998 arrest in London of the deposed General Pinochet changed the perception of safety abroad that dictators in the past had enjoyed and may possibly have brought about a new era of universal jurisdiction over universal crimes. To enjoy a peaceful exile, Maduro would have to seek refuge in a country less inclined to cooperate with justice. Other deposed dictators have sought this in Saudi Arabia (Ben Ali of Tunisia) and Equatorial Guinea (Yahya Jammeh of Gambia.) Stepping down from power will guarantee financial ruin for Maduro and his cronies, but the option might be slightly less unattractive if there are no prospects of jail time. Immunity from prosecution can only be achieved through negotiation and dialogue. Perhaps Maduro would like to retire in Havana.
The United States should seek to increase the costs of staying and lower the costs of exiting for Maduro and his inner circle in hopes that these will lead to a negotiated end to the dictatorship. In conjunction, the United States and its partners should work to restore faith in the possibility of dialogue that would include the political leadership of the regime, the military, and opposition leaders. In the past, dialogue has been offered by the regime mostly to create divisions in the Venezuelan opposition among those who, like Henrique Capriles, believe that there is an “institutional” way out of this regime (i.e., through elections or a referendum) and those who, like Leopoldo López, believe that protesting is the only way out. Restoring faith in dialogue will also entail finding a capable and credible mediator. Top choices for this role have struck out, including the Vatican and Norway. The Vatican mediated an unsuccessful round of talks in 2016. Norway’s efforts at facilitating dialogue in 2018 ended when the opposition left after claiming the regime was unwilling to seriously negotiate a new election. It might be time to think outside the box and invite someone perceived as less threating by the regime. Spain and Ecuador could be contenders, especially if Andrés Arauz wins the presidential runoff election in Ecuador scheduled for April 11. Arauz has said that if elected, former President Rafael Correa will be his principal adviser. While in power, Correa was a trusted ally of Chávez, which might make Arauz a safe choice for Chávez’s political heir, Maduro.
To help create conditions that might bring about dialogue, the United States should do at least three things. First, it should continue to renew and deepen the sanctions against Maduro and his circle, ignoring his false claims that sanctions worsen the situation of his fellow Venezuelans. The sanctions the United States has aimed at the Maduro regime are targeted sanctions meant to limit opportunities for Maduro and his immediate circle of supporters and based on the theory that doing so will make it harder for them to stay in power. The rollout of the sanctions has been slow and has so far not received full support from Western nations, allowing Maduro and his regime to stay one step ahead of U.S. policy. The European Union, for example, started sanctioning Venezuela only in 2017, two years after the first U.S. sanctions were announced. Panama joined even later. Enacting and maintaining coordinated sanctions against the Maduro regime are necessary to increase the costs of staying in power and make exiting more attractive. The announcement of sanctions has so far also been accompanied by loose enforcement. Enforcement is so loose that there are reports of American oil company executives meeting in Caracas to discuss possible investment in the Venezuelan energy sector. To be effective and reduce leakage, sanctions need to be coordinated with U.S. partners and enforced energetically. The goal of sanctions is to make staying in power less attractive to Maduro, and so far, the sanctions have not achieved it.
Second, the United States can and should reaffirm its support for democracy and human rights. Within the region, the ideologies that brought Chávez and then Maduro to power have spread, including most notably to Nicaragua. The existence of Chavista-aligned regimes in Latin America creates opportunities for Maduro to stay in power, as he can find ways to work with them to oppose democratic ideas and skirt economic sanctions. The United States is in competition with Russia and China. This competition, while not kinetic, is playing out in the Western hemisphere as these external state actors court countries in the region with loans and diplomatic attention in an effort to gain influence in America’s near-abroad. Policies of benign neglect cede space to American competitors. The great advantages of the United States in the region — a long history of partnership and geographical proximity — are not insurmountable for rising powers committed to achieving their goals. Supporting human rights and democracy contributes, however distantly, to increasing the costs of staying in power for Maduro as such support reduces his pool of possible allies.
Third, the United States can continue to work with partners to find ways to support Venezuelans still living in their homeland. The ultimate goal is to create conditions for the regime’s exit, not conditions that facilitate the exit of those who oppose the regime. The United States can recommit to multilateralism to advance this goal. Inter-American multilateralism has long practiced universal participation and the one-country, one-vote principle. All countries in the Western hemisphere are members of the Organization of American States. Though Cuba was suspended for 47 years (1962-2009), it never stopped being a member. This means that the U.S. vote has the same weight in the organization as that of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. To find ways to support Venezuelans living within their country’s borders, the United States should energetically engage with the countries of the hemisphere individually and through the inter-American system. Working with partners in the region, the United States could find creative ways to deliver the immediate relief that Venezuelans need. Venezuela has a history of good relations with most countries in the region except, perhaps, Colombia, with which it has ongoing border disputes and which it has historically seen as too close to the United States. The United States could work to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid, particularly medical supplies and aid related to COVID-19 relief, through countries that maintain amicable relations with both the United States and Venezuela such as Argentina, Ecuador, and most Central American countries, for example. The wave of Venezuelan migration will surely incentivize many countries to want to work on this. Ultimately, Venezuelan out-migration benefits the regime, as it reduces the strength of the opposition within the country’s borders. A strong opposition is key to making staying in power less attractive to Maduro. One way the United States can support this is by prioritizing aid provision to Venezuelans living inside the country.
There’s a saying in Spanish, “la esperanza es lo último que se pierde,” that translates to “hope is that last thing you lose.” Venezuelans inside the country have lost their freedoms; access to food, water, health services; and many of their friends, but they hang on to hope. Venezuelans in the United States have seen this optimism rewarded with the designation of temporary protected status. Hopefully, the ones who stayed behind will see their optimism rewarded, too. The Maduro regime will eventually come to an end (nobody is immortal and no body can withstand a thousand-year illness, as the song says), and how it ends will provide clues as to what might happen in the two other dictatorships in the region, those in Nicaragua and in Cuba. Leading by example in creating a welcoming place for Venezuelans here in the United States is great, but the Biden administration should not lose sight of the goal. The goal is to create conditions for Maduro’s exit so that Venezuela can be a welcoming place for its own citizens.
Fabiana Sofia Perera is an assistant professor at the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies. She grew up in Caracas and has conducted extensive fieldwork in Venezuela and Ecuador. The views expressed here do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.
Image: UN photo by Violaine Martin