Why is it important for the U.S. to remain engaged in Venezuela? | Opinion

CARACAS, VENEZUELA - JANUARY 23: Supporters of Nicolás Maduro play drums and sing slogans during a demonstration against imperialism organized by governing party PSUV (Socialist Party of Venezuela) at Catia district on January 23, 2020 in Caracas, Venezuela. (Photo by Carolina Cabral/Getty Images)

By Craig Lang

After receiving a warm reception by President Donald Trump and both Republican and Democratic lawmakers earlier this month, embattled Venezuelan President Juan Guiadó’s arrival home did not reflect the head of state treatment he received in Washington.

Supporters of President Nicolás Maduro (Venezuela has two presidents after much of the democratic world refused to recognize Maduro’s 2018 reelection as free and fair.) harassed Guiadó at the airport, and his uncle was detained by the Maduro regime.

Subsequently, while Washington’s display of bipartisan support was important, it will mean little if the Venezuelan people and the United States (and its allies) do not persevere in their struggle to get the authoritarian Maduro to step down and convene presidential elections.

Yet after a year of political gridlock in Venezuela, these goals will not be easy to achieve; in fact, the U.S. announced last week sanctions against a Russian-linked company due to its ties with the Maduro regime.

Moreover, U.S. policy goals may require it to diplomatically confront other nations, such as India and China, because of their purchase of Venezuelan oil. Consequently, should the U.S. become further engaged in Venezuela’s problems? Here are two reasons why this country and its citizens matter.

Venezuela is important to the U.S. and its allies.

While Maduro likes to publicly degrade the “imperialist Yankee empire,” the United States was one of his biggest customers. Before sanctions were placed on Venezuela’s oil sector, the U.S. purchased anywhere from 213,000 to 560,000 barrels of oil from Venezuela a year. Following U.S. sanctions on Venezuelan oil in 2019, Russia now earns hundreds of millions of dollars helping Venezuela bypass the U.S. embargo.

Yet this relationship is about more than oil. Bordering Venezuela is Colombia, one of our closest allies. Colombia is important because it remains the largest exporter of cocaine to the United States, and under a free trade agreement, the U.S. and Colombia exchange roughly $28 billion of goods a year. Moreover, after Colombia’s historic 2016 peace accord with leftist guerillas, the U.S. and the Colombian people were optimistic that security and stability would be enhanced in this Andean nation.

Unfortunately, the instability and corruption within Venezuela complicates Colombian efforts to combat illicit narcotics and transition to peace since the former is accused of serving as a safe haven for both drug traffickers and guerillas. Consequently, a dysfunctional Venezuela is not good for regional security or overall U.S. interests.

Venezuela is a humanitarian crisis. 

At least 4 million Venezuelans have fled their homes, primarily since 2015. Most of those displaced fled to Colombia, but some are in the United States. Under President Maduro, the once oil-rich nation of Venezuela is now on the brink of collapse.

Due to mismanagement of its oil sector, lower global oil prices, and government corruption, Maduro has struggled to provide even the most basic services. In 2017, one report found that the average Venezuelan lost 24 pounds that year due to food shortages, and the percentage of Venezuelans living in poverty jumped from 48 percent in 2014 to more than 87 percent in 2017. Growing poverty has also led to more crime. In 2017, Venezuela’s murder rate (51 homicides per 100,000 people) was more than double the Latin American average.

Due to these conditions, Venezuelans protested against Maduro in earnest in 2017. While these protests continue, albeit with less frequency and intensity, the government has responded by imprisoning opposition leaders, and it has detained, tortured, and allegedly killed protestors. This behavior put Venezuela on the radar of the International Criminal Court, which opened a preliminary examination in 2018.

Despite attempts by the international community (most recently Norway) to mediate a resolution to this situation, Maduro refuses to convene early presidential elections, and despite a few defections, the military remains loyal to the authoritarian leader.

While new sanctions were levied this week, supporters of democracy in Venezuela cannot afford to tire. The Venezuelan opposition must recommit to being unified, its people need to continue to peacefully demand new presidential elections, the International Criminal Court should continue its investigations, and those offering Maduro a lifeline must face diplomatic and/or financial repercussions.

Craig Lang, is a visiting assistant professor of government at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. He served as a foreign affairs officer at the U.S. Department of State from 2001-2011.