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



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.

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.