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Venezuela’s Fire Is Scorching Its Neighbors

Venezuelan flag
photo by Anyul Rivas

When your neighbor’s house in on fire, you don’t haggle over the price of your garden hose before you give it to him.

That’s the point President Franklin Roosevelt made to persuade a reluctant Congress to provide material support to the Allies before America entered World War II. Millions of lives might have been saved in that era had America acted with more speed and more force, but we have never absorbed the lesson.

Venezuela’s neighbors are suffering a refugee crisis on a scale comparable to the exodus of Syrians and of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that nearly 3 million Venezuelans have left the country in the past 20 years; of that number, 1.2 million have departed in the past two. Most of the refugee flood has been directed to Colombia, with a substantial stream also entering Brazil and with smaller trickles to Guyana and nearby Caribbean nations. A considerable number of Venezuelans have found their way to the U.S., too. All of this dislocation, bad as it is, pales in comparison to the misery that exists within the refugees’ unfortunate home country. And there may yet be worse to come, including the possibility of war.

As I have written before, all of this could have been avoided had the 2002 coup against Hugo Chavez’s despotic regime gained even a modicum of timely support. But against a left-wing backlash (driven, in part, by revulsion against the brutal dictatorship that followed Chile’s 1973 coup), Chavez was allowed to regain power and eventually hand it on his deathbed to his hapless but equally brutal successor, Nicolas Maduro. The country, once Latin America’s richest, has become its basket case.

Even today, any direct American action against Maduro and his cronies would be denounced virtually everywhere from Mexico to Argentina as yet another assault against Latin sovereignty. Our neighbors would have a point. What makes Venezuela’s fate our business?

In truth, it should be their business. And they aren’t tending to business very well at all.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos recently declared that his government would no longer issue border-crossing cards that allow Venezuelans to cross into and out of the country on short trips. He also said that soldiers would patrol unofficial border crossing points, while at the same time urging his people to be generous to Venezuelans. Michel Temer, the president of Brazil, has increased the military presence along his country’s borders, though he is not closing them for now; instead, he said his government is attempting to organize the flow of incoming Venezuelans. Guyana, a much smaller neighbor than the other two, has expressed sympathy for the refugees while consistently deporting them.

The American concept of sovereignty is that authority is derived from the consent of those governed by the sovereign. Many governments all over the world, including quite a few formerly in power (and a few presently in power) in Latin America, find this principle highly inconvenient. To them, power belongs to whoever can gain and defend occupancy in a particular office by whatever means necessary.

It is not our job to change the system of government in China or Russia, or even in Ecuador or Nicaragua, merely because it fails to measure up to our standards. But when a people rise up against their oppressors – when they try to extinguish the fire that is consuming their home – it behooves us to lend them our garden hose. Particularly if their home happens to be in our neighborhood.

According to one report, Brazilian authorities are concerned that Venezuela may invade neighboring Guyana in order to gain some leverage for its beleaguered regime. Guyana would be pretty much defenseless. Not so Brazil or Colombia, whose militaries could certainly overpower any force that the crippled Venezuelans could muster. If they chose, these nations could also help Venezuelans establish a government in exile to provide political legitimacy for an expedition that would wrest control from the Maduro mafia. It would take the introduction of foreign arms, at least in the opening stages, before the Venezuelan military might possibly desert Maduro to save itself.

Will Venezuela’s neighbors provide such help? Regional history provides little reason to be hopeful. Should the United States intervene in the absence of regional support for military force? We did in Grenada and Panama, not that much of anyone has ever thanked us for it. But most of the region was under military sway back then; that is not the case today.

The cruel fact is that it would probably take very little to shatter the brittle remnants of the bankrupt yet brutal Venezuelan regime. This misery is entirely man-made and, at its root, ideological: Countries with their own history of internal discord and bad governance don’t want to endorse the principle of intervening in one another’s affairs. Maybe the only way to persuade them to act is to observe that it is no longer just their neighbor’s house that is on fire. The flames are starting to spread.

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