Venezuela’s problems will come under the microscope of the United Nations Security Council in a meeting led by the United States, with Italy, on the “escalating political, economic, and social crisis since April” in the South American country. A concept note on the meeting, issued by the US mission to the UN, was obtained by PassBlue.
With four panelists and all 15 Council members invited to speak, the meeting on Nov. 13 could be an attempt to understand the forces at play in the country’s crisis. But to anyone who has followed the remarks of Nikki Haley, America’s ambassador to the UN, on Venezuela, the odds are stacked high that the country’s leadership — starting with President Nicolás Maduro — will be pilloried and shamed for its dictatorial ways.
[Nov. 13 update, the meeting was sparsely attended by delegates, with France, for example, sending its deputy ambassador; Russia and China boycotted the event and instead stood beside Bolivia and Venezuela, who spoke to the press, below.]
Some Latin American diplomats at the UN were shrugging over the latest venture by the US to draw more attention to Venezuela’s troubles, after Haley brought the problem to the Council in May and to the Human Rights Council in June. No country in the region supports the US meeting, according to one South American diplomat, as the nations don’t consider Venezuela’s status a threat to international peace and security, the Council’s all-important focus. They point out the country has a democratically elected president and is a sovereign nation.
Moreover, America’s stinging legacy in Latin America — from orchestrating coups to instigating dirty wars — has hardly been forgotten throughout the Southern Hemisphere.
One Latin American diplomat suggested that the goal of the meeting reflects America’s continuing desire to “dominate” the region and Venezuela, which has the most proven oil reserves in the world. He also said the meeting would “score points in domestic politics” for Haley — presumably among fellow Republicans who loathe Cuba, a close ally of Venezuela. Haley’s possible political hopes have been written about copiously, including in PassBlue.
Donald Trump, in his maiden appearance at the UN General Assembly in September, singled out, among others, Cuba and Venezuela in his speech. He said that Cuba had exported socialism to Venezuela, which has “faithfully implemented” that method of governance and is the source of its woes. Trump also said in August that he wouldn’t rule out a “military option” against Venezuela.
That the US will try to use the meeting to generate actions by the Security Council is stated but it is unclear on the specific moves. In May, Haley first brought the issue of Venezuela to the Council when street demonstrations in the country swelled against Maduro and protestors were killed. But the Council avoided punishing Venezuela.
Now, the US is acting more aggressively, saying in its concept note that “Council members may wish to consider how the United Nations can use existing tools” and “employ new mechanisms to prevent further violence and a potential humanitarian crisis from spreading.” Nowhere does the note say the US backs a political dialogue.
The message from the US may also be implying that European members of the Council could impose sanctions via the European Union, as Spain has supported doing outside the Council. [Nov. 13 update: The European Union imposed economic sanctions, including an arms embargo, on Venezuela.]
The meeting coincides with the US Treasury Department sanctioning 10 Venezuelan officials on Nov. 9, who are associated with “undermining electoral processes, media censorship, or corruption in government-administered food programs” in the country.
The sanctions follow ones imposed against Maduro in July 2017, a day after his government held elections for a National Constituent Assembly that the US says “aspires illegitimately to usurp the constitutional role of the democratically elected National Assembly, rewrite the constitution, and impose an authoritarian regime on the people of Venezuela.”
Haley has expressed the most outrage against Venezuela among the Trump cabinet through America’s permanent seat on the Security Council and in other UN arenas, much as she has taken up the anti-Iran-Hezbollah cudgel.
Her vehemence on Venezuela has no parallel to what the UN is calling the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, in Yemen. Even Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has kept his voice low on Venezuela, although in August he said the US was thinking of how to create a “change of conditions” in the country that could lead to Maduro’s resigning.
In May 2017, Haley said: “We are deeply concerned about the Maduro government’s violent crackdown on protestors in Venezuela. President Maduro’s disregard for the fundamental rights of his own people has heightened the political and economic crisis in the country.”
In August, she said of Maduro: “We will not stand for the dictatorship he’s trying to create, and we will continue to take decisive action until he takes steps to return Venezuela to the prosperous democracy it once was. . . . “
And in September, she tweeted, “The ppl of Venezuela continue to suffer under the Maduro dictatorship — we won’t stop fighting for them until their democracy is returned.”
The Council’s meeting, which is open to the press and all other UN member states, features these panelists: Luís Almagro, the secretary-general of the Organization of American States; Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN high commissioner for human rights; Joseph Cornelius Donnelly, delegate to the UN for the Catholic charity Caritas International; and Julio Henriquez, of Foro Penal, or Criminal Forum, a nonprofit organization focused on political persecution in Venezuela.
Venezuela, which is not a Council member, will probably resort to being heard through Bolivia, its staunchest friend on the Council, as well as through Uruguay, another elected Council member. In May, Elbio Rosselli, Uruguay’s ambassador to the UN, emphasized that the Venezuela problem is a regional affair.
The Nov. 13 forum is to provide “first-hand accounts and expert perspectives” of the troubles in Venezuela, which few Latin American countries are ignoring, including the humanitarian effects.
According to the US, in the last six months, more than 500,000 Venezuelans have fled to Colombia and other neighbors for “food, medicine, and economic opportunities no longer available in Venezuela.”
A new report by a coalition of Venezuelan nonprofit groups has documented the toll of the food shortage, which has negatively affected women more than men. Through factors induced by political and economic stresses in the country, including low supplies and exorbitant inflation, women are the ones mostly enduring the long lines to buy food, spending eight to 14 hours a week in queues, often with children in tow. Poor families — the majority of Venezuela — are eating less, as women sustain themselves with starchy foods while men consume meals with protein.
As for refugees, the concept note does not acknowledge a closer-to-home concern, as Venezuelans now top the list of foreigners applying for asylum in the US; between January and March 2017, 8,301 Venezuelans requested asylum in America, nearly double the number in the same period of 2016.
Almagro may have been chosen as a panelist because of his opposition to Maduro. Earlier this year, as head of the Organization of American States, Latin America’s main collective body, Almagro tried to suspend Venezuela as a member but failed. Venezuela, in retaliation, announced it would withdraw from the body, after 65 years as a member, but it doesn’t take effect until 2019.
Venezuela has actually calmed down in the last few months, as several political processes to stabilize the country have begun, including a mediation held in the Dominican Republic, encouraging Maduro and the opposition to talk, but that effort has stalled.
A larger project, called the Lima Group, met most recently in Toronto in October to further its discussions on the Maduro regime. Government representatives of Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay and Peru who gathered in Toronto said in a statement they would “continue their evaluation of the situation in Venezuela.”
The Lima Group, led by Canada and Peru, listed its concerns about Venezuela, from releasing jailed political prisoners to reaffirming the group’s “decision not to recognize the acts emanating from the national constituent assembly.”
The group also asked the UN and Secretary-General António Guterres to address the crisis and continuing human-rights violations. The group meets again in January, in Chile, but it hasn’t formulated a plan on how to manage the Venezuela situation, said one diplomat knowledgeable about the discussions.
The US State Department responded to the Lima Group’s work, welcoming its “leadership in addressing the deteriorating situation in Venezuela,” including providing humanitarian aid.
For the UN to provide humanitarian aid, it must be asked to do so by the Maduro government, which has not taken such a serious step, as it could open doors to fuller intervention, including landing on the Security Council’s official agenda. Even if that happened, Venezuela’s most powerful ally on the Council, Russia — which is lending money to the Maduro regime so it can repay its foreign debt — would most likely use its veto to curtail Council actions.
The UN’s sole presence in Venezuela is through the Pan American Health Organization, which is conducting a vaccine program.
In August, UN Secretary-General Guterres was unequivocal about Venezuela’s independence, when he said, as noted in the video above (4:58), that “Latin America has successfully managed to get rid of both foreign intervention and authoritarianism,” and that it is “very important that this legacy is safeguarded and namely in Venezuela.”
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.