It is well known that the media is ill-equipped to handle several international crises simultaneously. And thus it is inherently not well known which international crises are left out of the spotlight. Which is why, while the eyes of the world are fixed on the Syrian civil war and the exodus of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, what will soon be the world’s most severe refugee crisis is unfolding in relative media darkness.
The UNHCR claims that 5,000 Venezuelans are fleeing their country every day. Four million have already fled, and another 1.8 million, five percent of the country’s population, will leave this year. The flee economic plight, and an autocratic regime. Human Rights Watch opens their 2018 report on Venezuela as such: ‘In Venezuela today, no independent government institutions remain to act as a check on executive power. The Venezuelan government—under Maduro and previously under Chávez—has stacked the courts with judges who make no pretense of independence.’ Imprisonment of political opponents, extrajudicial killings, violent crackdowns on peaceful protests – you name it, they do it. But this is not why people are fleeing.
There is no other reason for this crisis than catastrophic government mismanagement. Venezuela sits on tremendous reserves of oil and natural gas, and a generation ago, it was the wealthiest country in Latin America. Then Hugo Chavez, and his ‘Bolivarian Revolution’, came along in 1999. Some professionals left immediately, but most stayed. And now it is clear that Chavez’ quasi-communist experiment of authoritarian government and a feeble grasp of economics, inherited and fatally exacerbated by Nicholas Maduro, has been living on borrowed time. As one refugee says, ‘they are letting the poor die off’.
Since the collapse of oil prices in 2014, the economy has shrunk more than 30 percent. The government defaulted on its debt, and it can no longer afford to maintain its refineries. The exchange controls have destroyed what was left of the productive sector, and the purchasing power of the average Venezuelan has been decimated by hyperinflation gone amok. There is no food, and no prospect of recovery.
The statistics are horrifying. The predicted rate of inflation this year will rise to 13,000%. Pregnancy-related deaths have climbed by 66%, and infant mortality with 30%. This might have something to do with the fact that 79% of hospitals have little or no running water. This is last years data. When the health minister revealed it, she was promptly made redundant, and her successor has not been so foolish as to release reliable medical data. These infrahuman conditions, the logic goes, can not become public knowledge.
What has become clear is that for this terror to abate, Maduro has to go. He, and his crooked regime, has single-handedly dimmed what was once Latin America’s leading light. The world at large must on one hand target the Venezuelan elites, and their enormous cash reserves in foreign banks, while on the other aid countries like Brazil and Columbia, which have shouldered the brunt of the refugee crisis. Although he may not yet realise it, Maduro only has bad options: he can either step down, and ensure a peaceful transition, or stay, and keep power in country with no one left to rule.