‘The northern coast of South America’

As we reported in our edition yesterday, Brazilian Defence Minister Raul Jungman arrived here on an official visit and was told by President David Granger that Guyana, “would like to review the Joint Communiqué on defence to determine its applicability to present-day circumstances.” He went on to refer to the “present situation in the northern coast of South America.”

Inevitably that “situation” was not spelt out for public purposes, but no one was in any doubt that it was a coded reference to Venezuela. In fact, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, whose country is estimated to be giving refuge to more than half a million migrants from Venezuela, visited Cucutá, a town on the border a few days ago, where he announced stricter controls on the refugees. He is one regional leader who has been sympathetic to the plight of ordinary Venezuelans, but the number Bogotá now has to deal with is overwhelming, in addition to which, they have contributed to an increase in criminal activity.

Brazil too is about to monitor borders more closely by deploying more troops in the north, in addition to which the authorities will begin relocating large numbers of Venezuelans who have congregated in Boa Vista, in particular, where they are placing an intolerable strain on public services and are becoming a source of friction with the locals. There have already been two incidents involving gasoline bombs being thrown into open windows where migrants were sleeping, causing injury.

It has been said that the total number of Syrian refugees amounts to five million, but there are some estimates which say that the number of Venezuelan refugees in this part of the world may well eventually reach four million. Apart from Brazil and Colombia, there is Peru, which according to its Foreign Minister Ricardo Luna is currently accommodating 40,000 Venezuelans, although some estimates put it closer to 100,000. Both Colombia and Brazil intend to undertake a census in one form or another, to determine exactly how many Venezuelans have found asylum  in those states.

One should not forget Trinidad and Tobago, of course, where the numbers are not so dramatic, but would swell enormously if Venezuela were to implode. There most of the migrants are temporary, which is to say that they come and undertake low-paying jobs for a short period in order to buy food, and then return to their families.

In addition, it has been reported that owing to the instability in Venezuela, the Gulf of Paria is infested with pirates and smugglers. A more worrying development is the fact that smugglers are buying weapons from the National Guard, whose families like everyone else need food, etc. Some of these find their way into the hands of the gangs – and gangs, it must be remembered, really are in control of swathes of Bolívar state opposite our Region One, and on the Venezuelan side of the Cuyuni River. As we have reported, they have made their presence felt in some of our mining camps. One report also says that some of the Colectivos – the civilian militias created and armed by the late Hugo Chávez ‒ have gone rogue.

It is not just food, of course, which is in short supply in Venezuela; everything necessary for normal living is too. Above all else, the health service is on the verge of collapse, according to the health advocacy group, Codevida; some hospitals have no electricity; more than 13,000 doctors have left the country; the Pharmaceutical Federation says there is an 85% medicine shortage, as well as a 90% deficit of the drugs and other things to treat more serious medical conditions. Simple medical supplies like gloves are also hard to find. In the meanwhile, complaints like malaria are up by 76%.

Apart from a little group of Venezuelan soldiers putting in an appearance at Whitewater in Region One looking for food, and the ‘syndicatos’ or gangs, raiding along the Cuyuni, most of the Venezuelan visitors this country has seen along the border in recent times have been miners and residents of Bolívar state seeking treatment for medical conditions, especially malaria, which fortunately the Ministry of Health has had the wisdom to provide. Citizens cannot help but notice too, an increase in the number of Venezuelans appearing in the Magistrates’ courts for illegal entry. However, these are not substantial figures, and as yet we have not been flooded with migrants.

Having said that, one presumes that President Granger’s indirect language mentioned above represents a tacit recognition that there are circumstances where this could happen, or where we could feel the impact of events next door. President Nicolás Maduro intends to hold an election on April 22, which he would presumably win because he has neutralized all the viable opposition leaders, even if their parties did decide to take part. The problem is that this is not just a political crisis, it is also a humanitarian one, and to date the Venezuelan government has not allowed the importation of any gift of food or medical supplies; the single response of those in power has been repression.

The problem is that no one believes that this situation can continue forever. How long it can go on for is anyone’s guess, but given the centrifugal forces at work, one can assume it will not be indefinitely, and that Mr Maduro is not destined to be the region’s longest-serving autocrat. The Peruvian Foreign Minister has predicted that Venezuela will slide into a “low-level civil war”, but whatever the case, certainly there will be some form of creeping – or even sudden – anarchy.

While it might not be clear exactly how Venezuelan affairs will evolve, it is clear that all the countries in the region, from some of those in Central America, to Aruba and Curaçao, to the states bordering Venezuela as well as others in the northern part of this continent especially, feel that our western neighbour is degenerating into a crisis. At a very minimum, we too can expect our quota of refugees, more especially if it becomes difficult for them to enter the large states like Colombia and Brazil. Minister Luna’s scenario, of course, might bring an additional kind of chaos to our frontiers.

Whatever happens, this is obviously the right time to talk to the Brazilians about defence ties. Perhaps some kind of understanding might be explored with the Colombians as well.

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