Photo: Luis Almagro

“The time has come to open Venezuela to international aid, and do it now,” said solemnly the vice-president of the United States of America, Mike Pence, in a special session of the OAS Permanent Council. This is arguably the strongest statement made by any high ranking official of any country in the hemisphere regarding Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis. 

It has been an eventful week at the OAS, where the issue of Venezuela has taken center stage, coinciding precisely with the organization’s 70th anniversary.

A week ago, Samuel Moncada, Venezuela’s ambassador to the OAS, admitted the severity of the situation by saying “I don’t deny the crisis, it would be ridiculous.” Last week’s meeting, built on progress already made with the February 23 resolution (in which the Council recognized the existence of a humanitarian situation) and rightly described as a moral imperative by Chile’s ambassador, exposed in detail the humanitarian disaster, its regional impact and some of the responses to it by countries and international organizations. For the first time, during almost three hours, the Permanent Council heard an excruciating dissection of the situation in Venezuela, based on first hand information and how it’s impacting the region, presented by a panel that included OAS and IOM representatives, a statement from Caritas, and Venezuelan doctor Julio Castro, a leading voice in documenting and decrying the severe health crisis.

According to figures presented by Diego Beltrand, IOM’s South America director, Venezuelan migration flows have grown exponentially: only in 2017, 1,642,442 Venezuelans left the country.

Remember that a year ago, something like this would have been unthinkable.

Last week’s panel made a conscious effort at balancing causes and consequences of the crisis: the staggering deficiencies in food, medicines and medical assistance, that along with political instability and hyperinflation, have thrown thousands of Venezuelans into what the Colombian delegation labelled “forced migration” and Secretary General Almagro called “the worse migration crisis in the hemisphere’s modern history.”

According to figures presented by Diego Beltrand, IOM’s South America director, Venezuelan migration flows have grown exponentially: only in 2017, 1,642,442 Venezuelans left the country — more than twice the amount in 2015, and three times more than in 2010. Mauricio Rands, OAS’ Secretary for Access to Rights and Equity, indicated that in a recent visit to the Brazilian border with Venezuela, he learned that between 600 and 700 Venezuelans arrive every day to the borderline city of Pacaraima. Rand referred to the situation as a “refugee crisis.”

The Peruvian representative said that its northern frontier with Ecuador has received over 2,000 Venezuelans a day in the last few weeks, while the Colombian delegation compared the situation to that of Europe, where around 170,000 people crossed the Mediterranean sea into different European countries last year. The number of Venezuelans crossing the Rumichaca bridge in the Colombian-Ecuadorian border that same period, either to stay or continue south, was 2,293,674. By March 2018, it was 206,454. In 2014 that number was 7,800.

“El Oso” Almagro is no longer alone. What seemed like a cry in the desert, has finally echoed in the region.

On Venezuela, Vice-President Pence made three concrete requests to countries in the region: 1) to impede money laundering efforts by corrupt Venezuelan officials through their financial systems; 2) to deny entry to corrupt Venezuelan officials; and 3) to hold Maduro accountable for the destruction of Venezuelan democracy. He then asked Venezuela be suspended from the OAS, a low impact proposal given that the country is already leaving the body in 2019. This is while the Treasury Department announced sanctions to three additional Venezuelans for their drug trafficking involvement.  

Pence’s proposals, as well as those from last week, will surely be discussed and could find their way into a draft resolution, as the Venezuelan situation will be an agenda item in the organization’s upcoming General Assembly to take place in Washington D.C.

While the events of this week come late in acknowledging a crisis that has simmered under the continent’s nose, as Secretary General Almagro said: it’s still not too late.  

El Oso Almagro is no longer alone. What seemed like a cry in the desert, has finally echoed in the region. The OAS’ incremental steps in dealing with the Venezuelan crisis, keeping the pressure on the regime’s failure to uphold democracy and guarantee basic rights, are the right way forward, and the message this week is clear: not only does the OAS know that the regime abandoned its citizens and stopped fulfilling its responsibilities, but the majority of its members have said enough with looking to the side.

Silence is not an option. It remains to be seen if the regime will listen.

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