Bolivarian Isolationism: Venezuela in Freefall While a Continent Stands Idly by

UNASUR respalda a Presidente Evo Morales
Fernanda LeMarie - Cancillería del Ecuador (Wikimedia commons)

Venezuela is collapsing rapidly before the eyes of Latin America, with most of the region standing idly by. This exposes isolationism by countries throughout the Western Hemisphere, and exemplifies how the lack of engagement within the region is now confronted with a regional bloc that will not let it engage even if it wants to.

This trend has become more apparent since March of 2015, when the United States sanctioned seven individuals within the Venezuelan government for human rights violations. These individuals had allegedly directed or engaged in violent acts toward Venezuelan citizens during the country’s 2014-2015 protests.

Regional countries and their multilateral organizations either immediately rallied behind Venezuela to show support for what they considered another example of US interference into the domestic affairs of another country or stood by silently. UNASUR, ALBA, and CELAC, along with Nicaragua, Haiti, Argentina, Bolivia, and others, all showed strong support for the Venezuelan government, rhetorically condemning the United States for imposing the sanctions. Others, including Colombia, which has traditionally been seen as an ally of the United States, remained silent. It is telling that one month later, a brief Google search of the terms “United States and Venezuela” resulted in 11 out of 13 articles arguably in favor of supporting Venezuela’s government. And to this day, no country in the region has condemned Venezuela’s behavior.

The silent non-reaction toward or strong support for Venezuela by regional countries is alarming. The overwhelming evidence, including homicides of protesters by police, scarce food rations, and arrests of prominent dissidents, is in favor of assuming that Venezuela’s government has violated the human rights of the Venezuelan people. Additionally, the overwhelming evidence is in favor of assuming that Venezuela is on the verge of collapse: it has a current inflation rate of almost 100 percent and a consistently increasing homicide rate since 1995. Furthermore, Quartz magazine has argued that “By many measures, Venezuela’s economy is the most sickly in the world … [it] ranks at or near the bottom of just about every important financial indicator out there, performing worse even than Argentina, Greece, or Ukraine.”

Issues of human rights violations should have triggered sanctions on some of the individuals that engaged in the violations from neighboring countries. The potential regional security issues from a collapsing Venezuela– increasing migration, illicit trafficking, spillover violence, civil war– should have been enough to garner regional involvement. Yet, neither has resulted.

U.S. foreign policy to intervene diplomatically and financially created a public relations disaster that required the U.S. to justify its behavior and almost dimmed the spotlight on the United States’ other move in Latin America – attending the 2015 Summit of the Americas with Cuba.

Arguably, Venezuela’s regional neighbors are not apathetic toward the security implications of an ongoing implosion. Well documented are the increasing disruptions to energy supplies that are likely to get worse. Venezuela’s economic mismanagement, corruption, lack of investment, and unsustainable social programs, alongside fluctuating oil prices, have led PDVSA, Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, to decrease its oil output “…every year since 2008.” The repercussion of a decreasing output has left many questioning whether Venezuela’s regional economic agreement PetroCaribe would survive to satisfy demand.

And the increasing flows of people, although more often discussed when referencing Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, are already affecting the neighboring island of Aruba, which is experiencing an increase of migration and a phenomena labeled “supermarket tourists” – where individuals travel to purchase goods not otherwise available in Venezuela including toilet paper, flour, and milk – creating a risk of supply availability to the small island’s residents. For Colombia, former residents that migrated to Venezuela are increasingly returning to their home country, and Venezuela’s tactic of blaming foreign sources for domestic woes has resulted in mass Colombian deportations – Colombians who have lived in the country for 20 plus years – causing the country’s bordering states to issue nation-wide alerts.

But in Latin America and the Caribbean, sovereignty and noninterference have traditionally outweighed any issues of insecurity. This is unsurprising considering that the region has experienced decades of violence and instability. Further beyond the history of Latin America, the Venezuelan “Chavez/Bolivarian” model itself—a reaction to a rich history of external actors interfering in the domestic affairs of regional countries with ramifications that have encompassed colonialism, coup d’états, and insurgencies— lends to such idle reactions to a nation’s collapse. Although this model was based on breaking with neoliberal policies and promoting anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist, “new 20th-century socialism” policies, its definition remains lacking and Bolivarianism instead has shown that it demands clientelism, repression, and a powerful executive that owns courts, media companies, and natural resource companies.

It is this model that engenders corruption, economic mismanagement, weak institutional capacity, and high levels of violence – all of which have brought Venezuela to its end. Venezuela is not alone; governments who once opposed such systems like Bolivia’s Evo Morales and those who were put in power by this system, like Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, still use it.

Recently, “… 26 former presidents from Spain and Latin America signed a document asking the region to leave aside ‘obliging silence’ and demand the upcoming parliament vote in Venezuela to be held without political prisoners and with electoral observation, as a possible answer to the Venezuelan political crisis.” This included former Chilean President Sebastián Piñera who called regional leaders to “speak up” against Venezuela. However, his successor, Michelle Bachelet, who ironically was a former political prisoner tortured during General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, remains silent. An imploding Venezuela exposes regional isolationism that is unlikely to result in current leaders obliging to their predecessor’s request.

Some analysts, including this author, would argue that their lack of response to Venezuela is solely based on their own fear that another nation would similarly criticize them or be seen as “going against their own.” Geoff Thale, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, stated “…a number of countries are sensitive about their own internal political and electoral issues…and don’t necessarily want to take public stands that are perceived as opening themselves up to similar kinds of criticism.”

The acquiescence/support for Venezuela is disturbing. But noninterference in Venezuela means noninterference in their countries. Venezuela’s collapse highlights regional isolationism. As a result, the regional conversation will continue to transition from one of the people to one of “to each his own.”


Liana Eustacia Reyes, J.D., M.A., M.A. is an expert on international affairs, law, and security, with regional emphasis on Latin America. She is the Research Coordinator for IBI Consultants LLC and a Contributing Analyst for Wikistrat. Academically Ms. Reyes holds three graduate degrees: MA in International Affairs (NYU), Juris Doctor (FIU), and MA in Security Studies (FIU). Her scholarly work and analyses can be found in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Perspectives on the Americas, The Diplomat, Palm Beach Post, and Foreign Policy Journal. @LianaEustacia.


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