After the U.S. indictment of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, USIP’s Steve Hege looks at how the political crisis in Venezuela endangers vulnerable populations as well as neighboring Colombia amid the coronavirus pandemic.

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.


Tim Farley: Steve Hege is a senior expert of the Colombia peace process at the United States Institute of Peace. He's tweeting @stevehege and joins us. Steve, welcome. Thanks for being here.

Steve Hege: Thanks for having me on, Tim.

Tim Farley: Let's talk first about what is being offered for Vene zuela right now. Give us a sense of whether or not you think that is something that is viable.

Steve Hege: Well, Tim, you're right to point out that the coronavirus has, inevitably is going to have, a tremendous impact on Venezuela, which has enormous risks and vulnerabilities with regards to the pandemics, with a healthcare system that is really under extreme weakness and has been in decline for many years and an economy that's been hit particularly by the dramatic fall in oil prices. So the power sharing plan that was presented by the Department of State yesterday, sort of has to be seen in a context of both dramatic risks, which as you pointed out, are really important for Columbia as well. If there is an enormous outbreak in Venezuela, Columbia, which shares a 1,400-mile border with Venezuela, which has been closed for the last few weeks. It's largely controlled by a range of armed groups.
Steve Hege: And 1.5 million Venezuelan migrants and refugees are hosted here in Columbia, where I am based. And these two countries are inexplicably, inextricably, linked to one another, including a number of the armed groups, Colombian armed groups, that have significant presence in Venezuela. Notably the ELN, the second largest armed group in Columbia’s long-standing civil war, which has recently just declared a month long cease firing in an indication of a hopeful turn for this opportunity. But getting back to the power sharing plan that you mentioned, it certainly demonstrates an openness from the U.S. Department of State to envision a future in which all sectors of Venezuelan society can participate in both dealing with the urgent humanitarian needs of the crisis and at reaching agreements around that,but the larger sort of a spectrum of challenges that need to be addressed, including agreements on how to reach a free and fair presidential and national assembly elections, in which our Council of State, as the proposal is indicated by a Department of State, Council of State, would lead that process into elections over a period of six to 12 months, forcing both the regime of President Nicolás Maduro and the interim president, Juan Guaidó, to step aside in the interim while that Council of States, elected by the National Assembly, could usher in that process and hopefully reach some agreements around how to tackle the enormous challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.

Tim Farley: Steve, perhaps it's because other news items have overwhelmed the story, but it seems to me we have not heard much from the U.S. relative to Nicolás Maduro or Juan Guaidó. And this, despite the fact that at one point it seemed like the U.S. was all in on a change in the leadership. I mean, is this just something that has gone unnoticed, or have there been no developments? Has the U.S. been more standoffish on this? Give us a sense of the involvement of the U.S. in this.

Steve Hege: Well, the U.S. policy has been one of maximum pressure and the hope of a range of sanctions. And most recently, unsealed indictments on Nicolás Maduro and his closest allies within the government, which took place just over a week ago and were released by the Department of Justice. That campaign has been really designed to try to generate the sufficient pressure for the regime, the opposition, to reach a negotiated agreement around a peaceful transition that could lead to an end to what, you pointed out earlier, is really one of the largest, sort of and most complex, economic and political crises that the Western hemisphere has had seen in its modern history. And so that pressure campaign is continuing. This, on the other hand, from the Department of State yesterday, constitutes more or less, a political vision, which some have interpreted as somewhat of an olive branch to members of the regime and the military, in particular, that they, and reassurances it to them, that they have a future in Venezuela if an agreement is reached between the internationally recognized interim government, as well as the members of the regime.

Tim Farley: Steve Hege is with us, senior expert of the Colombia peace process at the United States Institute of Peace. I know, Steve, you have been making mention of something that is a challenge for people in Columbia nearby. A million and a half Venezuelan migrants. This has led to incidence, pillaging local corner stores, maybe xenophobia. Social cohesion is evaporating. I wonder how much of a threat this poses to Colombia.

Steve Hege: Well, I, as I said, I pointed out the ELNC spiral I think is a really important example of the opportunities that can exist, both in Colombia and Venezuela. Again, not being an armed group that goes across borders in the region. But the Venezuelan migrants is another example of the cross border entwined relationship between Venezuela and Columbia. 1.5 million of the 5 million Venezuelan migrants and refugees that have been generated as a result of Venezuelan crisis, 1.5 million are currently residing in Columbia. And as you pointed out, there are extreme vulnerabilities of this population. I live in a neighborhood in Bogota, which has experienced in the last few days, different incidents of Venezuelans who don't have an opportunity to simply hunker down in apartments.Many have been forced out because they haven't been able to make the daily payments that they have for their very precarious living arrangements.
Steve Hege: And I think that the government, both the local mayor's office, here in Bogota, as well as across the country has been looking at creative ways to try to assist this population. I think ultimately there are opportunities from the Venezuelan side. An agreement between the members of the opposition, or the interim government and the regime, to access certain, free, frozen bank accounts abroad, or other pockets of money, to be directed not only to vulnerable Venezuelans in Venezuela, but also to the very vulnerable migrant populations and refugee populations, including here in Colombia. As you pointed out, if those measures are not taken, I do fear that both xenophobia, which has been on the rise since national strikes here in Columbia really took over the country at the end of last year and Venezuelan migrants were accused of, sort of, exacerbating some of the most violent incidents in those national strikes, that this xenophobia could increase dramatically and we're going to be faced with very dire circumstances in terms of managing this population. Some of them may be choosing, as they seem to return to Venezuela, across these informal border crossings. And I think that would be even more difficult to manage the spread of the pandemic to an even more vulnerable and risky country such as Venezuela. And in the opposite way, you know, if there's a major outbreak in Venezuela,that same migrant population, I think is going to overwhelm, and potentially collapse the healthcare system. And all of that will circle back to a real important and acute increase in social tension with this population, which up to this point, you know, Columbia has been extremely hospitable and warm and welcoming and supporting their Venezuelan brothers.

Tim Farley: Last question. This is more of a, sort of your personal observation. What is the sense of things on the ground in terms of how people are dealing with and how severe the impact is of the COVID-19 pandemic in Colombia and/or Venezuela?

Steve Hege: Well, I think in both cases there are significant populations which simply can't social distance, or take those measures to isolate themselves that are dependent on day-to-day income that they generate through informal economic activities. Many of these have been completely halted. And so, these populations are really at a significant risk in the face of this crisis. Columbia at this point is on a national quarantine. We've gotten through the first week of that. There's going to be two more weeks and then it’s likely to be extended. Venezuela has taken measures to quarantine certain states within the country. But it's really difficult to enforce these quarantines on populations that are extremely vulnerable. And there've been enormous efforts, here on the Colombian side, to try to provide support to those families that are going to be most hard to hit by the, these measures and sort of the halting of freezing of the economy. But on the Venezuelan side, I think it's going to be very difficult there. There are limited resources that the Venezuelan regime can actually redirect to those populations, which goes back to the real need for some degree of humanitarian agreement between the opposition in Venezuela and the regime. Columbia could play a part in encouraging that. Former President Andrés Pastranahas offered his good offices to meet with Nicolás Maduro, to try to encourage those types of measures. And those could be openings to access international humanitarian assistance, which because of the political crisis, at this point has been, up to this point, has been rejected. So those types of critical measures I think are really important. And the plan laid out by the Department of State, as well as the potential leverage of the Department of Justice indictments, could generate the opportunities to, at least, look at minimal humanitarian agreements in Venezuela, and between Columbia and Venezuela.

Tim Farley: Steve, as always, I appreciate it. Thanks so much for joining us. Increasingly making it a little easier to understand a complex world. Thanks for being on the show.

Steve Hege: Thanks a lot, Tim.

Tim Farley: Steve Hege is senior expert, Colombia peace process at the United States Institute of Peace. Columbia, Venezuela, the U.S., you heard the indictments last week from the Department of Justice and Bill Barr, and of course what the State Department is doing relative to that part of the world and it's all involved with, it very much being touched by the coronavirus pandemic. He is tweeting, by the way, @stevehege.

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