VENEZUELA IS NOT ONLY A VENEZUELAN PROBLEM

By Sonia Zapata (This article is an adjusted version of a letter sent to the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in June 2017)

During May 2017, in spite of the condemnation by some members of the international community of the brutal repression exercised by Venezuelan police forces against protesters; Nicolas Maduro made it very clear that he would not listen to the Venezuelan people’s demand for freedom and democracy. Despite daily massive protests that had reached at that point 72 days, Maduro’s authoritarian government sent a clear message to Venezuelans and the world on National TV: He would defend his project of an unconstitutional Constituent Assembly “whether with votes or with bullets”.
Against this background, Venezuelans abroad (such as our group in Norway) started to press harder for firm condemnation statements, expressions of solidarity and concrete actions from other democratic countries. We wanted the International Community (and Norway in our case) to acknowledge the serious humanitarian crisis and violation of human rights in Venezuela.
Since then, things have deteriorated even further and we continue to plead for help from the International Community.
In doing so, we try to explain that what happens in Venezuela should not be seen as a mere political crisis in a far-away country. All the opposite, for various reasons summarized below, it is critical for the International Community to understand that further ignoring this crisis may have serious repercussions beyond Venezuela.

1 Drug-trafficking:
Drugs are a global problem. The world recognizes today that drug trafficking is big business representing, according to Europol, a fifth of all profits from organized crime. In the words of Europol, “Drug trafficking ravishes communities, endangers businesses, strains government institutions, and drags down the wider economy”.
Venezuelan prominent role in drug trafficking at the current scale is a phenomenon that exploded with Chavez rise to power. In our letter to Stortinget dated 07/05/17, we provided concrete examples of involvement by Venezuelan top official (including the country’s current Vice-President and members of the presidential family) in drug trafficking activities.
There are statements by US Drug Enforcement officials and from the former security chief of both Hugo Chavez and Diosdado Cabello (Leamsy Salazar) confirming that Cabello (current member and former president of the National Assembly of Venezuela, former minister and governor; and active member of the Venezuelan armed forces) is involved in drug trade. Salazar (who is currently under a US protection plan) claims that Cabello is the leader of the Cartel de Los Soles, an alleged military drug trafficking organization in Venezuela. According to Salazar, Cabello has been involved in shipments of drugs reportedly sent from FARC in Colombia to the United States and Europe, with the possible assistance of Cuba and assistance of other senior members of Venezuela’s government.
In addition to US- initiated indictments and convictions which highlight Venezuela’s involvement in drug trafficking in the Americas region; according to an 2011 article by The New York Times, Colonel Adel Mashmoushi, Lebanon’s Drug Enforcement chief, stated that flights between Venezuela and Syria that were operated by Iran could have been used by Hezbollah to transport drugs into the Middle East. According to the same article, a long-time serving New York district attorney has stated that high-ranking Venezuelan officials turned Venezuela to “a global cocaine hub” and that his office had found that cocaine in New York was linked to Venezuela, Iran and Hezbollah. The same source also explained how Hugo Chávez’s government allegedly assisted Iran with drug trafficking so Iran could circumvent sanctions and fund their development of nuclear weapons and other armaments.
The drug-related criminal activities of the Venezuelan government are already having repercussions beyond the Americas and even beyond Europe. The problem will continue to escalate and the threat to international safety, security and health linked to drug crimes will increase unless countries come together and take serious measures now.

2 Corruption
Apart from corruption linked to drug crimes, Maduro’s regime has been known to actively support and exercise all other types of corruption at an unprecedented large scale.
In 2015, Transparency International listed Venezuela as the 10 th most corrupted country in the world (out of 167 listed). In a June 2015 interview, Roland Denis, a revolutionary activist who was Chávez’s vice minister of planning and development in 2002-2003, paints a devastating picture of pervasive corruption within the Venezuelan state. According to Denis, the number of officials involved in corruption is “not four or five, but…hundreds who in turn have created their own networks of collaborators and frontmen.” The list of state institutions involved in corruption named by Denis is extensive, and includes Corpolec, the state electricity company; CANTV, the state telephone company; the housing mission; the food ministry; SENIAT, Venezuela’s tax agency; the Venezuelan Central Bank; CADIVI, an institution set up to manage currency controls; SIDOR, the state-owned steel manufacturer; and the state oil company, PDVSA. Denis puts the amount of money lost due to manipulation of currency controls alone at USD 300 billion, suggesting that the total losses due to corruption may be much higher than this.
In 2016, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), an international NGO that investigates crime and corruption, gave President Maduro the “Person of the Year Award” that recognizes the individual who has done the most in the world to advance organized criminal activity and corruption. The OCCRP stated that they had chosen
Maduro “for the global award on the strength of his corrupt and oppressive reign, so rife with mismanagement that citizens of his oil-rich nation are literally starving and begging for medicines” and that “Maduro and his family steal millions of dollars from government coffers to fund patronage that maintains President Maduro’s power in Venezuela.”
On 19 May 2017, Transparency’s International Secretariat issued the following statement: “The Maduro regime is a blatant case of what is known as grand corruption. It violates two of the most basic human rights: health and security.
Billions of dollars are being stolen from the public by the few in power, causing people to lose their lives on a daily basis due to a lack of medicines and proper health services. This must stop immediately”. Transparency had an incident involving a team (activists and journalists) who were detained by the Venezuelan National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) while investigating the Odebrecht construction project corruption scandal. The scandal involved the construction of the bridge over Lake Maracaibo and exposed a financial network involving shell companies and several banks to funnel more than US$788 million in bribes to corrupt government officials and political parties and their leaders in 11 countries, including Venezuela.
As the global fight for corruption grows, it would appear that it is in the interest of the international community and of countries like Norway, to stand-up against Regimes clearly involved in billionaire corruption cases.

3 Security and Defense (links to terrorist organizations)
Venezuela is very relevant from an international relations and security policy perspective. There are indications that the current Government has developed a network with officials and countries that are acknowledged to be a security threat not only to Latin America but to the world at large. This includes ties with Iran and Hezbollah, Syria, Spain’s Basque separatist group ETA, and the Cuban military forces who are said to have trained Venezuelan paramilitary groups on repression tactics and torture techniques.
Venezuela has also close ties with Colombian ELN and with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the organization that in 2015 was considered the wealthiest non-jihadist terrorist organization in the world, surpassed in wealth only by the Islamic State and Hamas. These close ties are well-known to other countries and to Norway,
specifically, due to the prominent role of Norway in the recent Colombia Peace Agreement which was “facilitated” by the Venezuelan regime. Obviously, Venezuela’s role as a facilitator was possible due to its close relations with the FARC.
From this perspective, instability and further spread of violence in Venezuela not only poses a security threat to the Region generally, but also, very importantly, to the Colombian peace process in particular.

4 A threat to International Health
The Health Care system in Venezuela has collapsed to extreme levels, depriving the general population from getting even the most basic care. The scarcity of essential medications, vaccines, basic surgery kits, as well as reagents for diagnosis has become a general problem impacting the whole country. According to the last National Report of Hospitals, public health centers, which represent 90% of the total health system and are accountable for 70% of the beds, report to have an 80% deterioration and infrastructure damage. In 78% of these centers there is an absence of basic goods, 60% of the diagnostic and treatment machines are out of service, 64% of the nutrition services are not functioning, 97% of the labs are out of service or present severe damages, and there are constant electric failures and water shortages. Furthermore, according to a leading pharmaceutical association the country is running short on roughly
85% of all medicines.
 
The Government is denying the need of humanitarian help and is being negligent by not accepting it and by not taking the necessary steps to improve the public health problem. The lack of acknowledgement by the Government of this alarming situation is causing devastating results in the increasing number of patients that cannot be provided with a diagnosis and/or treatment. This has resulted in a dramatic increase of the number of deaths.
After two years with no official health records, the Health Minister finally published the Epidemiologic Report in May 2017. The report shows an alarming increase in both infant and maternal mortality. During 2016, more than 11,000 infants died before their first birthday, 30% more than the previous year.  Maternal mortality rose by 65 percent. An unprecedented regression in health standards is shown by the reappearance of more than 300 new cases of diphtheria, an extremely contagious disease that has been mostly eradicated worldwide through vaccination. Cases of malaria, which had been eradicated from the country more than 60 years ago, reappeared a few years ago and in 2013 there were 75.000 cases registered.  In 2015 there were 136.402 registered cases and by 2016 more than 240.000 had been
reported. This shows an increase of 76 percent compared to the previous year. 
 
Three days after the Health Minister published the above mentioned report , Maduro´s official response was to remove her immediately from her duties evidencing this government repression against those who try to provide access to information; information that should be public, transparent and accessible to everyone. 
More recently, reports by OVS indicate that Tuberculosis is also rising and NGOs like Caritas warn that the technical limits to escalate from “humanitarian crisis” to “humanitarian emergency” will likely be met by year-end.

5 Massive migration – Regional tension
Venezuela has become a migration nation. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) recently expressed its concern that “many Venezuelans have been forced to migrate to other countries in the region as a means of survival, due to the humanitarian situation—particularly the effects of shortages of food, medicine, and medical treatment. Given the lack of legal, regular, and safe migration channels, many people have had no choice other than to turn to clandestine, irregular migration over perilous land and sea routes”.
In 2015, it was estimated that approximately 1.8 million Venezuelans had emigrated to other countries according to the PGA Group.
Venezuelans are emigrating, mainly but not exclusively, to America and Europe. In the case of Latin America, the recent increase of Venezuelan emigration to neighboring countries is giving rise to tensions. Negative reactions and social and political debates on the subject have been reported in countries like Colombia and Panama as an example. A similar situation can be seen in Brazil. According to a Report from Human Rights Watch dated 18 April 2017, “Tens of thousands of Venezuelans have fled the humanitarian crisis that their government denies exist and is not addressing adequately. Thousands have gone to Brazil, many entering via the border that Venezuela shares with the Brazilian state of Roraima. Some seek protection there as refugees, others seek temporary work, while others make visits seeking
desperately needed medical care. The unprecedented influx of Venezuelans is straining Roraima’s already overburdened public health care system and clogging Brazil’s system for processing asylum applications”.
A further deterioration of the situation could result on a refugee crisis and perhaps even in a regional conflict. We believe countries should take action now to help the Venezuelan people recover their freedom and democracy and start the process to rebuild the country; rather than paying the higher price later of dealing with yet another widespread
refugee crisis.

6 Environmental threat
A recent environmental corruption scandal involves the exploitation for mining of an extensive area in the upper reaches of the Amazon rainforest (representing as much as 12% of the Venezuelan territory) called “Arco Minero del Orinoco”.
The project aims at granting mining access to over 150 foreign companies to extract gold, diamonds, etc and will be managed though a legal entity led by the corrupt military forces.
The legal framework of this Project is claimed to violate the Constitution as well as other laws and international treaties to which the country is a party. Experts say that the project began to be implemented without developing the corresponding environmental and socio-cultural impact studies and concessions have been signed in certain areas without carrying out the prior consultation process with the indigenous communities in the area, and without respect to the right to the demarcation of indigenous lands contemplated in the Constitution.
According to an investigative Report (by Edgar Lopez and Julett Pineda of Efecto Cocuyo), despite the Government denying it, local mining workers are using mercury in their mining activities which is a threat not only to them and the local population but also to the environment.
The international community, and Norway as part of it, have very good reasons to react firmly against Maduro’s regime.
Even if countries would choose to turn a blind eye on the human rights abuses committed against Venezuelan population and to the humanitarian crisis, they should protect the world from the growing web of criminal and terrorist influence to which the current Venezuelan government belongs – alongside Iran, Syria, Cuba, and North Korea.
Venezuela needs the goodwill, experience and support from other countries to break free from the tyranny, repression and misery it is in today. We really believe that timely intervention by the International Community can be critical to avoid the imminent political and security catastrophe of having one of the potentially richest countries in the world become a new Syria or a new North Korea.
We believe that, working together, we can turn the current chaos into a success story that could set an example for the rest of Latin America and the world.


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