How should the world respond to Venezuela’s rapidly worsening crisis? During a recent trip to the country’s border with Colombia, Luis Almagro, the secretary general of the Organization of American States, told reporters that military intervention should in fact be on the table. In this exclusive interview on Sept. 20 for AQ’s podcast “Deep South,” Almagro qualified that assertion, but repeated his view that the international community “shouldn’t discard any option.” The Uruguayan diplomat also assessed Latin America’s response to the influx of Venezuelan migrants and made a request he thinks could go a long way in bringing the crisis to an end.
A transcript of the conversation, lightly edited for clarity and brevity, is below.
AQ Editor-in-Chief Brian Winter: Mr. Secretary General, I know that you were recently in Colombia and that you were looking very closely not only at the situation of refugees there in Colombia, but also trying to coordinate some kind of political response to what’s happening. What can you tell us about your most recent trip there and what you saw?
Almagro: I saw a lot of suffering, a lot of pain, a lot of anguish, anger. That is what you see at the border. We could also see the efforts made by the government of Colombia, which you can also see in practically every country on the continent, trying to absorb that incredible mass of people. We see that the problem is aggravating and that if the trend of this migration continues in the same way, we will have 1.88 million more people leaving Venezuela in the next year to arrive in different countries in the region. We have seen extraordinary efforts, sometimes by new governments, specifically by the government of Colombia. When you are a new government, you want to address social issues, production issues, economic issues, macroeconomic issues. But then you have something where you have to divert completely to start dealing with this problem, and it is a lose-lose situation. If you don’t take care of the migrants, then you may have an even worse social explosion.
Winter: Because Colombia has absorbed more than anybody.
Almagro: More than anybody, and everybody is crossing…most of the Venezuelan migration is crossing that border. We applaud the efforts by the countries in the region, we applaud their initiatives, their coordination, their open-arms policies and the resources that they are allocating to address these problems. But also, we see that some more structural solutions will be requested because already the institutions and the services in practically all the countries on the continent – especially education and health – are suffering a lot and they are under the greatest pressure to achieve a positive result.
Winter: Six months, ago, you started hearing people say “Look, if this flow of refugees continues, some of these countries are going to reach their limits.” In terms of not only what they are logistically able to handle, but what they are politically able to handle. You’ve seen cases, unfortunately—perhaps most prominently in Brazil in the state of Roraima, which is the one bordering Venezuela—where the governor has asked the federal government to close off the border. We have also seen their attacks against Venezuelan migrants in some cases. I think it’s worth noting that these incidents have been the exception around the region. In most cases, if you consider the extraordinary number of people who have flowed out…
Almagro: …And their impacts on societies…
Winter: …And the impacts on countries that, unlike say Europe with its absorption of Syrian refugees, these are middle-income countries that really struggle sometimes to handle their own populations. I think it is worth noting that Latin America has shown a spirit of solidarity, not just at the governmental level, but at the social level. That said, cases like the one that I have just cited have become more frequent, and you’re seeing anti-migrant rhetoric creeping its way into politics. Do you get the sense that the region either is reaching or has already reached a point of saturation?
Almagro: As you said, it is tough to reckon with a sense of saturation because mainly those services that are affected by this are health and education. Most of the countries where the migrants are going, countries that have received the most massive Venezuelan migration, they are really struggling with their own population, providing those services of education and health. So everything that they are doing is extra, and that is already very difficult to implement and to execute. They have proved the efficiency and goodwill to shape up for the occasion and tried to resolve most of the problems that they are having with this crisis.
Winter: So, what’s next? I want to talk specifically about something you said when you were there on the border that got some attention in an interview. You said that the option of the potential military intervention should not necessarily be ruled out. I understand that you then later made some comments walking that back a bit. But if it’s not military intervention, is it sanctions? Who has to play a part? What can be different? What can be done differently from what has been done up until now?
Almagro: First of all, what we have always said, and it is very clear, we shouldn’t discard any option. But those options can only be options especially under the frame of international public law and the inter-American system. That day the problem was that I couldn’t hear the question, if you saw the whole video. So I had to go down, and ask, “What did they ask?” I came back and so, I repeated the question, and then I started answering. And so it was connected. About the military intervention question, OK, I should have deleted that part and I started answering from zero.
Winter: So for the record, do you think some kind of outside military intervention in Venezuela would be a mistake?
Almagro: Well, we believe and we will always condemn any form of illegal attack, invasion, intervention, military intervention, on any state on the continent. That should be crystal (clear) for everybody. Now there is a point there. There are rights that belong to the Venezuelan people, like the right to be supported by international humanitarian law, like the responsibility to be protected from the criminal responsibility of the Venezuelan dictators related to corruption or drug trafficking or human rights violations. So we cannot deny that right a priori to the Venezuelan people. And that is also something that is extremely relevant. But the implementation of these three issues not necessarily has to be armed. It has to be, it sometimes can be achieved by diplomatic means. Most of the time, it’s achieved by diplomatic means. Most of the time, it’s achieved by a credible threat. Most of the time it’s achieved by sanctions. So all of this doesn’t imply directly that you have to implement a military action to completely define the situation. But you cannot deny that right to the Venezuelan people a priori because you know that the population that has been affected about this, we can count it for millions already, those that have been forced into exile, those that have suffered extrajudicial executions, human rights violations, hunger or lack of access to the rights of health or life. So we need to protect those people and hope that we may be able to protect them through diplomatic means.
Winter: What I’m hearing is that in a situation like this, diplomacy cannot be effective unless there is some sort of other threat basically, a threat of force to back it up as a means of last resort.
Almagro: It’s what we have been asking, for example, when we started asking for sanctions. Also, sanctions was a bad word because it was connected to previous experiences on the continent.
Winter: Cuba. I’ll say it if you won’t.
Almagro: Yeah, it’s OK. But sanctions are the last diplomatic resort. I mean, you have to go deep into sanctions in order to achieve results. And of course, you have to help yourself in order to protect people with credible threats.
Winter: But do you see any appetite – and this is my last question on this subject – for military interaction at the regional level?
Almagro: There is never such an appetite. If you see an appetite to intervene in a country in any way, in order to implement the right to protect, to implement the international humanitarian law assistance that a population may need or request, it is always a very difficult thing to implement.
The international community has a long story of arriving late to these cases, no? For example, let’s take the most extreme cases, because they became extreme. For example, if you would have stopped the genocide in Rwanda after 100 people were killed, we wouldn’t be talking about the genocide in Rwanda. But what’s necessary to protect that big population after 100 people were killed? Yes, it was very necessary to protect that population after 100 people were killed. But nobody acted.
Winter: What I always remember is that Bill Clinton said years later, that that was, I don’t know if it was his biggest regret, but his major regret was not having intervened in Rwanda.
Almagro: Yes, and it went on, the extermination of hundreds of thousands of people. When Pol Pot started his massacres in Cambodia, that population needed to be protected.
Winter: Do you think that Venezuela today is comparable to those two cases that you just cited?
Almagro: We don’t know yet, but what I say is that cannot be the regret of anybody in the future. How many people have to be killed? How many people have to die in hospitals? How many kids have to die because of malnutrition every day in order to make it sensitive for the international community?
So what I say is that this appetite is never available, so you have to call attention to the humanitarian crisis that the country is living. That the solutions that are requested are very needed by the population.
Of course, what the Venezuelan dictatorship is doing is completely immoral. You don’t deal with the problems of the people, you just push them away because you don’t give them food to eat, you don’t provide health systems. You just put the pressure on some other people.
The way that Venezuela has acted always have been in many ways an aggression against every country on the continent. Doing this is an aggression to every continent on the continent. The way that PDVSA corrupted practically every political system on the continent was an aggression to every country on the continent. So we have to be that aware of these kinds of aggressions of the Venezuelan regime against every country on the continent.
Plus, there is a very clear double standard here. The biggest intervention that any country on the continent has had on another country has been the Cuban case in Venezuela. They are doing for their oil because they are sucking the oil (away). And nobody is saying anything. They are torturing people in Venezuela. They are doing intelligence. They are repressing people. They are doing civil identity with some not so clear purposes. That is the kind of aggression we should always condemn, because it is immoral, because it is unethical, because it is against the law. And everything has to do with supporting the tyranny, with supporting the dictatorship, in order to prevail there politically. And all this is completely unacceptable. So unless we want to have double standards about this, we have to start condemning that aggression that exists today in Venezuela, that affects the only sovereignty that Venezuela has: that of its own people.
Winter: On that argument that you just made, the broad framework for thinking about Venezuela that you just described: Over the last 10-15 years the country the crisis has deteriorated, and let’s remember this is a crisis 20 years in the making. Of course, there was a period in the 2000s where you had left-leaning governments in power throughout much of the region, and let’s be honest, the kinds of crises and problems that you are describing were much less severe back then as they are now. Now have a mix of governments in the region. You have a government that has been critical of Venezuela in Brazil, but that government is very unpopular and is on its way out. In Mexico, we have a government coming in that seems to embrace non-interventionist ideas. What opportunity or what kind of environment do you see in the region as a whole right now for putting together the kind of response that is needed to adequately confront the Venezuelan crisis, whether it’s diplomatic or otherwise?
Almagro: What we have had in the past two years have been very positive answers from countries. In the OAS we already have two resolutions on Venezuela. One, the degradation of the constitutional order – that was approved on April 3 last year—and the other one, stating the illegitimacy of the last elections on May 20. Plus, there is a permanent will to condemn and to implement measures that may affect the regime. What I would ask the countries now is to fully implement what was approved in the declaration of the Lima Group in May, which asked for sanctions of Latin American countries on Venezuela. And that is something that only Panama has implemented. Colombia is halfway, but the rest of the countries are a little bit late in implementing that, which is extremely necessary in order to keep moving forward. You see, if you take into consideration what we are talking about, it’s mainly related to very dear principles and values which are beyond any ideology that may prevail or not prevail in the region. They should be above any ideology that may prevail in any government anywhere.
Winter: It goes beyond national sovereignty, is what you’re saying? This is a concept that perhaps supersedes or is more important…?
Almagro: In terms of humanitarian law, human rights protections and democracy protections are not only internal jurisdiction of the country. They’re also things the international community has a responsibility toward, too. And somehow international humanitarian law complements what can be done by the government. International criminal law and international human rights law complement what the governments may do or not do. But I was not specifically referring to that. I was talking more about the necessary measures that need to be taken in order to protect human rights and democracy, and that these principles and values are high principles and values. I was not referring to them as not being a matter of jurisdiction, but that these are not a matter of ideology.
Winter: Do you sense that other governments in the region now understand that?
Almagro: Well, if they did not we wouldn’t have already, as I said, two resolutions approved and so many statements and declarations approved and so many condemnations and countries ready to denounce Venezuela to the International Criminal Court. We have advanced on a lot. If you take into consideration how the situation was after the repression in March, in the first quarter of 2014 in Venezuela, that after that repression the Venezuelan government had complete impunity for whatever they did, for whatever human rights violation they did, for whatever person was killed. That is not the situation now. We have developed into something else, with the responsibility of the Venezuelan state is very clear now. In those days, nobody was calling Maduro a dictator. Today he is known worldwide as a dictator. That is very clear. That’s a substantial improvement for what is going on in Venezuela.