Organized crime is driving the humanitarian and political crisis in Venezuela, says Latin America scholar

Colombian police escort a Venezuelan soldier who defected at the Simon Bolivar international bridge, where Venezuelans tried to deliver humanitarian aid despite objections from President Nicolas Maduro, in Cucuta, Colombia, Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

Venezuela appears to be in danger of collapse. The result of its 2018 presidential election continues to be disputed. The economy has been ravaged by hyperinflation. And the government is on the verge of default. Embattled president Nicolás Maduro has prevented aid from entering the country on the pretext that it is a “theatrical presentation” by which the West means to undermine Venezuela.

Jose Buscaglia. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

A coalition of more than 60 countries, led by the United States and most of Western Europe, is backing the opposition leader, Juan Guaido. Maduro’s support is drawn from Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and Cuba.

So what does this international standoff mean? We asked José Buscaglia, a scholar of Latin America who directs the Center for International Affairs and World Cultures at Northeastern. He shared his views on the international standoff that has formed around the humanitarian and political crisis in Venezuela.

Are we seeing the familiar battle lines of the Cold War being redrawn around Venezuela?

I have a different vision. I think it’s not about balance. It’s about the undermining of institutions and states, so that there can be a more rapacious sacking of resources.

What is happening in Venezuela is a good example of what’s happening all over the world, to a lesser or greater degree, where international organized crime is basically driving entire countries into dysfunction and chaos, in order to be able to control the extraction of resources.

This is already the model of the Russian Federation, right? [President] Vladimir Putin is one of the largest capos of international organized crime in the world today.

During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union were competing against each other to invest in client states. But investment does not appear to be the strategy for Venezuela. Is  the country being destabilized for the purpose of seizing its resources?

I come from Puerto Rico. During the Cold War, both Cuba, as a satellite state of the Soviet Union, and Puerto Rico, as a colony of the United States, were being propped up by the two major superpowers. As long as the Cold War lasted, we were doing relatively well. And now both Puerto Rico and Cuba are failed states and failed projects of massive social revolutions that took place in the second half of the 20th century.

Venezuela is one of the wealthiest countries in the world in terms of its resources, especially gold and petrol.

Now the interest is not on propping up, but on taking down. And exploiting the last remaining resources.

How did  Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan president who died in 2013, influence this turmoil?

Venezuela is being pillaged like never before. But it’s always been pillaged. That’s one of the reasons why Chávez rose to power, because there was a massive social movement. Chávez said this country has historically been pillaged by the oligarchs, and now that wealth has to go to the people. But it never got to the people. I mean, people got apartments and jobs, paid by petrol dollars while the price of gas and petrol was high.

And now it’s a failed state.

China is supporting the Maduro regime, because the regime owes China a lot of money. Putin is supporting it because he sees the promise of gaining more influence for his own brand of capitalism, which is this rapacious mafia, to [provide Russia with] a major stronghold in South America.

Why is Cuba supporting Maduro?

They made a big mistake. They thought they could control him. But now Venezuela is falling apart. And they can’t find anybody to really bring it together.

There were other people in the Chávez movement that could have played a bigger role and filled the void that Chávez left, regardless of what sort of reckless administration Chávez had going. Because he did certainly have that skill of being able to communicate with the people directly. He had the power of getting the masses behind him. And Maduro doesn’t.

But it’s already too late. Venezuela, for all practical purposes, has already turned into a narco state.

Is the region in danger of destabilizing?

Mexico is not there yet. It’s not a failed state like Venezuela, but it could be tomorrow. It’s been on the verge of becoming a failed state for a while; the Mexican cartels control the production of cocaine and marijuana throughout the continent.

Argentina is one of the countries that is rising as a major narcotics producer, and it’s getting destabilized, too. So if you look at Argentina, you look at Venezuela, you look at Mexico, you look at Colombia, the prospects are not very encouraging.

Between Mexico and Venezuela, you have the Caribbean, which is the place with the highest incidence of violence between civilians that is not in a state of war. It’s one of the most violent societies in the world; and then, if you want to consider Central America, there is El Salvador and Honduras. [Both countries have fueled a refugee crisis.] That’s all sandwiched between Mexico and Venezuela. And, of course, the big prize in the middle of all that is Cuba.

Why is Cuba ‘the big prize?’

Cuba sits right in the soft underbelly of the United States in the Gulf of Mexico. If Cuba gets seized by international organized crime, which also could happen, because their links are already very close, we would have a massive problem on our hands. It would be massive destabilization on a hemispheric scale.

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