I won’t waste ink writing about the April 22 elections called by Nicolás Maduro, the 25th in 19 years of Chavismo. I won’t write yet another column on the tyranny cloaked with the rags of democracy or the atomised opposition shunning the upcoming vote. Nor will I be asking (as I did in my first Times column of September 2) if there is “An oiled US exit for Maduro” in the works. Five months on that option, it no longer exists. Nor is Venezuela what it was.
So forget Maduro: he’s just a puppet in a lousy show with a never-ending last act. Forget the oil too: crude oil production in Venezuela fell 12 percent in December and 29 percent in 2017. According to The Wall Street Journal, it is the midst of the steepest decline (in production) by any nation in recent history, with an even steeper plunge than that experienced by Iraq after its 2003 war, when production there fell by 23 percent.
Besides, the US Energy Information Administration estimates that US crude output could reach 11 million barrels per day (bpd) by the end of this year, overtaking Saudi Arabia and Russia.Venezuela’s fabulous oil reserves, estimated at 326 billion bpd, might thus continue to be the biggest in the world – but they will remain below ground. And not for lack of drilling rigs or the incapacity of PDVSA but because that heavy crude – in common with OPEC – now lacks all strategic and persuasive value. It is Washington which controls the oil tap.
But while oil remains ample without being extracted, Venezuela is being drained on other sides – of food, of medicine, of basic inputs, of human decency. And of Venezuelans – by the end of last year at least 4.5 million people had crossed the frontier forever. An estimated three million of these have passed to neighbouring Colombia. A desperate Juan Manuel Santos has requested aid from the United Nations and the World Bank to cope with the influx of immigrants, which in recent weeks has increased to the daily entry of 40,000 Venezuelans into Colombia.
Researchers like Dany Bahar forecast that within a few weeks the Venezuelan exodus will have turned into a massive refugee crisis surpassing the Syrian tragedy, which has expelled 5.5 million of its citizens but over the course of eight years of war, with all the terror and destruction of the weaponry of Bashar al-Assad and the Islamic State, as well as the powers friendly to them.
We are witnessing tidal waves, huge waves of hopeless people. And they are hungry too – 64 percent of Venezuelans have lost an average of 11.4 kilogrammes in the last year, while 87 percent now live below the poverty line. Venezuela thus has more horrifying levels of destitution and shortages than subSaharan Africa.
But there is further data which has yet to be sufficiently quantified, concerning the advance of narcoguerrillas in vast areas of Venezuela. And here I’m not referring to those members of the Maduro government and the top brass of the Bolivarian Armed Forces (FANB) who have been accused by Washington and the DEA of drug-trafficking and money-laundering. I’m referring to the penetration of Venezuelan territory by the ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, or National Liberation Army), the Colombian guerrilla force which did not join the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) in signing a peace deal with Santos at the close of 2016 (the ELN’s own faltering negotiations with Santos were suspended last month). First pushed back by the Colombia Plan during the Álvaro Uribe presidency and then displaced for not returning to civilian life like most FARC cadres, the “elenos” started setting up camps in the Venezuelan state of Táchira two years ago.
There they dedicated themselves to drug-trafficking and moving contraband before proceeding to rob and redistribute the CLAP food boxes which the Maduro government supposedly distributes among six million citizens. They also mounted three radio stations, essential for recruitment. Today their influence has extended to the states of Zulia, Apure and Barinas.
There’s more. On January 31, General Alberto Mejía, in command of the Colombian Armed Forces, sounded the alarm – the ELN were waiting for Venezuelans crossing into their country in “conditions of extreme vulnerability” and taking them to their “recruitment cells.”
Carnival weekend saw a dozen attacks in various Colombian localities. The Santos administration said that some of them had been perpetrated by Venezuelans recruited by the ELN, while the Colombian attorney general has requested the capture and extradition of four leading members of the ELN who have apparently settled and established their headquarters in the Venezuelan jungle.
Even more worrying details have emerged in recent weeks, especially for the governments of Colombia and Brazil. It has been established that not only has the ELN expanded its territorial control over the northern and central frontiers between Colombia and Venezuela but that the guerrillas have already settled toward the south on the Orinoco banks, very close to the frontier with Brazil. The elenos are not only in Amazonas state (where most of the population is indigenous) but also in Bolívar state, a region rich in mining with a middle class now reduced to extreme poverty after the closure of the large steel and aluminium factories.
The absence of the state, or the rule of a genuinely failed state, was proven on February 10 when 18 miners from the Cipraca mine (gold and coltan) were massacred by an operation led by the National Bolivarian Armed Forces (FANB), Venezuela’s Army. There is already some proof that elements of the ELN have infiltrated the FANB. Other intelligence reports reveal that ELN cadres based in Bolívar state control not only the mining but also the marketing of the gold (as they did in the late 1960s, when starting to operate in their native Colombia).
It is difficult to work out who’s who, amid the disorder and crime now running Venezuela. It is even difficult to tell if there is anyone in real command: in 2002 there were 70 generals in Venezuela, today there are 1,200, with common soldiers having “gained little and [become] a reservoir of violence and desertion,” according to Venezuelan military pundit Rocio San Miguel. That’s why the Defence and Foreign ministers of Brazil and Colombia met so urgently on Wednesday.
The two crises of Venezuela – the humanitarian and security – are knocking on the doors to the south of the region.