The Push-Pull of the Failed State

According to an overwhelming number of metrics, despite its vast natural resources, Venezuela is a failed state. The unfortunate mix of terrible resource mismanagement, a command economy led by corrupt political elites, and non-targeted foreign sanctions has led to an all-out disaster for those remaining in Venezuela. What was to be the experiment in Bolivarian socialism has been unsuccessful at leading the country towards a more prosperous, free, transparent, democratic, and equal state. 

As a result of foiled policies, millions have left Venezuela as refugees or economic migrants, and have been displaced to other regions in Venezuela. Those able to leave have fled rampant famine, poverty, and chaos. The Maduro regime has been unable to provide basic services to the population, including in the richer Caracas, which also serves as the national seat of government and receives most of the country’s foreign investment. The average monthly salary for Venezuelans is now less than $4 USD per month. 

The Maduro regime has failed to address hyperinflation, which reached an all-time high of 10,000,000 percent in 2019. By comparison, Canada hit a record-high annual inflation rate last year at 5.1 percent. In place of a policy response, Maduro and his cabinet have dismissed concerns, blaming the sanctions for worsening national problems and promoting the anti-semitic conspiracy theory of a “US-and Zionist-led world elite media.” The onslaught of sanctions levied against the Maduro regime includes asset freezes and no-fly-lists for regime officials, sanctions against state-run companies, and isolation from trade, cultural, and diplomatic channels including the Organization of American States. Some of the broader sanctions have most impacted regular people in Venezuela. 

While unemployment numbers (including youth unemployment) are relatively stable and low in comparison with other failed states, the government has been unable to adjust wages for fast-rising prices. This is partly because working-class and young people are leaving in droves. With no prospect for economic progress, many have turned to desperate measures to earn money and climb some kind of socio-economic ladder.

Desperate Times and More Desperate Measures

To provide for themselves and their families, many Venezuelans have had to resort to being trafficked for labour or sexual purposes. Those who have been trafficked have either entered the industry voluntarily by irregularly migrating to Venezuela or have been physically coerced into doing so. Though the exact number is hard to quantify, there has been a steady increase in trafficking cases since 2014. 

Coming mostly from southern departments in Venezuela, which are generally poorer and more remote, locals are either voluntarily or forcibly sent to the Orinoco Mining Arc to extract, transform, and export raw gold in illegal mines. The Arc is a geographical area, spanning multiple states within southern Venezuela, and is rich in gold, copper, diamond, coltan, iron, bauxite, and other minerals. Those who resort to this work are not given what they were promised. Instead, they have to pay fees and taxes to criminal groups for protection. The groups include Colombian paramilitary and drug organizations posing as Venezuelan military officials. Indigenous Venezuelans are disproportionately represented in the mines. 

Kidnappings and Extortion

Not all have entered this illegal mining market out of their own will. Many have been coerced by the Maduro regime. Threats are issued against locals and their loved ones to force them to join the campaign. Some are intercepted while trying to cross from Venezuela to Colombia, Guyana, or Brazil, while others are simply kidnapped. Those who resist are killed. Groups like the Sindicato del Perú (the Syndicate of Peru) are among those who take part in the kidnappings and production of crude gold processing plants in the southeastern state of Bolívar. Women and children are most targeted in the kidnappings, as they can make easier targets and may be exploited for both labour and sex trafficking. 

Kidnappings have become a regular occurrence in many parts of Venezuela. While those kidnapped are in Venezuela, their families may be asked for ransoms, as well. According to InSight Crime, kidnappings have been on the rise since 2019 due to “armed groups roaming the Venezuela-Colombia border.” Some have been rescued by local, state, and federal police, though details of the kidnappings and subsequent rescue missions are rarely disclosed by the Venezuelan authorities.

The Maduro Regime is Responsible

Illegal gold mining in Southern Venezuela has the backing of the Maduro regime. In Bolívar state, Venezuelan security forces are overseeing mining sites and providing protection to the gangs operating them. The Maduro regime has a great stake in the outcome of the illegal mining operations, as their profits help prop up and sustain the regime. The profits are siphoned through members of the regime, under-the-table business dealings, and state-owned enterprises. Illegal mining is the main lifeline of the Maduro regime, with the regime directly profiting from ecological destruction and human rights abuses against local populations. The gold is then sold to foreign countries and companies, with Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, and Russia among the largest purchasers 

The Maduro regime has cracked down on organizations, journalists, and activists attempting to uncover the situation in the south. Venezuela is among the worst countries in the world for members of the press and civil society, with journalists, reporters, local leaders, and activists being jailed, tortured, kidnapped, and killed on a semi-regular basis. All of this is done to protect the Maduro regime, which, unlike the Chávez government before it, rules not on popular appeal but solely on endemic corruption and repression. 

Conditions in the Mines

As bravely reported by the Center for Human Rights at the Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas, the conditions in the mines in Bolivar state resemble “labour and sexual slavery.” A great number of women are sexually trafficked and exploited on the sites. Forced prostitution, including child prostitution, as well as gender-based violence, are common at the mines. Those taken to the mines have no say on their work hours, conditions, or wages. Documentation, including passports and identification cards, is stolen to prevent miners from fleeing. The conditions in the mines are dictated by the armed criminal groups that oversee them, with government complacency. The poor conditions have resulted in the spreading of diseases and contamination, including mercury poisoning. 

Response from the International Community

The international community, including the United Nations and various international humanitarian and human rights groups, have called on the Maduro regime to heighten its measures to tackle organized crime and paramilitary groups in the country, particularly in their illegal mining and human trafficking activities. Yet, with the Maduro regime having an incentive to keep the mines functioning, little has been done to confront this issue at a domestic level. Therefore, the incentive structure must be changed to push the Maduro regime to act. As mentioned before, various sanctions have also been put onto the Maduro regime. The international community has opted for asset freezes and no-fly-lists for regime officials, has sanctioned state-run companies, and restricted the regime’s ability to trade and negotiate on the world stage. Financial and rhetorical backing has also been given to opposition parties, politicians, journalists, and NGOs to hold the Maduro regime to account. 

The OAS Approach

At the regional level, pressure has also been applied to the Maduro regime. The Organization of American States (OAS) is a regional intergovernmental organization for countries of the Americas. Its mission is to promote democracy, human rights, security, and development in the Western hemisphere, and to fight communism. The OAS has pushed for internally-led regime change in Venezuela and for harsher sanctions on the Maduro regime, revoking its OAS seat until lawful elections would be held. The OAS Secretary-General, Luis Almagro, has directly called out Maduro, stating that “[Maduro] is the continuation of torture, forced disappearances and kidnappings, political persecution, disease, and starvation, forced migration, and corruption.” Almagro added that “it is a narco-state that kills its own people without remorse, with full impunity.” Instead, the OAS and most Western countries have recognized Juan Guaidó as the current President of Venezuela. 

The OAS has been competing for influence with the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), both regional intergovernmental organizations that exclude the US and Canada and recognize the Maduro regime as the legitimate ruling government of Venezuela. In response to the creation of UNASUR and CELAC, the Forum for Progress and Development in South America (PROSUR) was founded by conservative Presidents Ivan Duque, Sebastián Piñera, and Jair Bolsonaro of Colombia, Chile, and Brazil to push back against the Maduro dictatorship. These organizations have all fought for influence in the Americas, but the OAS has remained the main channel for diplomatic negotiations between countries in the hemisphere.

Policy Recommendations

My recommendations are simple: targeted sanctions on the Maduro regime and its financial and political backers and indirect regime change through isolation on the international stage. The approach I propose diverges from the status-quo, as it revokes the consensus on broad sanctions and direct intervention in Venezuela. In more detail, a rigorous sanctions program should be implemented against the Maduro regime and state-owned enterprises, sparing the general economy, population, and private enterprises. Government officials in Caracas and their cronies should be continuously blacklisted, their bank accounts frozen, and their presence entirely cut out from international economic, financial, social, and political institutions. The criminal and paramilitary groups behind the human trafficking and illegal mining activities in Venezuela should also be sanctioned. Purchasing illegal gold and other minerals from Venezuela should also be outlawed at a national, hemispheric, and international level, prosecutable through Interpol. Governments and corporations who go against this new ruling should be denounced and sanctioned directly, as well.

Finally, local NGOs, activists, politicians, and journalists vying for democracy, human rights, security, peace, and justice in Venezuela should be supported through public rhetoric and financial aid. Members of the press and civil society looking to bring more information to the Venezuelan people and international community about the reality in the mines should be embraced. The Maduro regime, through these sanctions, should also be moved to allow international observers from the OAS and United Nations to report on conditions within the mines and the Maduro regime’s role. Refusal from the Maduro regime to let in international aid and observers relating to illegal mining and other regime-sustaining activities should be met with further targeted sanctions and isolation.

All of these measures will allow for regime change and accountability in a way that is democratic, emboldens international laws, norms, and institutions, and is led from within, rather than forced from without. This all comes as the Biden administration and other Western governments are turning to the Maduro regime for oil imports, leading to talks of easing sanctions and re-establishing relations with the regime, a path which would be misguided to go down on.

Edited by Majeed Malhas

Joseph Bouchard

Joseph is a Senior Writer with Spheres of Influence, covering geopolitics, crime, and democracy in the Western hemisphere. He has spent over a year in Latin America, notably working as a freelance journalist...