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To Halt the Venezuelan Migration Crisis, Stop Banning Venezuelan Oil

The Biden administration’s policies on sanctions and asylum-seekers are making the country's humanitarian situation worse.

By , the Rice family professor of the practice of international and public affairs at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies.
Venezuelan migrants stand by a fence at an improvised shelter in Panama City, on Oct.23.
Venezuelan migrants stand by a fence at an improvised shelter in Panama City, on Oct.23.
Venezuelan migrants stand by a fence at an improvised shelter in Panama City, on Oct.23. LUIS ACOSTA/AFP via Getty Images

Over the past two weeks, the Biden administration has deported thousands of Venezuelans to Mexico under the convoluted argument that they pose a danger of introducing COVID-19 into the United States. To deal with an upsurge in immigration, the White House appealed to a Trump-era decision to deport immigrants at the border under Title 42 of the U.S. Code—a provision that allows for turning back asylum-seekers at the border if they risk spreading a communicable disease. Those who reached the border in the hope that they could apply for asylum are now being sent to a country with which most of them have few if any links.

Even the White House admits that there is no public health justification for the measure. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called for the termination of Title 42 deportations in April, and the measure is in place only because Republican governors convinced a Trump-appointed federal judge to block a lifting of the measure in May. Despite claiming to oppose the ruling, the Biden administration took advantage of it when it decided to expand Title 42 deportations to Venezuelans on Oct. 12.

This abrupt change in policy has left tens of thousands of asylum-seekers stranded in Mexico and Central America in diplomatic limbo. It also serves as an example of the profound contradictions inherent in U.S. policy toward Venezuela. For years, the U.S. government pursued a “maximum pressure” strategy of imposing harsh oil and financial sanctions, with the idea that they would help oust President Nicolás Maduro from power. The sanctions failed to bring about regime change; instead, they helped cripple the country’s economy and fuel one of the largest peacetime migration exoduses in recent history. Now, the United States is shutting its door in the face of thousands of Venezuelans who have risked their lives to escape the economic collapse that it played a hand in creating.

Over the past two weeks, the Biden administration has deported thousands of Venezuelans to Mexico under the convoluted argument that they pose a danger of introducing COVID-19 into the United States. To deal with an upsurge in immigration, the White House appealed to a Trump-era decision to deport immigrants at the border under Title 42 of the U.S. Code—a provision that allows for turning back asylum-seekers at the border if they risk spreading a communicable disease. Those who reached the border in the hope that they could apply for asylum are now being sent to a country with which most of them have few if any links.

Even the White House admits that there is no public health justification for the measure. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called for the termination of Title 42 deportations in April, and the measure is in place only because Republican governors convinced a Trump-appointed federal judge to block a lifting of the measure in May. Despite claiming to oppose the ruling, the Biden administration took advantage of it when it decided to expand Title 42 deportations to Venezuelans on Oct. 12.

This abrupt change in policy has left tens of thousands of asylum-seekers stranded in Mexico and Central America in diplomatic limbo. It also serves as an example of the profound contradictions inherent in U.S. policy toward Venezuela. For years, the U.S. government pursued a “maximum pressure” strategy of imposing harsh oil and financial sanctions, with the idea that they would help oust President Nicolás Maduro from power. The sanctions failed to bring about regime change; instead, they helped cripple the country’s economy and fuel one of the largest peacetime migration exoduses in recent history. Now, the United States is shutting its door in the face of thousands of Venezuelans who have risked their lives to escape the economic collapse that it played a hand in creating.

Adding insult to injury, the Biden administration unveiled a process to grant legal entry to 24,000 “qualifying Venezuelans” that few if any of the most vulnerable asylum-seekers will have access to. Not only is the number minuscule, amounting to less than the number of Venezuelans encountered by U.S. Border Patrol guards in a single month and only 0.3 percent of the number of Venezuelans who have left their country in recent years, but the policy is explicitly designed to exclude those who need it the most while privileging those who already have the means and resources to come to the United States.

Venezuela’s massive migration exodus is a direct consequence of the country’s economic collapse.

To be eligible for the new program, Venezuelans must show that they have a person in the United States willing to financially support them; they must also have a valid passport and demonstrate that they have not illegally entered Mexico or Panama. Few of the Venezuelans who risked their lives crossing the dangerous tropical forest of Panama’s Darién province to escape one of the world’s worst hunger crises will have a chance at satisfying these requirements. A Venezuelan passport costs around 10 times the country’s monthly minimum wage; according to a recent study, fewer than 1 percent of migrants leaving Venezuela have one.

Venezuela’s massive migration exodus is a direct consequence of the country’s economic collapse. This collapse began when oil prices fell in 2014, and it deepened as the country’s oil production fell precipitously after 2017 as the United States began imposing financial and economic sanctions. Dysfunctional macroeconomic policies as well as gross mismanagement of an oil boom by Maduro and his late predecessor, President Hugo Chávez, played their part in leaving the economy unprepared to deal with lower oil revenues. U.S. sanctions added to the mix by closing off the country’s main export from access to U.S. and European markets and making it nearly impossible to obtain the needed intermediate and capital goods for its oil industry to function adequately.

Stemming Venezuela’s exodus will require policies to address the root causes of a crisis that has driven more than 20 percent of the country’s population to leave. This implies reintegrating Venezuela into the global economy and allowing it to generate the hard-currency earnings necessary to fuel its economy. Venezuela will also need massive humanitarian assistance to address its hunger and health emergencies. Its humanitarian crisis remains one of the most underfunded in modern history, with total international assistance since the start of the crisis reaching only $1 billion, or a meager $35 per capita. By comparison, donors have directed $24 billion, or nearly $1,300 per capita, to Syria, a country that has seen a smaller collapse in per capita income than Venezuela.

The potential relaunching of talks between Venezuela’s government and a group of opposition parties in Mexico City could serve as a starting point for the mobilization of resources to address the country’s crisis. According to recent news reports, the talks will include a potential agreement to use $3 billion in frozen Venezuelan funds to provide humanitarian aid under United Nations management. Despite the inexplicable delay in the adoption of the idea—proposals for such a program have been around for more than three years and were either ignored or actively opposed by the Trump and Biden administrations—this would be an important first step in allowing Venezuela to use its own funds to attend to the needs of its most vulnerable groups.

Yet even a humanitarian aid program of $3 billion over several years will be a drop in the bucket compared with what Venezuela requires—or with what the country could obtain from reentering global oil markets. Venezuela would need an additional $8 billion a year just to recover its 2013 level of food and medicine imports—and that’s without even counting the funds needed to pay for basic public services and repair vital infrastructure. The only way in which Venezuela can sustainably recover its economy and regain the living standards it had until recently is by regaining access to global oil markets.

Even the most conservative estimates indicate that a complete lifting of economic sanctions could lead to an increase in production of around 700,000 barrels per day, generating around $23 billion per year at current prices—enough to more than triple the country’s current level of imports.

Some will claim that sanctions should not be eased unless Maduro allows free and fair elections to be held. This is the position taken recently by Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who sent a letter to Biden warning that any loosening of sanctions would “give unwarranted and dangerous legitimacy to the Nicolas Maduro regime.” Rubio has also vowed to introduce legislation requiring the Senate to consent to any lifting of sanctions on Venezuela, an action that could bring any progress in negotiations to a standstill if Republicans take control of Congress after the Nov. 8 midterm elections.

There is quite a perverse logic to this argument, as it assumes that vulnerable Venezuelans should be made to pay the cost of Maduro’s authoritarianism. In fact, the evidence shows that sanctions are rarely effective at generating regime change. More often than not, they end up having the opposite effect, weakening civil society while giving authoritarian leaders an excuse to increase repression and tighten their grip on power.

Five years after the United States began imposing economic sanctions on Venezuela, Maduro is more firmly ensconced in power, the opposition is more divided, and ordinary Venezuelans are much worse off than at any time in their country’s modern history.

Washington should begin by putting an end to economic sanctions that exacerbate the country’s economic crisis and make the lives of Venezuelans more difficult.

It is time for the U.S. government to overhaul its strategy toward Venezuela. It should begin by putting an end to economic sanctions that exacerbate the country’s economic crisis and make the lives of Venezuelans more difficult. No other country has imposed economic sanctions on the Maduro regime, with Europe explicitly stating that it will not support measures that worsen the country’s crisis. It is shameful for the United States to be the only exception to this global consensus.

The international community should support an inclusive negotiation process that reflects the true plurality of Venezuelan society and that’s aimed at addressing the country’s most urgent problems, including its widespread hunger and poverty. Full multilateral support—including access to more than $13 billion immediately available from the International Monetary Fund—should be offered to aid a plan for economic reconstruction that emerges from this national dialogue.

The United States must redesign its migration strategy by respecting the right to seek asylum by all those who are fleeing political persecution and human rights violations. Given current labor market shortages, the U.S. economy could benefit from higher levels of immigration by Venezuelans, who have significantly contributed to boosting productivity in many other host countries. Any program to expand legal pathways should not unfairly penalize disadvantaged and vulnerable groups.

These policy changes will not necessarily solve all of Venezuela’s problems. The country’s political crisis is rooted in its deep polarization and inequality as well as the predatory conduct of its political elites. Any sustainable solution to it will likely emerge out of a gradual negotiated political transition with multiple domestic stakeholders in which international actors play a limited role. What the international community can and should do is promote initiatives that can help shield Venezuelans from the collateral damage of the country’s toxic political conflict. Shutting the door on Venezuelan migrants is not the way to do that.

Francisco Rodríguez is the Rice family professor of the practice of international and public affairs at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies. Twitter: @frrodriguezc

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