Over the last ten days 4,700 Venezuelans, according to the United Nations estimate, have fled across the border into Colombia as the Venezuelan armed forces carry out an offensive against Colombian guerrilla groups in the southwestern border state of Apure. The violence has sparked a crisis in the Colombian town of Arauquita, where the Colombian government has set up at least 18 shelters to receive the refugees and has ordered a heightened military presence along the border.
Reporting on the conflict within Venezuela has been limited, in part due to repression of media and NGOs. On March 31, security forces detained a group of two journalists and two members of local NGO Fundaredes who were attempting to report on the crisis. They were freed on April 1, but their case highlights the difficulty that journalists and human rights groups face in getting reliable information on the ground.
As the New York Times reports, victims fleeing Apure have shared reports of security forces carrying out looting, the excessive use of force, and extrajudicial murder of civilians. Human rights group PROVEA (Programa Venezolano de Educación Acción en Derechos Humanos) has called for an investigation into allegations that five civilians were killed by Venezuelan security forces and subsequently dressed in uniforms—drawing parallels to the El Amparo massacre of 1988, when Venezuelan military forces massacred civilians and then claimed they were in fact guerrilla actors. Displaced Venezuelans have also shared anecdotes of violent clashes in and around the city of La Victoria, with guerrillas using explosives and soldiers reportedly firing on armed groups from helicopters.
The Maduro government has so far said the operation is targeting irregular armed groups, but has not named the specific group involved. Colombian and other international media have reported that the targets are dissidents from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and Human Rights Watch has told the Associated Press that the military is fighting the 10th Front, a FARC dissident faction. Rocio San Miguel, head of the military watchdog NGO Control Ciudadano, told El Tiempo that she believes the clashes are linked to a dispute between FARC dissidents and the National Liberation Army (ELN), a separate Colombian rebel group in Venezuelan territory.
The violence has raised concerns about the potential for clashes between Colombian and Venezuelan security forces, and about the lack of coordination between both countries. In response, a group of over 60 Colombian and Venezuelan NGOs have signed a public letter to UN Secretary General António Guterres in which they urge him to designate a special envoy to the border crisis.
- On March 24, Argentina announced that it would leave the regional Lima Group mechanism, claiming in a statement that the group “had not led to anything” and that its alignment with the Guaidó-led opposition is not in line with the goals of the Argentine government under Alberto Fernandez. The decision comes after the Fernandez government announced in August that it would join the International Contact Group, another mechanism more focused on the need for a pacted transition in Venezuela.
- Behind closed doors, negotiations between chavismo and the Guaidó-led opposition are ongoing around the naming of a new electoral council (CNE) in Venezuela. The nominations committee named by the ruling PSUV-dominated National Assembly announced this week that the final list of nominees would be presented on April 27, which would then initiate the 10-day process to select the makeup of the CNE.
- This week, Facebook blocked the page of Nicolas Maduro for a period of 30 days over spreading misinformation relating to COVID-19. The action came after Maduro publicly promoted an unproven remedy known as Carvativir to treat COVID-19 infection. In response, Maduro’s Communications Minister announced a new bill in the National Assembly to regulate social media platforms in the country.
- Last week, U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) issued a public letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging the Biden administration to lift a ban on diesel swaps in Venezuela to avoid further aggravating the country’s humanitarian emergency. The effort places additional pressure on the administration after WOLA, along with a number of regional human rights and humanitarian organizations, issued letters in September and October warning the Trump administration of the potential humanitarian implications of these restrictions. In the days following the release of this letter by Senator Murphy, the U.S. blocked a request by the Maduro government for the World Trade Organization to assess whether U.S. sanctions on Venezuela violate global trading regulations.
- On March 24 the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously passed a resolution led by Senators Rubio (R-FL) and Menendez (D-NJ) to reject the National Assembly elections held in December, formalizing the U.S.’s continued recognition of Juan Guaidó as Interim President of Venezuela under the notion of administrative continuity.
- Cristina Gallagh, a top official of Spain’s Foreign Ministry, arrived in Caracas on March 28 for an unannounced diplomatic visit, the first visit by a top Spanish official in over two years. The Spanish government claims the visit was arranged out of interest by the Spanish government in “the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in how to support the national dialogue and the search for a political solution to the crisis.”
- Last week U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Brussels for a series of meetings with EU actors including EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell. While Venezuela is not mentioned in the readout of their conversation, Borrell told reporters that the two would discuss the situation in Venezuela and how to work jointly to “stabilize and re-democratize” the country.
- On March 23, the Brazilian government issued a decree providing the opportunity to apply for temporary residency to migrants who are nationals of a bordering country, providing access to work authorization and other essential services to Venezuelan migrants in the country. Importantly, the decree allows Venezuelans to apply for this status with any form of identity that they have, including an expired passport, in the hope of providing a quicker alternative to those waiting to receive refugee status. The decree follows outcry from actors including the Vatican, as well as WOLA and other regional human rights NGOs, against measures the Brazilian government and security forces have taken in recent months against Venezuelan migrants, including the use of excessive force and deportation.
- According to a recent survey conducted by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 72% of the more than 400,000 Venezuelan migrants and refugees who have fled to Ecuador in recent years lack regular status. 31% of those surveyed reported having entered the country through irregular routes, and a striking percentage—93%—stated that they have no intention to leave the country.
- A recent article published in Bloomberg News highlights the added economic value that Venezuelan migrants and refugees bring to their host countries and communities. The article notes specific characteristics of Venezuelan migrants, including experience in certain sectors and a high average level of education, that make them an asset in providing economic stability and frontline support to their host countries during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- On March 22, the Interamerican Court on Human Rights (IACHR) called on the Maduro government to publish a full list of all members of the military currently detained, and to permit medical evaluations for those in prison with preexisting conditions. The demand follows the publication of data by Venezuelan NGO Foro Penal in early March documenting at least 323 cases of political prisoners currently in detention, 123 of whom are military personnel.
- Insight Crime published an article documenting the prevalence of sexual abuse and gender-based violence committed against female detainees in women’s detention facilities in Venezuela. While women make up only 7% of Venezuela’s detained population, the article highlights how this abuse, along with a lack of access to feminine hygiene and reproductive services, amounts to human rights violations against detained women in the country.
- Amid ongoing debate over whether or not to authorize the AstraZeneca vaccine for distribution in Venezuela, the World Health Organization has confirmed that the country has unfrozen $30 million USD to pay for vaccines through the WHO-linked COVAX initiative. The initial doses set aside for Venezuela in the mechanism are from AstraZeneca, and the majority of the COVAX doses being sent to Venezuela have been produced in South Korea and have not been linked to adverse side effects, according to WHO Health Emergency Director Ciro Ugarte. Now talks are reportedly focusing on another vaccine in the COVAX initiative, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which would be available in July at the earliest. State Department officials have signalled that they support ongoing talks.
- Evidence is mounting that the pandemic is taking a greater toll in Venezuela. On March 28, Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó announced that he had tested positive for COVID-19 and is in isolation. On March 29, Venezuelan NGO Médicos Unidos Venezuela reported that 15 doctors had died from COVID-19 in a period of just three days, bringing the total number of COVID-19 deaths among health care workers in the country to 408. This number would make up more than 25% of the government’s official count of COVID-19 deaths, and signifies that the most recent wave of COVID-19 in Venezuela has been deadlier for health personnel than previous outbreaks.
- On March 25, the Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce (Fedecamaras) presented a “Private response plan” to vaccinate private health care workers and their families. Fedecamaras president Ricardo Cussano stated that under the plan, financed by private and foreign actors, 6 million doses would be distributed over a period of four and a half months across 100 private clinics in the country.