Dr. Robin Lauermann, Professor of Politics and International Relations & Chair of History, Politics, and International Relations, pens this series.

(What is Civic Mind?  Read our welcome post for the series!)

Recently, the governor of Florida gained attention for coordinating the transportation of a group of Venezuelan immigrants from Texas to Massachusetts.  This event is the most recent in the lengthy and often vitriolic debate over immigration policy.   The heated language and reactive responses from many in the public sphere conceal the reality that the situation is far from simple: these humans are fleeing desperate circumstances and yet receiving countries need to have policies to regulate entry and ensure that resources are available to integrate them successfully without displacing the needs of their populations.  The context of regional and US foreign policy adds important perspectives both to grasp and respond effectively to the problem.  The situation in Venezuela is dire, but with deep roots that make for complicated solutions.  Moreover, in light of the history of US policy in the region, change will require longer-term work and requires that we address our policy in light of that reality.

The roots of the current crisis in Venezuela stretch back decades.  Its transition to democracy in the middle of the last century resulted in the country’s macroeconomic growth but without increased access to opportunity and resources for the larger public.  Its reliance on oil reserves allowed government officials to profit and left the larger public vulnerable when oil prices declined.  After two failed coup attempts in 1992, Chavez built support to garner electoral victory for the presidency in 1998.  He implemented economic reforms to address poverty, including the nationalization of the oil industry as a source of revenue to support these programs.  Despite gaining more support with the adoption of a new constitution, opposition soon began to grow followed by authoritarian shifts to a repressive one-party state. (For more on this era, see this helpful timeline provided by the Council on Foreign Relations.) The country became more repressive during the remainder of Chavez’s rule.  That pattern continued with his successor, Nicolás Maduro, elected in 2013 and still president today.  Meanwhile, Venezuela began to isolate itself from the US, as well as other countries and international organizations supporting economic development and democracy.  This development, though troubling, was not surprising.

For well over a century and a half, the United States has played a significant role in the internal political and economic – and hence, social – developments in Latin America.  For its strategic advantage and economic development, the United States has engaged in economic activity designed to enhance its development (through U.S.-originating multi-national corporations) with modest to minimal benefit to the larger populations of the countries in which it operated.  Moreover, interventions in the region typically occurred to either protect economic interests or serve as a national security initiative, such as during the Cold War.  These interventions – and outright aid of authoritarian, military governments – not only supported extreme violence by governments against their people but also have significantly impaired social, political and economic development. (Talons of the Eagle by Peter Smith and Ana Covarrubias offers a thoughtful and detailed analysis of this history.)  In all, it has spurred reactive policy in Venezuela and elsewhere, with little recourse as Venezuela slid deeply into authoritarian rule.

Shortly after Maduro´s election to the presidency, the bottom fell out of the economy due to the crash of oil prices, the primary revenue source that the government used to fund its extensive social benefits.  The resulting economic disruption produced a humanitarian crisis that persists today.  Combined with the political repression, one-fifth of the population has left the country.  According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the events in Venezuela have produced the second highest level of displacement for people from their country. The current government is neither capable of launching a solution nor willing to surrender power – especially in light of its disputed win in 2019.  Given the history of US-Venezuelan relations and the severity of the situation, resolution of the crisis will require mediation by other parties, a process sure to take time once stakeholders agree to participate.    In the interim, the people of the United States and its policy need to account for this complex situation and its history.

Despite attention to immigration in recent years, the United States is sorely overdue for an update to its central immigration policy.  It has been over 30 years since Congress last passed a major law in the form of the Immigration Act of 1990.  In addition to increasing immigration levels, revising the basis of immigration claims to more of a skills-basis, as well as other reforms, it also created the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) option for individuals coming from countries facing extreme circumstances. However, not all Venezuelans are eligible under the TPS provision.  Unfortunately, as circumstances have continued to evolve, Congress has been unable to agree upon any steps to update the larger web of policy, which continues to lag behind changing conditions and available resources – regardless of the policies in place, we are not able to enforce them humanely and effectively.  Although the history of its foreign policy does not oblige America to take any one specific action, at minimum, awareness of the past should inform our conversation and choices.

Simultaneously, the region would benefit from a US policy that focuses on the underlying causes of displacement by empowering and supporting governments to establish and maintain inclusive political systems that offer economic opportunity for their populations. Congress began that process in 2016 with the U.S Strategy for Engagement in Central America, which has seen progress despite some inconsistencies in its rollout.  More recently, the current administration has launched a new strategy, which is already bearing some fruit in changing conditions on the ground, to address the root causes of the migration crisis in Central America.  The humanitarian assistance approved for Venezuela last week is one such step.  Given the extensive scope of past US policy impact, developing regionally broader initiatives has the potential not only to help restore some of the sovereignty that our actions have undermined but also to contribute to our national security, as well as enhance opportunities for economic partnerships.

Prospects for the Venezuelans who remain are grim, despite recent rebounds in oil prices.  Maduro remains stubbornly in power, with the next election still two years away.  US intervention is not a realistic option, and its history is troubled at best.  The Venezuelan context is only one piece of the larger immigration situation.  The American public and officials participating in the larger debate over immigration have a responsibility to examine the larger and longer-term picture, if they wish to address the issue successfully, in a way that respects the dignity of the humans affected by these events as well as the very real impact of receiving them.


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