Juan Guaidó tells EU that Venezuelan refugee crisis‘compares with Syria’

Juan Guaidó tells EU that Venezuelan refugee crisis‘compares with Syria’

Opposition leader urges European countries to tighten sanctions and boost aid.

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó has appealed to the EU to tighten sanctions on Nicolás Maduro’s struggling government and boost aid to help deal with a refugee crisis that threatens to rival Syria’s in size. Making his first visit to Europe after being smuggled out of Venezuela at the weekend in defiance of a travel ban imposed by the authorities, Mr Guaidó told the Financial Times that the situation in his country was growing more desperate as the number of refugees approached 5m. “The humanitarian crisis in Venezuela compares with that in South Sudan, Yemen and Syria,” he said. “All those countries are at war. We don’t see the bombs. But we feel the pain.” The United Nations set a target last year of $737m in funds needed for the Venezuelan refugee emergency but raised only just over half that, most of it from the US. By contrast, nearly $4bn was donated by the international community for Syrian refugees last year alone, according to the Financial Tracking Service, a UN body which tracks aid flows.

“We hope that Europe will do much more,” said Mr Guaidó. “We need support to pressure the dictatorship . . . at this time people are dying of hunger in Venezuela”. The EU — along with the US and most of Latin America — has recognised Mr Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president since he assumed the role in January 2019 because they view Mr Maduro’s re-election in 2018 to a fresh six-year term as rigged.

However, Mr Maduro has proved adept at consolidating his hold on power with the aid of his main backers — Russia, Cuba, China and Turkey — and a powerful military and police apparatus, which has been accused of thousands of extra judicial killings. Attempts to persuade the military to abandon Mr Maduro, most notably when Mr Guaidó took to the streets at the end of April calling for an uprising, have so far failed. The US has been tightening sanctions on Venezuela, hitting the oil trade and targeting more than 100 leading officials in the Maduro government, but the EU has moved much more slowly, partly because of divisions among member states.

Venezuela’s oil-based economy has experienced an unprecedented collapse over the past six years, shrinking by roughly three-quarters as a result of government mismanagement and the effect of sanctions. But new sources of income have emerged to replace lost oil revenue, among them illegal gold mining, drug trafficking and remittances sent by Venezuelans abroad. Dollarisation of the economy with tacit official approval has helped to contain inflation.

Mr Guaidó said the illegal gold mining was polluting rivers and displacing indigenous peoples in Venezuela’s Amazon region and appealed for international help to halt what he called the trade in “blood gold”. The opposition leader’s star waned last year because of his inability to oust Mr Maduro, but he hit the headlines again this month when he forced his way past guards into the National Assembly, the only body controlled by the opposition, in order to secure his re-election as its president. Pictures of the youthful Mr Guaidó ripping his trademark blue suit as he tried to scale the railings of the building galvanised the opposition after months in the doldrums and gave his campaign fresh momentum.

“People are still fighting in the streets,” Mr Guaidó said. “On January 15, teachers came out to protest along with the National Assembly because they earn just $3.50 a month and if that was not indignity enough, the dictatorship sent armed groups to throw human faeces at them.” As he spoke, a message arrived on his mobile phone saying that another opposition deputy, Ismael León, had been arrested. Risa Grais Targow, a Venezuela expert at the Eurasia consultancy, said Mr Guaidó faced a daunting set of challenges this year. Elections are due in the coming months for the National Assembly, which is the source of Mr Guaidó’s legitimacy and his claim to be Venezuela’s interim president.

“There are a lot of divisions within the opposition over whether to participate . . . and Maduro has a lot of tools at his disposal to influence the outcome,” she said. “The combination of Maduro’s control of the process and a divided opposition means that Guaidó will lose control of the National Assembly this year and his claim to the presidency will disappear.”

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