By Markos Kounalakis and Leopoldo López
Special to The Examiner
Refugees are daily streaming over borders to neighboring countries and adding to what already is the world’s largest refugee crisis. The country they are fleeing is embattled, violent and experiencing extreme shortages of medicine and food.
This is not Ukraine. It is Venezuela.
While Ukraine is undergoing invasion, Venezuela continues to suffer erosion. In both cases, people seeking survival are fleeing these two countries. In Europe, they are escaping armed invaders and rocket attacks; in Latin America, they are rushing from societal collapse.
These two countries are different, but the conditions that have created their refugee crises can both be traced to Putin’s Russia and a growing network of nations hostile to democracy. It is a coalition of the chilling, and they form a new Axis of Autocracy.
Made up of Russia’s friends and facilitators — China, Iran, Turkey, Cuba, Nicaragua, Hungary, North Korea — their concerted and collective efforts may not always result in large refugee populations, but their coordinated work to undermine democratic systems is sophisticated and persistent.
Venezuela has been a key target and member of this network. Just a couple of weeks ago, the United States sent the first high-level envoy to Caracas to break off Venezuela from this strategic axis … and to get at President Nicolás Maduro’s oil reserves. (It is unclear if the United States will accommodate the Venezuelan and Iranian regimes for cheaper gas prices. The jury is still out.)
Why is America trying now to wedge itself between Russia and Venezuela? In part because this axis not only facilitates Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine, but also because it supports the democratic and civilizational erosion of Venezuela. These two events may seem disparate, but in these instances they share similar outcomes: Millions of people leaving their homes.
Nearly 7 million refugees have fled the consecutive Venezuelan regimes of Maduro and Hugo Chavez. Venezuela is Americas’ feeder nation of desperately fleeing people. The country has created impossible political, social and economic conditions, forcing reasonable people to take flight, mostly to neighboring Colombia and with many reaching the United States.
Once a wealthy nation in the Americas, an extraordinary oil producer that founded and led OPEC, Venezuela remains a political thorn in the side of the United States. It provides Putin international support and a safe haven for Russian security advisors and materiel, is a magnet for China’s exploitive capital and leverages Turkey’s active money laundering of “blood gold.” Further, along with Cuba and Nicaragua, it is a breeding ground and test site for anti-democratic forces throughout Latin America.
The international community must remain focused on Vladimir Putin’s escalating war on Ukraine for the time being. Ukraine is in the early stages of a potentially much larger refugee crisis, with nearly 4 million people already fleeing to neighboring countries at the end of the Russian invasion’s first week. They are escaping both an active war and a potential future foreign occupation.
Ukrainian refugee numbers will continue to swell as Russian military violence escalates, creating a host of problems for the people seeking refuge, their families and, of course, on the refugee-receiving countries. Up to 100,000 of them will be welcomed to the United States, with many finding their way to the Bay Area to reunite with family. California has historically had the largest Ukrainian population in the United States and Governor Gavin Newsom says “we’re a state of refuge.”
War victims do not willingly leave their homes. In fact, they are systematically bombed and forced to flee Putin’s advancing forces in order to construct a massively destabilizing force targeted at neighboring nations. Ukrainian refugees are weaponized hordes that descend on ill-prepared European nations. Poland is the main target right now. Laudably, the Polish people are mostly welcoming at this stage, but Putin is counting on the pressure these refugees will put on Warsaw and other host nations to weaken further their political structures and democratic will.
Weaponized refugees are a tried-and-true tactic. As people stream out of affected nations, they crowd into neighboring nations, putting sudden and significant humanitarian and political pressure on the receiving nations. Turkey used this tactic to try to destabilize Greece and blackmail the European Union.
Attempts by receiving nations to manage or stanch the flow of refugees invariably results in added danger and harrowing imagery. The targeted countries suffer the double burden of housing, feeding and caring for new arrivals — they also are subjected to international condemnation for not doing enough or accepting their share of refugees.
Of course, this only seems to matter if there are graphic images and political attention paid to the plight of refugees. In too many parts of the world, the cameras have long ago turned away from the steady flows or intractable and never-ending surges of people on the move. Axis of Authoritarianism’s nations seem never to suffer the gaze of an unblinking critical eye because they either distract it or violently blind it.
Venezuela has contributed disproportionately over the years to the world’s refugee population. Caracas has executed this unconscionable act in plain sight. The world’s gaze is now necessarily aimed at Ukraine, but more nations may soon follow as will media and popular attention.
In the dynamically developing new world order, there must also be a new understanding of the weaponization of people. For Putin and his expanding axis, weaponized refugees are now a feature, not a bug of war.
Markos Kounalakis is author of “Freedom isn’t Free: The Price of World Order” and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Leopoldo López is a Wilson Center Fellow and a Venezuelan opposition leader in exile.