Whatever happened to the Venezuela crisis? It went from simmer to low boil to high heat to something beyond the back burner, emitting occasional blips and producing some op-ed pieces now and then.
Crises — real, proclaimed, or imagined — possess a shelf-life of their own, aided and abetted by the 24-hour news cycle, but this one seems more stealth than usual. Perhaps it’s a prolonged lull before the storm. And after three months of festering, one thing is abundantly clear: Venezuela contains all the moving parts needed to suddenly rear itself into something combustible. But will it?
As we know from the full weight of two years of Trumpian rhetoric (as in weight around one’s neck), initial bursts of sound and fury often signify nothing and are followed up by lack of follow-up. Are we at a red-line moment with Venezuela or is there just another empty broadside coming from the White House? Will we reflexively threaten military action again without a Plan B or ratchet up sanctions, or try to wait out the dictator, or offer him a buyout and safe passage to a cushy retirement?
My heightened interest in these possibilities (or none of the above) stems from the vacations my wife and I take in Aruba, a speck of a Caribbean island just 18 miles off the Venezuela coast, and one we recently visited for the second time in as many months. Aruba qualifies as an autonomous state of the Netherlands and reaps the full benefits and protections of the kingdom. As Venezuela plunges deeper into despair and darkness — quite literally now, with countrywide power failures adding to the dystopia — Aruba prospers in its shadow, mainly from a boomlet in tourism.
Nonetheless, islanders are feeling the tug of events beyond their control as a deal with Caracas to reopen their giant oil refinery collapsed as a result of U.S. sanctions, and an increasing number of Venezuelan refugees began arriving on their shores. In typically understated fashion, Dutch marines have increased their patrols — but you don’t see them — and Arubans are willing to talk about the situation — but only if prompted. Aruba has petitioned the European Union for funds in case a center is needed to process asylum seekers.
Venezuela’s potential for hemispheric havoc (remember when Nixon’s goodwill caravan was besieged by mobs in Caracas decades ago?) ranks right up there with the contras in Nicaragua, the assassination of Allende in Chile, and possibly the granddaddy of them all, the Cuban missile crisis. The U.S. record for ham-handedness and intervention in South America speaks, all too sadly, for itself, and once again we seem deeply invested in a messy confrontation with Cold War overtones.
This time it’s a proxy fight between the U.S. and 50 allies, including Israel, pitted against Russia, China, Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, and North Korea. The latter support strongman Nicolás Maduro, the twice questionably elected successor to the charismatic Hugo Chavez (charismatic if you are an ethno-nationalist who enjoys bashing Yankees and Jews), and continue to do so because they receive vast amounts of oil and entree as paybacks for aid. Russia wangled landing rights for its military aircraft, berthing for its warships, and the stationing of “advisers.” Havana also continues to exert outsized influence on Caracas through military personnel and, as the New York Times recently reported, by dispatching doctors to practice shakedown medicine — support Maduro, receive treatment.
Think Monroe Doctrine and Roosevelt Corollary and allow yourself a moment to shudder.
Our guy in the scrum is Juan Guaidó, the leader of the Venezuelan parliament, who has been hard to pin down geographically since he fled the country and darts in and out occasionally to try and rally opposition forces. So far, he has been unable to flip Maduro’s generals into defecting and has failed to upend the blockade of U.S. humanitarian aid at the Colombia and Brazil borders.
And as Maduro continues to taunt the United States, Venezuela’s people suffer and starve, or else stream out of the country in record numbers. One segment especially hard hit has been the Jewish community, shrunken from about 26,000 to 6,000 after incessant anti-Semitic attacks from Chavez and Maduro sent tribe members scurrying overseas. The verbal battering reached enough of a pitch for Israel and Caracas to break off diplomatic relations. According to a recent article in the Jewish Standard, remaining Jews have hunkered down with the rest of the population awaiting an underfed, uncertain future.
Israel was the destination of some of those who fled. Contrasts between the Jewish state and Venezuela couldn’t be starker. Venezuela is a dysfunctional resource-rich country sitting atop the world’s largest reserves of oil in the Orinoco River basin. Israel is a petroleum-poor thriving nation (albeit one still grappling with poverty and underclass issues) that maximizes and harnesses every resource, whether water or brainpower. Venezuela can’t extract enough of its high-sulfur oil or refine it properly because the government-owned monopoly is shockingly plundered. Israel recently discovered huge offshore natural gas fields and soon will be self-sufficient and a net exporter of the commodity.
Israel’s technology, infrastructure, and entrepreneurship prosper in the world’s toughest neighborhood while Venezuela’s, in a relatively stable, homogenous region, deteriorate by the day. For all its messiness and byzantine coalitions, Israel’s government endures as parliamentary model. In Venezuela, the rubber-stamp parliament has been stripped of its power. In Israel, people are a resource; in Venezuela they seem to be an inconvenience.
And this was dramatically reinforced last week when the population of Israel went to the polls after a bruising, gutter-level campaign for prime minister to make a transparent choice for the world to see. Although the outcome, so close, disappointed half the nation and left monumental problems of corruption, exclusion, and direction unresolved, the process proved a paradigm.
From the vantage point of Aruba, these seemingly disparate events knit together in a more cohesive way than they do back home. Perhaps it’s micro versus macro. Vacation does wonders for perspective. And the Dutch influence seems to help. It is evident from the moment one lands at Queen Beatrix airport, drive through Oranjestad, the capital and seat of parliament, and continue beyond burgeoning beachfront hotels, casinos, and time shares — with more on the way. Dutch is spoken, of course, but the lingua franca is English, with liberal helpings of Spanish and Creole-derived Papiamento.
And did I mention that Oranjestad is home to Beth Israel Synagogue, which offers Conservative-leaning worship for approximately 75 local Ashkenazic and Sephardic members and 150 congregants from overseas? Jews from Poland migrated here in the 1920s and were joined by brethren from Suriname, a Dutch colony at the time. Their numbers were augmented by Holocaust survivors and the shul came into being in the mid-1940s. Visitors are Sabbath-welcome and holidays are celebrated in the modern, inviting structure.
My intent here is not so much to present a Baedeker of Aruba’s charms, of which there are many, as to describe a mini-state transitioning via tourism while belatedly trying to preserve and enhance its environment, cope with more traffic, modernize its infrastructure, and deal with an uptick in crime and drugs. Development poses intense threats to the turquoise waters and fragile reef network of the 69-square mile island. Cruise ships dock in droves in Oranjestad, bringing the benefits of more visitors but with added strains on resources.
The Netherlands virtually guarantees every qualified student an advanced education in the Mother Country and provides liberal medical benefits for residents. Arubans of all hues, flavors, and languages seem tolerant, hospitable, and lively. Their interactions with the growing number of visitors from the States and South America appear unforced and genuine. At least that’s my view from the perspective of a twice-a-year time-share venturer. I’m sure if I stayed longer and mixed more broadly I would discover political rifts, caste and class, and other tensions that fly in the face of the self-proclaimed motto of “One Happy Island.”
Meanwhile, as the Venezuelan situation deteriorates and refugees pour into neighboring Colombia (three million and counting), Arubans continue to watch and hope they will be spared the fallout, in both human and political terms, from the humanitarian tragedy only 18 miles across the straits.
Jonathan E. Lazarus, a retired editor of the Star-Ledger, is a proofreader for the Jewish Standard. He lives in West Orange.