Cash starved Venezuela threatens to sue neighbors

As Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro spends the weekend in China nailing down a $5 billion emergency loan, his cash-strapped administration is floating another money-making scheme: suing its neighbors.

In recent days, Maduro and his cabinet have said they might sue Colombia, Ecuador and Perú for their “xenophobic” treatment of Venezuelan migrants. And on Tuesday, Maduro ordered his justice department to sue Colombia to claw back money he says his administration has spent providing social services to millions of Colombians living in Venezuela.

The legal threats come as Venezuela seems increasingly desperate for cash. Once wealthy, the country is being slammed with chronic food and medicine shortages. Its foreign cash reserves are at their lowest levels since the 1980s. And oil output, the country’s lifeblood, is down to levels not seen since a 2002 oil-worker strike. In addition, U.S. sanctions have been keeping the country from finding fresh funds.

That could change this weekend, with Maduro in Beijing finalizing a $5 billion loan the government says it will use to boost crude production.

That Venezuela is talking about suing neighbors for reparations is just one more sign of how dire the situation has become in Caracas.

Speaking at a youth rally for the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela early this week, Maduro said Venezuela had provided millions of Colombians, who had fled their nation’s violence, food, health and housing aid over decades. And now he wants that money back.

“I have authorized the [country’s] legal teams to prepare a lawsuit against Colombia so we can be reimbursed for the 5.6 million Colombians in Venezuela,” Maduro said. “They need to reimburse us in American dollars.”

Also this week, Venezuelan Communications Minister Jorge Rodriguez said “elites” in Colombia, Ecuador and Perú were luring Venezuelans there with false promises and then paying them slave wages.

“If we have to ask for compensation from the governments of Colombia, Ecuador and Perú, we’re going to demand it,” he said.

The statements come as the region is increasingly alarmed by the estimated 1.6 million Venezuelans the United Nations says have swarmed across the Venezuela border since 2015 amid the country’s economic collapse.

Maduro says the migration numbers are being exaggerated to destabilize his government and set the stage for an invasion under the guise of “humanitarian intervention.” He also accuses his neighbors of trying to profit from the crisis, as they seek international aid.

Instead, he says it’s Venezuela that deserves the money, and recognition, for harboring migrants, in particular for providing food, health and housing aid to Colombian residents.

It’s true that millions of Colombians sought refuge in Venezuela amid this nation’s half-century conflict. But researchers say Venezuela is exaggerating the numbers. At its height, there were never more than 3.6 million Colombians living in Venezuela — a figure that included their Venezuelan-born children, who must be considered Venezuelan nationals, said researchers at the Venezuelan Observatory, a think tank at Colombia’s Rosario University.

Venezuela’s most recent census, in 2011, found there were just 721,791 native-born Colombians living in Venezuela. And in February, 2017, the U.N. Refugee Agency said there were 174,000 Colombians living in Venezuela in a “refugee-like situation.”

Ronal Rodriguez, the head of the Venezuelan Observatory, said Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, welcomed Colombians, and other migrants, like few other leaders in the region.

But it was as much about politics as goodwill, he said. Chávez gave millions of immigrants, from Colombia and elsewhere, residency and allowed them to vote ahead of a 2004 presidential recall referendum. He narrowly won that vote and stayed in power until 2013, when he died from an undisclosed form of cancer.

Since then, Maduro has turned on the Colombian population, often blaming them and the government in Bogotá of being behind the country’s problems. In 2015, more than 20,000 Colombians were either deported or fled, as Venezuela cracked down on smuggling along the border. Since then, Colombians, and their Venezuelan families, have been leaving in droves amid the mass migration.

Maduro’s contention that the country should be reimbursed for supporting the population is “pure propaganda,” Rodriguez said.

“They’re trying to present themselves as the victims when they are very clearly the victimizers,” he said.

It’s unclear if Venezuela is serious about the lawsuits. In 2015, after the United States declared Venezuela a threat to the region, Maduro said he would sue to have the designation overturned. That never happened. Even so, on Tuesday, Maduro tasked his communications chief with spearheading the new lawsuits.

So far, Venezuela’s neighbors don’t seem perturbed. Colombia reiterated this week that it wouldn’t assign an ambassador to Venezuela until the country becomes a democracy again. And Ecuador’s Foreign Minister José Valencia said there was “no basis” for Venezuela’s legal threats.

“What Ecuador has done, and the world is our witness, is work, collaborate and give everything of itself” to deal with the migrant crisis, he told Ecuador’s Ecuavisa television. “Including during this period of financial austerity that we’re going through, Ecuador has opened its arms.”

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