Will the Venezuelan state fail?

On May 18, the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. prosecutors are in the process of investigating a number of high-up Venezuelan officials for their alleged involvement in turning Venezuela into a cocaine-trafficking and money-laundering hub.

Among those being investigated is Diosdado Cabello, president of Venezuela’s congress and arguably the second most powerful person in Venezuela—long suspected for involvement in clientelistic relationships with transnational criminal organizations operating in Venezuela’s borders.

The investigation is being carried out by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and federal prosecutors in New York and Miami—notably, this is not under the White House’s direction or coordination. And the case they’re building has foundations in the testimony of former cocaine traffickers, defectors from the Venezuelan military, and informants who were once close to top Venezuelan officials, including the former head of Cabello’s security detail.

All of this comes to light just months after the White House named Venezuela a threat to the national security of the United States, imposing sanctions on seven mid-level government officials on human rights grounds. And though in the lead-up to the Summit of the Americas in April, Tom Shannon, former Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere and current Senior Counselor to Secretary of State John Kerry, visited Venezuela to start bilateral dialogues, the new investigations could put a damper on subsequent efforts to address the U.S.-Venezuela relationship.

But what do the investigations mean—both for Venezuela and beyond? And how could all of this play out?

A 2009 a GAO report on U.S.-Venezuela cooperation on counternarcotic efforts found evidence of the very same problems the investigation hones in on: the involvement of government officials with transnational criminal activity. That relationship is a symbiotic one—and this is key. In exchange for a drugs and money from traffickers, government officials often hand over arms—and the opportunity to operate with impunity.

And it’s this symbiosis that makes it so dangerous and unique. Now that it’s in place, the government-crime overlap is like a fungus: deeply entrenched and nearly impossible to root out.

There’s an illustrative contrast, here, to Colombia’s long struggle with transnational crime. Though the Colombian government’s weak government presence led many to question the strength of the state, the government was a clear partner for the United States in the fight against drug trafficking. The same can’t be said for Venezuela. With the government, the military, law enforcement, and drug traffickers alike engaged in a far-reaching (if illicit) cooperative relationship, there is no clear partner for the U.S. government to work with in Venezuela to dismantle this clientelistic system.

And looking abroad, the White House has had trouble as well. Colombia, Brazil, and the Organization of American States all have a stake in stability, democracy, and rule of law in Venezuela. But they have yet to stand behind ongoing U.S. efforts to hold Venezuela accountable for the impunity, corruption, and crime taking place within its borders.

But without their engagement, the situation will only deteriorate further and the inevitable infighting that will ensue within Chavismo will reach a fever pitch, potentially spurring a full-on internal crisis in Venezuela. And that could have implications for regional energy security, stability, and migration, particularly with Colombia.

A further demonstration of the impunity of Venezuelan government officials could carry another risk, too: a crackdown on President Maduro’s political opposition. With government officials allegedly in bed with criminals—and both with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo—there are few limits on how political repression could play out.

It’s clear that Venezuela has become a narco-state. And as narco-state and failing-state increasingly overlap, international condemnation is more important than ever. Though the risks of weakening Maduro’s government are real, the risks of letting him continue unchecked are still greater.


Carl Meacham is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. 

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Carl Meacham