If Christians can help suffering people, is it their obligation to do so? There is no ambiguity in the Gospels: of course. It is a command, repeatedly, from Jesus himself. When people are hungry, naked, imprisoned, or dispossessed, the Bible encourages and expects Christians to provide aid, often sacrificially, in obedience to the one whom we claim to serve.
Such humanitarian instinct has infused Western statecraft for years. An entire industry exists, at least in theory, to better peoples’ lives through humanitarian relief, sustainable economic development, and creating opportunities where none existed previously. This is not to say that these are only “Christian” values or even values solely in the Judeo-Christian tradition—indeed, a desire to help other humans in need is arguably a universal instinct. There can be no serious argument, however, that those who have attempted to put their Christian beliefs into practice over the years have clearly influenced a robust humanitarianism infusing modern diplomacy, from anti-slavery, to disaster and famine relief, to the promotion of human rights including religious liberty.
Happily, this reality is often consistent with more traditional notions of the national interest: providing aid and comfort to hurting people is thought to build support abroad. Thus, foreign aid can also be self-serving, an investment in gaining international goodwill along with commensurate influence and even the economic benefits that may accrue. But even without this dimension, the impulse toward international humanitarian assistance would continue, rooted as it is in a fundamental belief that it is “the right thing to do.”
What is the Christian’s obligation when these two realities diverge? Or when the projection of state power and efforts to influence the behavior of foreign leaders—to promote peace, limit rejectionist international actions, or perhaps advance democratic practices—create what is euphemistically described as “collateral damage”? Or when, in fact, the practice of statecraft potentially increases rather than alleviates human suffering?
Such questions are not new. An entire literature exists, particularly with regard to the difficult modern-day horror stories of Iran, North Korea, and Syria. But these are also becoming increasingly urgent questions much closer to home, with reference to the massive, indeed unprecedented, manmade humanitarian disaster looming over Venezuela.
The Chavista revolution began over 20 years ago with the election of Hugo Chavez. His rule coincided with a historically high runup in oil prices that allowed Venezuela, controlling the world’s largest proven oil reserves, to increase spending dramatically, reduce poverty, and, it was said, bring dignity to a long-downtrodden population. Many in the faith community both inside and outside the country cheered, captured by the notion that the redistribution of wealth and a newly assertive international posture would put paid to an unfair economic and political model that they believed was run for the benefit of elites and the international interests that supported them.
This was a caricature propagated by the government, and Chavez’ death and a halving of oil prices beginning in 2013 exposed the ruling regime’s true nature. To maintain control, it was increasingly forced to rely on political oppression engineered with direct support from Cuba, blatantly rigged elections, and unfathomable levels of corruption. After farcical presidential elections in 2018 “won” by Chavez’ successor Nicolás Maduro, and upon the expiration of Maduro’s existing term in January 2019, the opposition declared the presidency vacant under the Venezuelan constitution. It then asserted the leadership of the president of the democratic National Assembly, Juan Guaidó. The United States and almost 60 other countries from Latin America, Europe, and elsewhere quickly recognized Guaidó as the legitimate, albeit “interim,” president of the nation.
For years to that point, Venezuela’s economy was already under pressure. The fall of oil prices was a significant factor, although the price of a barrel of oil when Chavez died was four times higher than when he first came to power. Equally significant, production collapsed due to the regime’s self-interest and incompetence. Poverty did not end; current consumption merely replaced investment, and poverty today is higher than when Chavez was elected. The private sector was hounded into subservience or expropriated outright; economic decisions were subsumed to political interests; and the institutions of the state, including all security forces, were brought under the direct control of the executive and the party. Criminal activity spiked; Caracas is today one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Hundreds of billions of dollars from oil sales—the national patrimony—simply disappeared.
It was estimated that at the beginning of 2019 more than 10 percent of Venezuela’s entire population, some three million people, had left the country, desperately searching for employment, food, and healthcare. The situation was unsustainable, and accordingly, the international community intensified efforts to influence regime behavior and restore the democratic path. To that point, the international community had only levied sanctions on individuals for illegal actions, including drug trafficking, human rights abuses, and gross corruption. However, to increase the incentive for the Maduro regime to negotiate a return to democracy after Guaidó assumed the interim presidency on January 23, 2019, the United States levied sectoral sanctions on Venezuela’s energy sector. Washington has now tightened them several times in a campaign of “maximum pressure.”
The Venezuelan people are now hurting like never before, as the Maduro regime hoards food and medicines for itself and its supporters and refuses to allow into the country humanitarian aid that it does not control. Between five and six million Venezuelans are now refugees, the worst humanitarian crisis in the modern history of Latin America, and that was before oil took another price dive and the coronavirus pandemic struck at the beginning of 2020.
This scenario has caused some observers to call for a relaxation of US sanctions on Venezuela. The suffering is real, and it is getting worse. So is the moral conundrum. But those who call for a lifting of US sanctions as a way to alleviate suffering are, shooting at the wrong target. Humanitarian aid can and must be increased for millions of desperate Venezuelans outside their country. But humanitarian aid that is offered to the regime will only be used to strengthen the regime, as would a relaxation of sanctions that might draw additional income from oil. The regime caused the crisis, and its removal would allow for the possibility of recovery.
There are better options to consider. Unlike North Korea, which refuses to allow its citizens out of the country, the Maduro regime seemingly encourages Venezuelans to depart, or at least it does not prevent them, as a political and economic escape valve to relieve internal pressure. That means humanitarian assistance can be delivered to those outside the country. Meanwhile, rather than empowering the Maduro regime further, Christians and others inspired by the very real and very appropriate humanitarian impulse can do more to demand that the Maduro regime open the borders to unlimited assistance, rather than using lethal force to prevent it, as it has done. Christians and those from other faith traditions can intensify their support for steps to end the Maduro regime’s repression, leading to a full restoration of human rights through a return to the democratic path.
Rather than urging the dismantlement of international sanctions, those who seek to follow Jesus’ command to love their neighbors as themselves should refuse to accept that fellow citizens in the American neighborhood should be condemned to live in a criminal state of oppression and misery. From there, it then follows that Christians should seek to do everything within reason to facilitate a peaceful transition to democracy in Venezuela.