- - Wednesday, July 20, 2016

BUENOS AIRES — Far from the streets of Caracas, political leaders and ordinary citizens across South America are waging an increasingly quixotic battle to curtail the ripple effects of Venezuela’s economic and social meltdown.

For years on end, chronic shortages of consumer goods and rampant violent crime have turned emigration guides into best-sellers in bookstores across Venezuela. And with the government of populist President Nicolas Maduro now unable to guarantee a steady supply of even basic food, household staples and medicine, the estimated number of 1.5 million Venezuelans living abroad likely will increase in the coming months.

The exodus further weakens the economy and social stability in Venezuelans’ homeland, but many, like Caracas native Daya Silva, have long given up hope that the embattled Mr. Maduro will be able to turn things around — or that the historically ineffectual opposition will manage to oust the socialist leader.

Two months ago, Ms. Silva, 37, used a vacation in Buenos Aires to find a job and opted to stay — but not before flying home with a suitcase filled with much-needed consumer items for friends and family. Her relatives have long been unable to obtain drugs to treat high blood pressure, Ms. Silva said at a medicine drive at the Miss Venezuela restaurant, which caters to the expat community.

Such accounts of life-threatening scarcity led Gina Rengifo, a Colombian immigrant who sells the corn flour needed to make traditional arepa cakes, to organize Saturday’s charity drive.

“It’s thousands of stories that we hear every day. My family [in Colombia] lives in a very different way from what is happening in Venezuela,” Ms. Rengifo said. “More and more, people arrive from Venezuela — a lot.”

Mr. Maduro and his allies point to plunging world oil prices and the undermining of the economy by political enemies, but the country’s residents are already voting with their feet.

Argentina’s National Migration Office confirmed that the number of Venezuelans applying for residence permits rose by 61 percent during the first six months of last year compared with the same period in 2014, the latest for which data were available. From 2004 to 2014, the total has risen almost 24-fold.

The pressures a Venezuelan economic meltdown could bring were on vivid display over the weekend when the government briefly opened a border crossing with Colombia to allow local residents to buy food and medicine. In just eight hours Saturday, some 35,000 Venezuelans poured across the border into the Colombian city of Cucuta.

The influx has been possible in part because of Venezuela’s admission into the Mercosur trade bloc, pushed through in 2012 by Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez. The move eliminated most immigration hurdles.

Shifting winds

But political winds have shifted in South America, and the center-right successors to Ms. Fernandez and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff — Mauricio Macri and Michel Temer, respectively — have both been outspoken critics of their Venezuelan counterpart’s record.

“It’s a government that has violated all human rights [and] brought the Venezuelan people famine and abandonment,” Mr. Macri told the Spanish newspaper ABC this month as he voiced support for a recall referendum to oust Mr. Maduro.

Brazilian top diplomat Paulo Estivallet, meanwhile, questioned whether Caracas had the “credentials” to assume the Mercosur’s rotating presidency, a sticking point that will be discussed at a July 30 meeting of foreign ministers in Montevideo, Uruguay.

Mr. Maduro promptly blasted the discussion as an attempt by “the South American right and oligarchy [to] hijack the Mercosur.”

But Venezuelan lawmaker Richard Arteaga, a member of opposition leader Henrique Capriles’ Justice First party, said regional bodies could help counter the president’s puppet judiciary and electoral commission and his attempt to delay the recall.

“The Mercosur members can’t look the other way,” said Mr. Arteaga, who served in the bloc’s Montevideo-based parliament before he was elected to the National Assembly. “Venezuela was a cradle of democracy in the continent. [Today], we have a government that assaults, takes political prisoners and makes the people stand in lines.”

South American leaders should take note that for all its fire and brimstone, Mr. Maduro’s administration is actually “very weak,” the lawmaker said.

“It is a government that’s like the musicians on the Titanic,” he said. “The Titanic is sinking, and the musicians keep playing.”

For leaders of the continent’s left, however, the apparent disintegration of Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution is an uncomfortable topic amid center-right victories in Argentina and Peru and Ms. Rousseff’s impeachment in Brazil.

Daniel Filmus, a Fernandez ally who handled highly charged Falkland Islands issues for the former Argentine president and now serves as a Mercosur lawmaker, said he backed efforts to promote dialogue, though he opposed meddling in Venezuela’s internal affairs.

He also argued that the leftist rule of Ms. Fernandez and her predecessor and late husband, Nestor Kirchner, was very different from the policies pursued under Chavez and Mr. Maduro.

“Our country didn’t look to Venezuela neither as a good nor a bad example,” Mr. Filmus said. “I never heard Nestor or Cristina talk about the ‘socialism of the 21st century.’”

But the tarnished legacies of larger-than-life leaders such as Mr. Chavez and the recently indicted Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Ms. Rousseff’s predecessor, spell bad news for leftist forces across the continent, said Marcio Pochmann, president of the Perseu Abramo Foundation of Brazil’s Workers’ Party.

“To a certain extent, the left is paralyzed,” said Mr. Pochmann, whose think tank is linked to the left-wing Sao Paulo Forum, as is Venezuela’s ruling United Socialist Party. “Certainly, the issue of political leadership surmounts the circumstances of the crisis. Personality remains central in Latin America — and Brazil is no different.”

With Mr. Maduro’s leadership qualities subject to doubts and ridicule, even Mr. Filmus — who in 2010 conducted an hourlong softball interview with Chavez — could not help but acknowledge a politically dire situation.

“I believe that if he were alive,” he said, “Chavez would be very worried.”

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