Now that a second government shutdown has been averted, The American Legion is calling on Congress to pass and the President to sign H.R. 367 – The Pay Our Coast Guard Act – so the U.S. Coast Guard will not be affected again in future budget showdowns.
“The men and women of the United States Coast Guard and their families should not have to wonder whether they will be paid or not,” said Brett Reistad, national commander of The American Legion. “Congress should immediately pass this legislation so that these men and women, who are on guard protecting us, are not held hostage by lawmakers and administrations who cannot agree in the future.”
During the first shutdown, The American Legion distributed more than $1 million in non-repayable temporary financial assistance to the minor children of active-duty Coast Guard personnel. The onslaught of requests substantially depleted our Veterans and Children Foundation, which funds our Temporary Financial Assistance program. The American Legion is calling on all Americans to make a gift so that additional requests can be supported throughout the year.
“Temporary Financial Assistance is an essential program of The American Legion,” Reistad said. “We must replenish this fund because we know that in any given year, we are called upon to help the minor children of active-duty servicemembers and Legionnaires to the tune of approximately $280,000 and that’s without an emergency like a government shutdown.”
The American Legion distributes one-time cash grants of up to $1,500 to the minor children of eligible active-duty military and American Legion members in need. These grants help families in need meet the cost of shelter, food, utilities and health expenses, thereby keeping the child or children in a more stable environment during times of temporary financial distress.
The American Legion Temporary Financial Assistance program is funded through the generosity of donations made by American Legion members and the public to The American Legion Veterans and Children Foundation. All donations are tax deductible and can be made online at legion.org/TFA.
FODPAL (Foreign and Outlying Departments and Posts of the American Legion) posts are, as indicated in the organization’s name, located around the world. But wherever they are, they keep busy with the programs and initiatives the Legion has sustained for nearly 100 years.
And like many other posts, they have newsletters. To better facilitate communication between far-flung members of the same post, the FODPAL section of www.legion.org has a page dedicated to uploaded newsletters: https://www.legion.org/fodpal/newsletters. Below are some highlights from February/winter editions recently added to the site.
Seward (Alaska) Post 5, “Commander’s Comments” by Clare Sullivan: “I’d like to thank everyone for their support during our holiday and Polar Bear Jump Off events. The food, the post décor, the service was and still is outstanding by everyone, all thanks to our incredible volunteers! Thankfully, we had a lot of helping hands to make it happen. You guys are great and uniquely talented! You jump right in and find what needs to be done and get it accomplished. That is ‘yuge!’ I am also pleased to mention it is a wonderful mix of post, Auxiliary and Sons who are participating and making things happen. Thank you so very much; without you we couldn’t provide what we do for our veterans and the community.”
Brig. Gen. Robin Olds Post TH01 (Thailand), by 1st Vice Commander/Membership Chairman Bruce Templeman: “As a reminder, please check with your buddies you haven't heard from in a while and see how they are doing. A Buddy Check is the best way that we can let our friends know that we care. Perhaps, at our roll call at the beginning of each post meeting, someone can tell us if any of our members are having problems attending. We can work offline to see if we can help them in any way. No one needs to air out any personal problems of our members in front of the group, but a discreet word in the right place and moment can really help someone going through a difficult time. Let's look out after each other and get this Centennial Celebration going!”
Gens. Ward & Chennault & LT Helseth China Post 1 (in exile), “Welcome from the Commander” by Ronald Burkett: “The Year of the Dog was an excellent year for China Post 1. Our San Antonio reunion had almost twice the attendance we have enjoyed in recent years. Reunion 2019 will be on 19-22 September in Colorado Springs. There have been emails out on that. If you have not received one you can get details on our web page at www.chinapost1.org.”
Flanders Field Post BE02 (Belgium), by POW/MIA Committee Chair Mark William Altmeyer: “I look at existing situations for the POW/MIA committee and think of how things might be optimized, to make things more cost-effective and efficient in the long term. Since being given this position, I have given much thought to what I can give to hold up the honor of this very important post. I have come to the conclusion that both parts of my work portfolio, as important as they are, is overshadowed by one. This is the MIA element, 70-plus years after the war has ended. The POW element has mainly been accounted for by now, but the MIA situation is still inconclusive for a lot of families.
“DPAA is doing a gargantuan task at recovering some of our lost sons, but in the times of failing funds and manpower, it is but the tip of the iceberg. I am striving for a co-operation between the DPAA, The American Legion and the German Reserves to assist DPAA in bringing our sons home; it would be a win-win situation, with devoted veterans themselves also actively in the field, assisting the DPAA with research and recovery and fulfilling the promise that ‘Nobody is Left Behind.’”
The Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act (AMA) becomes effective Feb. 19. The law is one of the most significant changes made to VA and transforms how VA reviews disputes with VA claims decisions.
“VA has been preparing for full implementation of the Appeals Modernization Act (AMA) over the past 18 months,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said. “Our staff has worked diligently, particularly in the last few weeks, to ensure the new, streamlined process is available to Veterans in February.
Here are some facts you need to know about AMA:
The AMA was signed into law by the president on stage at The American Legion’s 2017 national convention.
Appeals modernization will transform the claims appeals process into a simple and timely process.
The AMA gives veterans who disagree with a VA decision more options when it comes to appealing that decision.
Under the new law, veterans will have three options for claims and appeals — supplemental claim, higher-level review or direct appeals to the Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA).
VA aims to complete supplemental claims and higher-level reviews in an average of 125 days.
Decisions appealed to BVA will average 365 days.
Claims average three to seven years under the current process.
“VA remains deeply committed to helping veterans receive the benefits they have earned in a timely manner. The new appeals process honors this commitment by providing veterans more choice and control over how their claims and appeals are handled,” said Cheryl Mason, chairman of BVA.
Additional information about VA appeals modernization is available here.
We have been told by some that amateur radio is a thing of the past. If that is the case, why are nearly 50 people spending three Saturdays in a row learning about amateur radio at Post 187 in Wake Forest, N.C.?
The American Legion Amateur Radio Club of Post 187, with the cooperation of the Franklin County Amateur Radio Club and the Occoneechee Amateur Radio Society, is in the middle of a Technician licensing class. Next week is the last class and the exam.
The exam will be given by the local Laurel VEC group, and there is no cost for either the class or the FCC exam. The ringleader of this class is Chris Cancilla, W4CEC, who is the primary instructor. According to Cancilla, “Today is field day. What that means to me is my instructors will be having fun on the air and I am here trying to make new operators.”
When asked why there were so few instructors in attendance. “Last week, we had half a dozen instructors who cycled through the modules.” Cancilla continued. “This week they were forced to listen to me all day. Thank goodness one of the participating parents, Kris Zeek, KD7ZOT, felt comfortable enough to step in and assist in giving my knees and my voice a rest, not to mention bringing a new instructor into the course.”
Most of the class wants to get their amateur radio license so they can use it while camping with their Scout troop or Venture crew. A few want to get involved with their area REACT or ARES teams, but a couple of the younger ones are looking to get on the air. A father and his three children are in the class. The son is with a Boy Scout troop, and as of Feb. 1 his sister will be joining him in the troop. The other sister is a Webelos Scout who will soon cross over to the troop, where the father is an active member. Good thing too. Starting Feb. 1, young women are permitted to take merit badges.
This means that all of the Scouts in the class will complete their Radio Merit Badge and receive a signed blue card for their effort. A signed blue card is the completion certificate for any merit badge. At Post 187 there are several members of the post who are members of TALARC and members of the Scouting community and Merit Badge counselors. This is a good thing. Scouts wait for a while to take this class, because they are few and far between. TALARC 187 hosts a Radio Merit Badge class three times a year at the post, one of which is the Technician licensing class being held now.
Last class the Scouts were able to speak over a repeater to Scouts at Camp Durant in Carthage, N.C. The Occoneechee Camp is roughly an hour away from Wake Forest. Utilizing the Carolina 400 network, an interlinked repeater system, was valuable to demonstrate the service and value amateur radio provides to the community.
The last step for this class – which lasts three consecutive Saturdays – is the FCC licensing exam. It will be hosted by the Laurel VEC in the area. Several members of TALARC 187 are also registered VEs with Laurel and the ARRL. One of the students was very happy about the test, as Laurel does not charge a fee for testing, so the class and the exam are both 100 percent free.
After the test is completed, the Scouts and I will embark on the last piece of the Merit Badge puzzle, ARDF. Amateur Radio Direction Finding is a valuable skill to locate all types of interference, and with the use of a MicroFOX owned by the TALARC Post 187 club, and a directional antenna made from an old steel tape measure and PVC pipes, they will find that fox and complete that section, the last section, of the Merit Badge.
How does all this play out? American Legion Post 32 in Fayetteville, N.C., along with the Venture Crew they sponsor in the post, has asked us to put on one of these Technician classes for them. Possibly 30 people in the class, both young and not no young. BUT, they can and will all be new amateur radio operators. For this, Cancilla has contacted the Fayetteville Amateur Radio Club to offer support to the class, and ongoing support and partnership with the post and the crew as they discover the fun and excitement, and the many benefits, of amateur radio.
Content provided courtesy of USAA | By Chad Storlie
The phrase “Hire a veteran” has been a staple of the U.S. economy for decades. Business leaders already realize that military veterans are hard workers, team players, ethical, driven, and technically skilled. What they don't realize is there are 10 hidden reasons that make every veteran a great employee and future business leader.
The Ability to Work 24-7-365 With Great Results. The worlds of logistics, retail, food service, hospitality, manufacturing, and finance are now 24-7-365. Military veterans inherently understand the importance of working to high standards with a dual focus on quality and safety on any day and hour. This ability to work regardless of the hands on the clock or numbers on the calendar are an incredible value to an employer in a world where service, quality, and precision are now a requirement and not a differentiator.
They Are Teachers. Any military member from any service and any military occupation knows that teaching peers, superiors, and subordinates is a central part of any job.
They Aren’t Afraid to Get Their Hands Dirty. When I was in Iraq, my planning team of officers from O3 to O5 took our turn burning human waste in the August heat in Baghdad. Soldiers from Africa to Iraq to Afghanistan have done the same and as a group of senior officers we were no different and had to do our share. This ability to literally get your hands “covered” is a distinct sign of military “can-do” attitude and culture that the Marines to the Coast Guard and every service in between possesses.
They Know Diversity Makes Great Teams. A lot of businesses and institutions espouse diversity but do not fully appreciate the strength that true racial, gender, socioeconomic, and geographic diversity bring to a team. Military members have experienced true diversity daily and produced better results because of the diversity that encompasses them daily.
They Take Stress with A Smile. Stress in the modern economy is becoming greater as competition grows. Customers demand more because high levels of quality service are the norm and not the exception. Military veterans know that humor, teamwork, high performance levels, and consistent quality are the best ways to perform under stress for long periods of time. Stress with a smile is a hallmark of military veteran workers.
They Understand They Must Work Their Way Up. Every military veteran started their military career at the bottom. When military personnel transfer into a new military unit and duty station, they must relearn the ropes, learn the culture, and learn how the new team operates. This understanding, that starting at the bottom does not mean that you remain at the bottom, is what makes veterans a great entry level employee.
They Understand Work-Life Balance for Their Team. Work-life balance swings and there are always exceptions. Military veterans understand how to maintain standards, get all the work done, and still allow soccer games to be watched, plays attended, and vacations with the family. All military veterans at some point in their career have missed an important family activity. Veterans can keep a strong work focus and still ensure that family and personal time happens.
They Volunteer. All military members know they should “never” volunteer, but military veteran employees are always the first ones to volunteer for an extra shift or to help another team member. This ability to volunteer is an inherent maturity in military veteran employees because they understand that organizations, and their employees, need to be flexible, agile, and understanding of changes because of unexpected events or new requirements.
They Will Pick Up the Trash. One of the first things military organizations do in the day is walk their area of responsibility and pick up trash. I still remember picking up trash as a Lieutenant Colonel because everyone else was – if a Private is picking up trash, then shouldn’t a Lieutenant Colonel? Trash pick up also gives everyone a level of pride in their organization. Finally, as Navy carrier operations demonstrate, making everyone walk the carrier deck looking for objects that could damage aircraft a safer, more effective, and higher operational unit. Trash pickup is a little task that demonstrates the pride of an organization.
They Will Train Their Replacement. I have worked for organizations where leaders did not train or teach their subordinates because they were worried about being replaced. In the military, leaders know that training and teaching team members to understand and excel in your responsibility is how you create new leaders and how you make your replacement better than yourself. Military veterans see training their replacement as a part of their job and not a threat to their career.
Employers should always seek to hire the best employee. Hiring a military veteran ensures that an employer gets a great employee with many hidden skills sets that will benefit the organization for years to come.
As The American Legion celebrates its centennial this year, one of its younger members is heading up efforts at his Elkins, W.Va., post to continue what has been 100 years of service at the local level.
Donald Lambert, 23, last year began serving what will be two terms as H. W. Daniels Post 29 commander at age 22. The current Air National Guardsmen and West Virginia’s 9th District adjutant, took over a post that was chartered on Sept. 3, 1919.
Lambert joined the post shortly after finishing basic training but had been familiar with the Legion since he was involved in the post-sponsored Boy Scout troop.
“I was exposed to the Legion atmosphere since I was 10,” Lambert said. “I stayed in close contact with the members, and they sponsored me for (Mountaineer) Boys State. After I got back I joined the Sons (of The American Legion) for a year, and then I was eligible for The American Legion and I joined and became a dual member."
With a membership approaching 400, Post 29 is involved in both American Legion and community programs, including Boys State and Girls State and American Legion Baseball, sponsoring Boy Scout Troop 66 for 40 years, taking part in school Veterans Day programs and supporting the Randolph County Special Olympics.
The post also has had some success recruiting post-9/11 veterans – a task Lambert takes on personally. “I’ve actually gone around to my friends and said ‘Hey, why don’t you join?’” he said. “I just talk to them, see what kind of things they’re looking for with these different groups. I’ve brought some of them in for meetings … welcome them in with open arms, talk to them, make sure … it’s not just someone coming into a meeting and sitting in the back of the room. We want them to be a part of this and get the experience.”
Lambert also sells the American Legion Family, especially when family sometimes is a reason for a veteran not joining. “One of my veterans … he’s a couple months older than I am (and) he’s actually getting ready to get out of the Air Guard,” he said. “He threw that at me when I tried to get him to join: ‘I just bought a house. I just started this job. I just had my baby.’ It’s like ‘I see more reasons why you should be a part of the Legion. Your wife can be a part of the Auxiliary, your daughter can be a part of the Auxiliary.’”
Community involvement plays a part in attracting younger veterans, Lambert said. And having a post facility will allow for Post 29 to host events attractive to a younger generation, including support groups and music events while balancing that with what the older veterans want as well.
Lambert admits there can be a communication gap between older and younger veterans. But there also is a common bond between the generations that Lambert sees “all the time. One of the youngest members I have, he’s 19 and just got out of basic training not too long ago. Our oldest active member is 84. They’ll sit and talk like it’s no one’s business. They’ll discuss things … even though the services have changed, it’s still the same things: basic training stuff, waking up early. The bond between the brothers of their respective eras is still the same. They still talk highly of their friends.
“I can see, between the two, there’s that common bond. We share that common interest. We all raised our right hand. We all still did the same thing, saying we’ll protect the country.”
Lambert said it’s special to be serving as post commander when both The American Legion and Post 29 are celebrating their 100th birthdays. The post will have a celebration in September to commemorate its founding.
“To be the commander of my post not only when the national American Legion turns 100, but when my post itself turns 100, is not only an immense honor. It’s a privilege,” Lambert said. “Our first commander was 24. And here I am taking over the post at 22, and I’ll be the commander until I’m 24.
“To see what not only my post has done the last 100 years, but to see what the national Legion has done has been amazing. The programs it has sponsored and greatly fought for, and has pushed for for many years. It’s astounding what the Legion has accomplished for 100 years and what I wish for the Legion to be able to accomplish with the new generation hopefully joining its ranks.”
The American Legion’s Temporary Financial Assistance program to financially assist needy military and veteran families with minor children at home broke a single-month record in grant distribution during January’s federal government shutdown. The U.S. Mint struck the first American Legion Centennial Commemorative Coin on Jan. 31, and American Legion VA disability claims specialists handled hundreds of cases for veterans during the first month of 2019.
Looking ahead, the Veterans Employment & Education Commission is planning special events at the front end and the back end of the Washington Conference, starting with a Feb. 22 resume-writing workshop, networking luncheon and hiring fair at the Washington Hilton. On Feb. 28, the day following the Washington Conference, the commission welcomes the Veterans Benefits Administration for a GI Bill symposium at the conference hotel.
For a quick take on American Legion activity in January and coming attractions in February, click here.
Other membership impact reports to view:
More than three years after settling a lawsuit over the misuse of its West Los Angeles campus, VA may finally be on track to provide housing, mental health treatment and other assistance to at least 1,200 homeless and disabled veterans on the 387-acre site. However, 490 units of housing won’t be ready next year as the settlement dictated.
“We knew the VA would have some struggles executing this,” says Chanin Nuntavong, director of The American Legion’s Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation (VA&R) Division. “This is a drastic improvement where they were before,” he says, referring to the last site visit by representatives from The American Legion’s Washington, D.C., office in 2017.
Nuntavong and Roscoe Butler, deputy director of VA&R, met with Meghan Flanz – the West Los Angeles VA official overseeing development of housing and healing programs for homeless veterans – as part of a fact-finding mission Feb. 7. Michael Hjelmstad, commander of American Legion Post 43 in Hollywood, and Larry Van Kuran, National Executive Committeeman for the Department of California and co-chair of the Greater Los Angeles VA.
Community-Veterans Engagement Board, also attended the briefing.
“Our members were concerned about what was taking so long,” Nuntavong says of the visit to campus. “I wanted to meet with the leadership here and see what’s going on so I can better inform our leadership.”
Nuntavong and Butler credit Flanz, who has only been at the West Los Angeles VA since January 2018, for the progress the agency has made in West Los Angeles. “I think they are headed in the right direction now that Meghan is here,” Nuntavong says. “She has a very good grasp of what’s required.”
However, Flanz needs a project manager, a budget specialist and other staff to help her manage the massive project, Butler says. “I would hate to see her burn out because she’s a one-person team,” Nuntavong adds.
Flanz provided an upbeat picture of VA’s progress, including the selection of an experienced private development group to renovate existing buildings and construct new housing for veterans in need, part of a plan to return the West Los Angeles VA property to its original mission. Known as The West Los Angeles Veterans Collective, the development group includes the construction arm of Century Housing, Thomas Safran & Associates – which specializes in financing and managing low-income housing – and U.S. VETS, which provides housing, employment and mental health services for veterans.
Yet, Flanz also acknowledged VA won’t live up to its pledge to open 490 units of permanent supportive housing for women, elderly, and physically and mentally disabled veterans by next year, a shortcoming the agency’s inspector general highlighted in report last September. That optimistic promise, part of an agreement to settle the lawsuit over illegal leases that allowed private businesses to operate everything from a hotel laundry to charter bus facility on the West Los Angeles campus, didn’t account for the comprehensive environmental review of the campus redevelopment required under federal law, she says.
The VA Inspector General also criticized leases West Los Angeles VA signed with Brentwood School – which has its athletic facilities on the campus – and other private entities after a federal judge invalidated earlier agreements with some of the same entities. VA has until September to respond to the Inspector General’s findings – some of which the agency disputes.
Still, Flanz understands the frustration with the pace of housing development at West Los Angeles VA. She expected to see extensive housing construction underway when she transferred from the VA’s Washington, D.C., offices to Los Angeles a little over a year ago. But once the environmental impact study and a strategic plan are completed in mid-summer, VA should be ready to move ahead.
There are other obstacles. Flanz anticipates that some residents of the upscale Brentwood neighborhood adjacent to the West Los Angeles VA, will file a legal challenge to the traffic study even though the bulk of the future new residents of campus are homeless and don’t own cars.
Nuntavong understands the neighbor’s concerns. “It can be scary when you see the type of community that the West Los Angeles VA is in, and know that they want to bring in those who are less fortunate,” he says. “But these veterans have served their country. It’s our duty to take care of them, rehabilitate them and get them back into society as contributing members.”
Vets Advocacy Inc., the nonprofit partner established to help VA under the terms of the settlement agreement, sees Flanz’s appointment and VA’s decision to hire The West Los Angeles Veterans Collective – the development group with expertise in low-income housing – as the first signs that the West Los Angeles VA homeless project may come to fruition. “After a couple of years of basically failed efforts to get started, the VA finally did two things that have at least started to turn things around,” says Gary Blasi, of Vets Advocacy Inc., and one of the attorneys who represented veterans in the lawsuit that challenged VA’s mismanagement of the West Los Angeles campus. “I don’t think that progress is all we hoped it would be. It’s just painful how much wreckage has occurred to veterans living on the street since this began.”
Vets Advocacy provided VA significant help getting the project back on track. It hired the design firm of Johnson Fain to complete the draft master plan for redeveloping the campus, which had stalled under VA’s oversight, Blasi says. Then VA Secretary Robert McDonald approved the plan, which cost about $250,000, in January 2016.
But more than three years after the settlement, VA is only providing permanent supportive housing to 54 veterans in what’s known as Building 209. And renovation of building 209 began well before the lawsuit settlement and required an act of Congress to complete, Blasi says. “The maddening thing is, Building 209 was part of a master plan drawn up about 10 years ago – and they haven’t even gotten to putting concrete on the ground under the new master plan,” Blasi says.
There's also no clear way of funding roads, utilities and other infrastructure, says Dan Garcia, CEO of Vets Advocacy, a Vietnam veteran who has served as president of both the Los Angeles Planning Commission and the Los Angeles Redevelopment Commission. That’s critical to success.
“The internal road and sidewalk network, the vehicular and pedestrian access and egress from the campus, the utilities, network data cable installations, sewage installation and connections and related infrastructure are necessary to turn the campus into an integrated veteran community as we have envisioned,” says Garcia, whose private career includes serving as senior vice president and chief compliance and privacy officer for Kaiser Foundation Health Plan and Kaiser Foundation Hospitals. “Without it we could have isolated pockets of housing.”
Meanwhile, VA says it will complete renovation of three additional buildings by the end of 2021 that will house approximately 120 veterans. That’s possible in part because the project was planned prior to the legal settlement and the environmental impact statement has already been completed. Following that, the first new housing is planned for an area of the West Los Angeles VA campus known as MacArthur Field, which is currently used by Los Angeles area soccer leagues.
VA’s also building a new columbarium that will provide niches for 90,000 veterans and families. The national veteran’s cemetery across the road from the West Los Angeles VA – where Flanz’s grandfather is buried – has long been closed to new internments, says Flanz.
"This effort means a lot to veterans," Nuntavong says. “It brings joy to my heart knowing veterans and loved ones will have this."
Nonetheless, the agency is a long way from meeting its historic obligations in Los Angeles County, which has the highest concentration of homeless veterans in the United States. The West Los Angeles VA was built on land given to the federal government in 1888 for the express purpose of housing disabled veterans. At its peak, the campus was home to about 4,000 veterans, a post office, churches, theaters and a 10,000-volume library. VA quietly ended that service during the Vietnam War, effectively pushing mentally disabled veterans to the streets. Meanwhile, the agency leased more than 100 acres of the West Los Angeles property for a dog park, charter bus storage, a private school’s athletic center, a hotel chain’s laundry and UCLA’s baseball stadium among other private endeavors. Millions of dollars in proceeds from those leases is still unaccounted for.
A coalition including the ACLU, Public Counsel Law Center, the law firms of Arnold & Porter and Munger, Tolles & Olson, the Inner City Law Center, and Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe sued on behalf of thousands of severely mentally disabled homeless veterans in June 2011. A federal judge in California ruled VA’s leases with Brentwood School and several private businesses were illegal in August 2013. Both sides appealed and court-ordered mediation failed.
The litigation was set to resume when then VA Secretary Robert McDonald initiated successful settlement discussions in 2015. The agreement calls for VA to provide permanent supportive housing, free legal assistance, family counseling and innovative mental health treatment. Women, older veterans and the most severely physically or mentally disabled veterans are supposed to get priority access to the permanent housing on the campus.
The American Legion wants to help VA finish this difficult job. “We will continue to keep an eye on the execution of this plan,” Nuntavong says. “The bottom line is this. We believe in the VA. We need to give them more time to make things right. And we will provide them with whatever help they need to better assist our veterans.”
The American Legion has published its legislative priorities for the 116th Congress, focusing on topics such as fully funding a national defense, improving health care for women veterans and protecting the American flag.
Additionally, The American Legion is encouraging Congress to redefine the wartime service period, extending it to Dec. 7, 1941, to honor all veterans who have served since Pearl Harbor was attacked. The language stems from Resolution 1, which was passed by the National Executive Committee during Fall Meetings in 2018.
It sounds like something out of Syria or Somalia: 2.3 million refugees (and counting), millions more starving, 300,000 on the verge of death, thousands suffering with and dying from preventable diseases, an illegitimate government brutalizing its people, an entire region staggered by a failed state. But this latest humanitarian mega-crisis is found right here in our neighborhood, in the once-prosperous, once-stable nation of Venezuela.
For too long, we have misunderstood and misdiagnosed the situation in Venezuela as a case of a corrupt regime spawning a failed state. A more accurate label may be a hostage crisis – but on nationwide scale. The latest evidence of this is Nicolas Maduro’s refusal to allow humanitarian aid into the country, using military personnel and semi-trailer trucks to blockade a bridge connecting Colombia and Venezuela.
Before discussing Washington’s options in Venezuela, it’s important to spend a moment discussing just how bad the situation has become in Maduro’s prison state.
Venezuela’s annual inflation rate is a staggering 1,300,000 percent. That’s 1.3 million percent, and it could reach 10 million percent by end of this year. According to the IMF, Venezuela’s GDP fell by 18 percent in 2018 – “the third consecutive year of double-digit declines in real GDP.” The IMF describes the situation in Venezuela as “similar to that in Germany in 1923.”
The IMF is referencing the Weimar Republic, the post-World War I government of Germany beset by political sclerosis and economic chaos. In Weimar Germany, the currency became so worthless that Germans used marks as kindling in their ovens. In Weimar Venezuela, the currency is so worthless that Venezuelans are using bolivares to make wallets, purses and sculptures. As the Miami Herald reports, the value of 1,000 bolivares is 17 U.S. cents (and falling every day), while a handbag made with those bolivares sells for $13.
Without a functioning economy, without a responsive government, without the wherewithal to allow the market and civil society to meet the needs of the people, Venezuela is unraveling.
Sixty-one percent of the country’s population lives in extreme poverty line. Mercy Corps reports the average Venezuelan lost 24 pounds last year; 300,000 children are at risk of dying from malnutrition.
Maternal mortality is up 65 percent; infant mortality is up 30 percent. According to Human Rights Watch, more than 7,300 measles cases were reported in 2018. There were no cases of measles reported in Venezuela between 2008 and 2015.
But rather than using government as a servant of the people, Maduro has turned it into a tool of oppression. According to the Organization of American States (OAS), the Maduro regime has carried out 12,000 arbitrary detentions, engaged in the “criminalization” of duly elected opposition politicians, carried out “state-orchestrated human suffering” by withholding food, medical supplies and government services from groups and individuals affiliated with regime opponents, and committed torture, sexual violence, extra-judicial executions and other “crimes against humanity.”
It pays to recall that Venezuela is not a victim of foreign aggression, civil war or natural disaster. Oil-rich Venezuela is a victim of terrible policies and failed government. “Once rich, Venezuela is now poor,” Vice President Mike Pence recently observed. “Once free, Venezuela is now oppressed. And once a model of stability, Venezuela’s collapse has led to a crisis unlike any in our Western Hemisphere’s history.”
Why and how did an economically prosperous and politically stable nation devolve into such privation and chaos? The answer is simple but sad: Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, nationalized the economy by seizing control of the oil, mining, steel, banking, telecommunications, tourism, transportation and agriculture sectors. This de-diversified economy proved unable to keep up with the dynamism of the global free-market system and wholly unable to meet the needs of the Venezuelan people. In parallel, the Chavez-Maduro regime used Venezuela’s oil wealth like a personal piggy bank; dispensed the state’s largesse to amass power; and upended the nation’s political system by flouting the constitution and rule of law, bypassing and ultimately delegitimizing the duly elected National Assembly, using the police and National Electoral Council against political opponents, politicizing the military, and governing by executive fiat. Along the way, the regime took over television stations, the Internet and nongovernmental organizations, thus shrinking Venezuela’s civil society.
It’s no wonder why Juan Guaidó has rallied a diverse coalition of Venezuelans and more than 40 countries to support him as interim president. As head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, Guaidó is technically Venezuela’s only legitimate leader, given that Maduro’s 2018 election and 2019 inauguration were carried out via extraconstitutional means.
Guaidó has called Maduro’s aid blockade a “crime against humanity” – and rightly so. It’s estimated that tens of thousands of Venezuelans will die without outside aid. But Maduro has dismissed aid shipments from the United States and other nations in the Americas as “fake humanitarian aid,” claiming that Venezuela’s manmade famine and societal collapse have been “fabricated by Washington.”
Asked if he would be open to an international force intervening to rescue his country, Guaidó says he will consider “everything that is necessary ... to save human lives.”
That brings us back to Washington’s options in Venezuela.
“All options are on the table,” President Donald Trump has said of the chaos in Venezuela.
In a surprising echo of Trump, one Latin American official says the international community should keep all options on the table, including “military intervention” to “overthrow” Maduro. This is surprising because the words were spoken by Luis Almagro, secretary general of the OAS – not an organization given to military threats.
The Trump administration took an important step in January by officially recognizing Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader. “We call on Maduro to step aside in favor of a legitimate leader reflecting the will of the Venezuelan people,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at the time. “The United States supports President Guaidó as he establishes a transitional government, and leads Venezuela, as the country prepares for free and fair elections.”
Even though Trump has expressed reservations about humanitarian intervention – he declared before his election, “If we are going to intervene in a conflict it had better pose a direct threat to our interest” – he observed more recently that “We have troops all over the world in places that are very, very far away ... Venezuela is not very far away and the people are suffering, and they are dying.”
This signals an evolution for Trump and a realization that leading a superpower with a conscience sometimes requires defending more than America’s interests.
Given the American public’s engagement fatigue – and the complicated history of U.S. interaction with Latin America – it won’t be easy for policymakers to make the case for intervening to save Venezuela from itself. But given the mounting costs and risks in Venezuela, some sort of intervention may be unavoidable. It pays to recall that President George H.W. Bush avoided intervening in Somalia, President Bill Clinton avoided intervening in Bosnia, and President Barack Obama avoided intervening in Libya, Iraq and Syria – until events, public opinion, U.S. interests and/or American ideals finally forced them to reverse course.
To be sure, there’s a case to be made for steering clear of Venezuela, but there’s also a case to be made for intervening on humanitarian grounds (see above) and on national-security grounds (see below).
There are real threats Venezuela’s crisis could spawn and is already spawning: More than 2.3 million people have fled Venezuela. A million have fled to Colombia, 500,000 to Peru, 290,000 to the United States, 220,000 to Ecuador, 130,000 to Argentina. According to Adm. Craig Faller (SOUTHCOM commander), “Migration from Venezuela is on track to approach the scale of the Syrian refugee crisis, straining the capacity and resources of its neighbors. The United Nations estimates that 5.3 million Venezuelans will have fled their country by the end of 2019.”
This exodus – and the political-economic chaos that triggered it – are destabilizing Venezuela’s neighbors and indeed much of the hemisphere. Some governments in South America recognize Maduro; others recognize Guaidó. After taking in hundreds of thousands of refugees, Colombia has dispatched its army to the border to hold back the tidal wave. Brazilians are chasing away Venezuelans at the border and building barricades. Argentina, Canada, Colombia, Chile, Paraguay and Peru have referred the Maduro regime to the International Criminal Court for “crimes against humanity.”
In addition, we know that a) jihadist groups seek out and thrive in lawless lands, and b) jihadist groups have made inroads in South America. It doesn’t strain the imagination to contemplate these groups – and their state sponsors – setting up shop in the ungoverned areas of Venezuela.
Moreover, Russia and China, which already have security and economic ties to the Maduro regime, could use Venezuela’s chaos as a pretext to expand their footprints in South America. In fact, Moscow dispatched 400 Russian military contractors to Caracas in February. As Pompeo has said, “The Cubans are there; the Russians are there; the Iranians [and] Hezbollah are there. This is something that has a risk of getting to a very, very bad place.”
Pence calls the situation in Venezuela a “threat to our collective security.”
“An explosion is coming,” warns former NATO commander Adm. James Stavridis. “And when it does, we should expect a great deal of violence and massive refugee flows.”
Stavridis, Pence and Pompeo know that Venezuela’s security forces are beginning to splinter into pro- and anti-regime camps, which increases the likelihood that the Venezuelan crisis will devolve from civil unrest to full-blown civil war. Indeed, rebel soldiers have launched attacks against military bases outside Caracas; the number of soldiers arrested for treason is rising rapidly; an anti-regime group deployed drones in an effort to assassinate Maduro; small handfuls of low-level troops have seized police stations and raided weapons depots; and in January a Venezuelan National Guard unit pledged allegiance to Guaidó’s shadow government.
A call for help from the National Assembly and the Venezuelan military would be the best alternative, as it would help ensure that foreign intervention forces are entering a permissive environment. Of course, that would require the military to shift allegiance from Maduro to Guaidó. So far, Maduro’s generals, who have been richly rewarded for their loyalty, have shown no signs of rebelling.
To prepare and brace for the worst, Stavridis recommends standing up “a State Department-led interagency working group to craft a strategy for dealing with a possible civil war ... planning by the Department of Defense for humanitarian operations ... (and) advance stationing of supplies and medicines by the U.S. Agency for International Development in the Caribbean.”
To avoid the perception of a return of “Yankee imperialism” and to deprive Maduro of rhetorical ammunition, Washington should continue to let the Lima Group take the lead – while working behind the scenes with the OAS, CARICOM, Association of Caribbean States, MERCOSUR and other regional partnerships where appropriate to lay the groundwork for a multilateral humanitarian effort.
Like any hostage crisis, the goal in Venezuela is to rescue the innocent. A U.S. invasion (no matter how well-intentioned) could undermine that goal, whereas an OAS humanitarian intervention (that happens to involve U.S. personnel) could serve that goal. Pence put it well in an address to South American leaders: “What we do to see democracy restored in Venezuela, we will do together.”