A new report by the U.S. government criticizes Venezuela for failing to enforce existing anti-human trafficking laws. But it's worth noting that poverty and unemployment may be contributing to the problem just as much as weak legislation.
The new U.S. State Department report on human trafficking designates Venezuela a Tier 3 country, a status used by the U.S. to identify countries with poor records of fighting trafficking. According to the report, Venezuelans are smuggled abroad, often to work as prostitutes, while foreign nationals are trafficked into the country, often to serve as forced labor in factories, or work in the sex trade. Venezuelan authorities have previously said Chinese-run criminal groups are in the country, shipping in Asian immigrants who are then exploited. Previous U.S. reports have identified Venezuelan trafficking rings that smuggle Brazilian, Colombian, Ecuadorean, Peruvian, and Dominican migrants.
The government also fails to do enough to fight sex trafficking within the country, the report says. These cases are harder to spot, as the victims do not cross any international borders and so do not need to show identification. Women are often brought from the poorer interior of the country to work in the sex trade in urban areas such as Caracas, Maracaibo, and Margarita island. One non-governmental organization estimated in 2003 that there were some 40,000 to 50,000 child prostitutes in Venezuela. They are often controlled by organized criminal groups, who manage much of the trafficking in Venezuela, according to the State Department report.
The U.S. report criticizes the Venezuelan government for failing to take proper action against trafficking, even though Venezuela has made moves towards strengthening its anti-trafficking legislation. Its 2000 constitution did not specifically ban human trafficking, only the related practices of enslavement or forced prostitution. In 2007, Congress passed a women's rights law, which included provisions to ban the internal trafficking of Venezuelan women. However, as the State Department points out, this does not prohibit the trafficking of men and boys within the country. Each year's report has pointed out this loophole since the law was passed, and this appears to be a mayor reason for Venezuela's status being downgraded.
The report also notes that authorities fail to give proper care to victims of trafficking, or to ensure lengthy jail terms for those convicted.
But beyond putting legislation in place or arranging after-care for victims, just as important in the fight against trafficking may be the broader issue of providing education and opportunity to Venezuelans. The government has warned that young people are often fooled by traffickers, who promise work or education, such as the chance to study in Europe. Once they have left their homes, they often have no way of paying to return. Improving job or education opportunities for Venezuelans at home would help prevent these kinds of cases.
While government statistics show that the proportion of Venezuelans living in poverty more than halved between 1997 and 2009, opposition figures have often pointed to the insufficiency of the minimum wage to purchase basic food supplies. The current minimum wage hovers around 1,400 bolivares, while the value of a basic food basket (which includes items like powdered milk, rice, salt and so on) was just under 1,490 in May 2011, according to the national statistics body INE.
Venezuela has rejected the Tier 3 classification by the U.S., calling it "meddling." Indeed it is possible, as analyst Adam Isacson has pointed out, that the U.S.’s classifications are influenced by political considerations. The best-ranked country in Latin America is Colombia, which is a firm U.S. ally. Meanwhile Cuba and Venezuela, which have strained relationships with the U.S., are ranked the worst in the hemisphere.