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Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson May 16, 2019
Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman May 16, 2019

The problem with calling Venezuela's crisis under Maduro a genocide

In recent months, the world has watched a worsening situation in Venezuela, where the country’s authoritarian leader, Nicolás Maduro, has presided over rampant inflation, dwindling food and supplies, human rights abuses, and mass departures by his people.

Most nations in the world have roundly condemned Maduro's government for the suffering in Venezuela, including many deaths.

U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., has a word for it: genocide. His use of that particular word sets him apart from other politicians.

"The pain, the hunger, the devastation. I cannot believe any human being would do this to young children," Scott said on May 13 at the 2019 Concordia Americas Summit in Colombia. "This is evil. And there’s one man responsible for it: Nicolás Maduro. This is obvious to most of us. Nicolás Maduro is carrying out a genocide on his people."

Scott, a former governor who represents a state with many Venezuelan emigres, has used the word "genocide" repeatedly to describe the situation under Maduro.

Scott defended his use of "genocide" when questioned by the Miami Herald. "Little kids are starving to death because Maduro won’t give them food," Scott told the paper. "That’s called genocide. I’m very comfortable with (calling) what’s going on in Venezuela ... genocide. I believe Maduro is intentionally starving his citizens."

When we asked Scott’s office about it, his spokesman sent over the United Nations’ definition of genocide, arguing Maduro’s actions fit the bill.

Experts we contacted agreed that the situation in Venezuela is deplorable. However, they also agreed that Scott’s use of the word is a significant overreach. It matters, they said, because using the word "genocide" too loosely makes it harder to define and stop actual genocide.

What’s been happening in Venezuela

Corruption and mismanagement in recent decades has left Venezuela — once rich with generous oil resources — a disaster. More than 3 million people have left Venezuela in recent years.

Maduro won re-election in May 2018 in a race that was criticized as rigged and was sworn in Jan. 10. Two weeks later, opposition leader and National Assembly President Juan Guaidó declared himself the interim president. The Trump administration, as well as many other world leaders, have recognized Guaidó.

Maduro has cut off ties with the United States, kicking out diplomats and blocking aid.

A precise death toll is hard to come by, though news reports said dozens of Venezuelans have died in protests this year and reports show even higher figures in previous years. Many more have died due to worsening conditions including blackouts and lack of medicine and food.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that Venezuela has seen a rise in the murder rate in recent years and a civil social organization reported thousands of killings by the government. But the Venezuelan government has refused to release information about the health crisis.

When we asked Scott’s office to explain the senator’s use of "genocide" to describe Maduro’s actions, spokesman Chris Hartline sent PolitiFact the United Nations’ official definition of genocide:

Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group," including

a.    Killing members of the group;

b.    Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

c.    Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

d.    Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

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e.    Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Amid the deaths and poor conditions, we wanted to learn how Maduro's actions fit this criteria. Experts said they don't.

The situation in Venezuela is different

While laying out its definition, the U.N. acknowledges that "the popular understanding of what constitutes genocide tends to be broader than the content of the norm under international law."

It adds, "Importantly, the victims of genocide are deliberately targeted — not randomly — because of their real or perceived membership of one of the four groups protected under the Convention, which excludes political groups, for example. This means that the target of destruction must be the group, as such, and not its members as individuals."

Experts say the narrower definition is the appropriate one, regardless of what may popularly be used.

Maduro may be in violation of other aspects of international law, such as the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights or the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, both of which Venezuela affirmed decades ago.

However, Maduro’s actions "do not seem to qualify as a genocide under the legal definition" of the United Nations, said Anthony Clark Arend, a government and foreign service professor at Georgetown University.

That’s because under the U.N. definition, genocide means the destruction of a specific group. The term "national" in the U.N. definition does not apply to the case of Venezuela, since that term is intended to refer to national groups such as the Kurds, the Inuit, and the Basques, Arend said.

"Acts that are targeted against the population as a whole or groups not listed, while potentially horrific, do not qualify as genocide," he said.

Examples of genocide were carried out against Jews by Nazi Germany or against Tutsis in Rwanda.

"This is standard authoritarian oppression more than anything else," said Florida International University political scientist Eduardo Gamarra, a specialist in Venezuela. "It is not genocide."

While some hard-line opponents of the regime are pursuing an indictment against Maduro at the Hague for crimes against humanity, that standard is lower than genocide, said New York University historian Alejandro Velasco.

"It’s not really genocide when you are killing your own people without attention to race, language, religion, or other factors," said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. "‘Crimes against humanity’ might be more fitting."

Concerns about over-using the word

Multiple scholars told PolitiFact that they worry about the consequences of Scott’s language.

"His words are actually demeaning to people or groups that have actually faced systematic extermination," said Miguel Tinker Salas, a Pomona College specialist in Latin American studies.

Robert Gellately, a Florida State University historian and co-author of "The Specter of Genocide: Mass Murder in Historical Perspective," called Scott’s term "inaccurate and unhelpful."

"We have to stop using ‘genocide’ as the ultimate word we use to describe an awful crime, even deliberately hurting or killing some of one’s own people," he said. "Genocide happens rarely, and we should keep in mind a narrow use of the term."

Omer Bartov, a Brown University historian and author of "Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz," said that a watering-down of the term could hamper efforts to stop genocide when it does happen.

"Using this term when it does not fit is damaging to the very idea of genocide prevention," Bartov said.

Our ruling

Scott said, "Nicolas Maduro is carrying out a genocide on his people."

Experts on genocide contacted by PolitiFact universally agreed that the conditions in Venezuela are horrible, with many saying Maduro’s actions amount to tyranny and possibly crimes against humanity. But they strongly agreed that "genocide," as defined by the U.N., does not apply to the situation in Venezuela, because it does not involve the deliberate targeting of an ethnic group for destruction.

We rate the statement False.

Our Sources

U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, remarks at the 2019 Concordia Americas Summit, May 13

U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, "Sen. Rick Scott: We Cannot Let Evil Triumph in Venezuela," April 11, 2019

United Nations, Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, accessed May 15, 2019

United Nations, Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, accessed May 15, 2019

United Nations, definition of genocide, accessed May 14, 2019

Tampa Bay Times, "Rick Scott urges naval blockade to stop Cuba and Venezuela’s oil trade," May 8, 2019

New York Times, "What Is Happening in Venezuela and Why It Matters," April 30, 3019

CBS News, "Venezuelan opposition asks for meeting with U.S. military to discuss ‘cooperation,’" May 13, 2019

Miami Herald, "Juan Guaidó’s U.S. representatives back TPS for Venezuelans," May 13, 2019

Miami Herald, "Rick Scott is using a word to describe Venezuela that no one else is. Is he right?" May 10, 2019

Washington Post, "Florida Republicans warn that Trump’s Venezuela policy is at risk of backfiring," May 12, 2019

Washington Post, "Guaidó says opposition overestimated military support for uprising," May 4, 2019

CNN, At least 40 Venezuelans have been killed in recent protests, Jan. 29, 2019

NBC News, Venezuela's hospitals see rising death toll from blackouts, April 1, 2019

Office of the United High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Human rights violations in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela: a downward spiral with no end in sight, June 2018

PolitiFact, "Florida Sen. Rick Scott blames Venezuela’s collapse on socialism, but is that the real culprit?" Jan. 25, 2019

Email interview, Miguel Tinker Salas, Pomona College professor of Latin American Studies and history, May 14, 2019

Email interview, Eduardo Gamarra, Florida International University political scientist, May 14, 2019

Email interview, Dany Bahar, Brookings Institution economist, May 14, 2019

Email interview, Daniel Wilkinson, managing director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, May 15, 2019

Email interview with Alejandro Velasco, New York University historian, May 14, 2019

Email interview with Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, May 14, 2019

Email interview with Richard Breitman, American University historian and author of The Architect of Genocide: Himmler and the Final Solution, May 14, 2019

Email interview with Robert Gellately, Florida State University historian and co-author of The Specter of Genocide: Mass Murder in Historical Perspective, May 14, 2019

Email interview with Anthony Clark Arend, government and foreign service professor at Georgetown University, May 14, 2019

Email interview with Omer Bartov, Brown University historian and author of Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz, May 14, 2019

Email interview with Chris Hartline, spokesman for Rick Scott, May 14, 2019

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The problem with calling Venezuela's crisis under Maduro a genocide

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