Though many Americans may not be able to find Venezuela on a map, Denverites are increasingly seeing mentions of the country—specifically an uptick of migration from it—on local news. But why? And what in the world does George Clooney have to do with it?
While the term “petrostate” does not have a formal definition, the Council on Foreign Relations identifies a petrostate as having a few key characteristics, namely (1) national revenue that is overly reliant on oil and gas exports, (2) money and power that are concentrated within a small elite class, and (3) government institutions that operate with impunity and widespread corruption. With the well-being of an entire civilian population hinging on oil and gas export revenue without any reliable safeguards in place if the bottom drops out, it is easy to see that dominoes would start to fall if export revenues dropped precipitously.
In Venezuela, that’s exactly what happened. Oil exports account for nearly two-thirds of the country’s entire national budget, so when oil prices plummeted from over $100/barrel in 2014 to below $30/barrel in 2016, Venezuela’s economy plummeted right alongside it. To make matters worse, in the years leading up to the economic free fall, then-President Hugo Chávez had made a series of governance choices that had not only reduced oil reserves but had also doubled the national debt, nationalized many private businesses, and led the country toward becoming an authoritarian dictatorship. Cue hyperinflation, frozen wages, political unrest, an attempted coup d’etat, and U.S.-imposed sanctions. Add in the crunch of a global pandemic, and experts the world over agree that Venezuela has become “the archetype of a failed petrostate.”
Crimes Against Humanity
By 2019, the situation in Venezuela had deteriorated so severely that the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) established a fact-finding mission tasked with monitoring conditions in the country. Specifically, the mission’s mandate was to investigate “extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” and other crimes against humanity, such as sexual and gender-based violence used as forms of torture. From 2020-2023, the mission compiled enough evidence to “reasonably believe” that all of the enumerated crimes had and were still occurring.
However, while the HRC can investigate and make recommendations, it cannot, itself, force change or inflict punishment. Which is where the Clooneys come in. George and Amal Clooney founded the Clooney Foundation for Justice (CFJ) in 2016 “to hold perpetrators of mass atrocities accountable for their crimes, and to help victims in their fight for justice.” On June 14, 2023, citing universal jurisdiction for crimes against humanity, the CFJ filed a formal complaint against the Venezuelan government in an Argentinian federal court for the deaths of two protestors in 2014 and other crimes reported by the HRC mission. In August, the CFJ announced that their complaint had lead Argentina to launch a formal criminal investigation into the Venezuelan government for crimes against humanity. The investigation is ongoing, with CFJ representing some of the plaintiffs.
Since 2014, more than seven million Venezuelans have fled the country to escape these and other egregious human rights violations and untenable living conditions. Approximately a half million of those people have been granted temporary protected status in the United States, with Texas sending up to 300 people per day to Denver. Many of the folks Denver Mayor Mike Johnston calls “involuntary arrivals” because they “had no plans” on coming to Denver at all. Texas Governor Greg Abbott has simply chartered busses and put people on them. A Denver Human Services representative has called the pace “unrelenting” and has asked all city employees to pick up extra shifts to help out in the reception center and various shelters across the city.
However, getting to Denver doesn’t grant a free pass. Adult migrants are limited to stay in shelters for only 14 days. Families with children, up to 37 days. After that, they are on their own, and the Biden administration has already resumed deporting migrants who fail to satisfy the requirements to stay in the U.S. Simply returning people to Venezuela won’t solve anything, though, so in addition to offering support where possible and limits where necessary, the Biden administration announced on October 18th that it has reached an agreement with the Venezuelan government to help ensure, inter alia, fair elections in the country in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions on its oil and gas exports. Time will tell if the agreement holds and conditions in Venezuela improve.
 FluentWorlds, Can Americans Fill in a Map of South America?, YouTube (Jan. 8, 2022), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OhD0hPnTxVU.
 Council on Foreign Relations, Venezuela: The Rise and Fall of a Petrostate (last updated Mar. 10, 2023, 1:05 PM), https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/venezuela-crisis.
 Mayela Armas, Venezuela Sees Oil Exports Financing Almost Two-Thirds of 2023 Budget, Reuters (Dec. 5, 2022, 7:43 AM), https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/venezuela-sees-oil-exports-financing-almost-two-thirds-2023-budget-2022-12-05/.
 Council on Foreign Relations, supra note 2.
 Id.; Matt Spetalnick & Marianna Parraga, US Broadly Eases Venezuela Oil Sanctions After Election Deal, Reuters (Oct. 19, 2023, 1:37 PM), https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/us-easing-venezuela-oil-sanctions-response-election-deal-official-2023-10-18/.
 Council on Foreign Relations, supra note 2.
 Human Rights Council, Rep. of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Advance Unedited Version, U.N. Doc. A/HRC/54/57, at 3 (Sept. 18, 2023).
 Id. at 6.
 Id. at 6-15.
 See generally United Nations Human Rights Council, International Commissions of Inquiry, Commissions on Human Rights, Fact-Finding Missions and Other Investigations (last visited Oct. 22, 2023), https://www.ohchr.org/en/hr-bodies/hrc/co-is.
 Clooney Foundation for Justice Home Page, http://cfj.org (last visited Oct. 22, 2023).
 Human Rights Council, supra note 8 at 6.
 @ClooneyFDN, Twitter (Aug. 25, 2023, 9:07 AM), https://twitter.com/ClooneyFDN/status/1695090572057276805.
 Human Rights Watch, World Report 2023: Venezuela 688 (2023); Amnesty Int’l, Amnesty International Report 2022/23: The State of the World’s Human Rights, AI Index POL 10/5670/2023 (Mar. 27, 2023).
 Rebecca Santana & Elliot Spagat, U.S. Allowing Hundreds of Thousands of Venezuelans in the Country to Work Legally, PBS (Sept. 21, 2023, 1:58 PM), https://www.pbs.org/newshour/world/u-s-allowing-hundreds-of-thousands-of-venezuelans-in-the-country-to-work-legally.
 Laura Casillas, Migrants in Denver: City Asks Colorado for National Guard Support, Changes Length of Shelter Stays, 9News, https://www.9news.com/video/news/local/next/next-with-kyle-clark/migrants-in-denver-city-asks-colorado-for-national-guard-support-changes-length-of-shelter-stays/73-4ad975cb-4383-47c6-8de7-460ed7d8f0d5#:~:text=Overwhelmed%20by%20the%20recent%20surge,Guard%2C%20a%20city%20spokesperson%20said (last updated Oct. 2, 2023, 9:02 PM).
 Valerie Gonzalez & Regina Garcia Cano, US Resumes Deportation Flights to Venezuela with More than 100 Migrants on Board, Associated Press, https://apnews.com/article/venezuela-migrants-deportation-texas-biden-immigration-1115aa224f1fa79fb88bd991a8ed705a (last updated Oct. 18, 2023, 8:26 PM).
 Matt Spetalnick & Marianna Parraga, US Broadly Eases Venezuela Oil Sanctions After Election Deal, Reuters (Oct. 19, 2023, 1:37 PM), https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/us-easing-venezuela-oil-sanctions-response-election-deal-official-2023-10-18/.