Big fightback

As Venezuela grapples with the pandemic and the devastating economic effects of U.S. sanctions and the drop in oil prices, the U.S. sees this as an opportunity to turn the screws on the country.

Published : May 06, 2020 07:00 IST

A team consisting of Cuban and Venezuelan health care workers carrying out an inspection on April 9 in a slum area in Caracas during the nationwide quarantine on account of COVID-19.

A team consisting of Cuban and Venezuelan health care workers carrying out an inspection on April 9 in a slum area in Caracas during the nationwide quarantine on account of COVID-19.

At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is ravaging many parts of Latin America, the administration of United States President Donald Trump has found it opportune to further tighten sanctions on Venezuela and once again call for regime change. In late March, even as the Venezuelan government was appealing to the international community for help to fight the pandemic, the U.S. called on President Nicolas Maduro to relinquish power and make way for a so-called “power-sharing” government. Such a government would be dominated by the puppets of the U.S., currently led by a lightweight discredited politician named Juan Guaido, the leader of a right-wing coup attempt against Maduro.

The pretender is allowed to roam freely around the world and address meetings inside Venezuela. Very few people now turn up to listen to him and most of the opposition has deserted him. Craving for international credibility, Guaido appears on obscure television channels in many parts of the world. His U.S. handlers recently arranged an interview slot for him on an Indian television channel with close links to the Bharatiya Janata Party. Guaido used the platform to ask the Indian government to withdraw recognition from the legitimate government in Venezuela.

The Trump administration’s new plan, with the pompous title “Democratic Transition Framework”, called for the setting up of “a transitional government” in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital. Its sole purpose would be to hold a presidential election before the end of the year even as the country is battling to contain the pandemic. Before the so-called transition plans were formally announced, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the Trump administration was offering a bounty for the arrests of Maduro and four senior serving and retired officials, including the current army chief, Gen. Vladimir Padrino. The U.S. government, to the general amusement of many in the region, accused the Venezuelan leader of forging “a partnership in narco-terrorism” with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, “over the last 20 years”.

Maduro termed the charges as “false and racist” and described the U.S. President as “a miserable person”. The fictitious accusation against Maduro had very few takers besides the leaders of the 50 pro-U.S. countries in the region that have recognised Guaido as President. According to statistics the U.S. State Department itself has been releasing, Venezuela “is not a primary transit country for drug trafficking” in the region. But facts have never stood in the way of the present U.S. administration. The U.S. has since announced a “naval blockade” of Venezuela.

At a news conference to address the COVID-19 issue in the first week of April, Trump made the announcement of the biggest U.S. naval deployment in Latin America in 30 years. According to U.S. Defence Secretary Mark Esper, the main target of the massive naval build-up “is the illegitimate Maduro regime of Venezuela”. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien stressed that the U.S. would “continue its maximum pressure policy” against Venezuela. The last time there was a U.S. naval build-up of this size in the region was in 1989; it led to the invasion of Panama and the overthrow of that country’s President, Manuel Noriega.

Interestingly, retired Major General Cliver Alcala Cordones—a Venezuelan army officer whom the U.S. Department of Justice indicted in absentia in March on several charges, including narco-terrorism—has confessed to being part of an earlier coup plot against the Venezuelan government. The general, who had lived in exile for some years in Colombia, said that the plot was hatched in consultation with Guaido and his “American advisers”. He has threatened to reveal more secrets if the Department of Justice brings forward the charges against him. He is currently in the U.S.’ custody.

Senior U.S. officials have said that the latest move is part of the “maximum pressure” campaign against the government of Venezuela that the Trump administration has been applying for the last year and a half. It came at a time when the Venezuelan government was carrying out important negotiations with the “moderate” sections of the opposition to prepare for the legislative elections to be held later in the year. In a terror attack on the offices of Venezuela’s election commission evidently planned to sabotage the electoral exercise, electronic voting machines were destroyed.

The U.S.’ moves have also taken place when global oil prices have hit a historic low because of a dispute between Russia and Saudi Arabia. The threat of U.S. sanctions has scared off big companies like Russia’s Rosneft and India’s Reliance. Trump’s hawkish advisers seem to have calculated that a combination of the coronavirus and growing economic misery caused by U.S. sanctions provides a fertile ground for regime change.

Updated ‘Monroe Doctrine’

Trump’s point man in Venezuela is the notorious Elliot Abrams, a dyed-in-the-wool neocon. Abrams was a key player in the Iran-Contra affair and the anti-Sandinista counter-revolution in Nicaragua during the presidency of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. The Trump administration claims to be implementing an updated version of the 200-year-old “Monroe Doctrine”, which was the basis for repeated U.S. military interventions in the region. According to the doctrine, the U.S. is “ primus inter pares ” (first among equals) in the region, and all other countries have to kowtow to it. Cuba was the first country to exert its sovereignty and choose its own path of development. Other countries in the region tried to follow Cuba’s lead, but most of their efforts were quashed by the U.S. empire. Hugo Chavez and Maduro are among the handful of leaders who have been able to buck the trend since the end of the last century.

Chavez inspired the “pink revolution”, which saw progressive governments being elected throughout the length and breadth of Latin America and the Caribbean. The empire has chosen its time to strike back and has been successful in dismantling many of the left-wing governments in the region. The last casualty was Bolivia where the army overturned the results of a fair and free election with the support of the U.S.

But the tide seems to be turning yet again, as the people in the region have started getting disillusioned with the neoliberal agenda being implemented by the proxies of the U.S. In Argentina, the centre-left has made a comeback. In Chile and Bolivia, the right wing is fighting a losing battle. The crisis caused by the pandemic has given some right-wing governments some breathing room as protests and mass gatherings have stopped because of quarantine measures or executive fiat. The U.S. would like nothing better than to deliver a body blow to the Left at this juncture, using the crisis triggered by the pandemic as cover to intervene militarily in Venezuela.

The U.S.’ latest efforts to overthrow the popularly elected government in Venezuela started after the International Monetary Fund (IMF) rejected Venezuela’s request for a $5 billion coronavirus response loan. The U.S. used its clout in the IMF to ensure that the emergency loan request was denied despite Venezuela getting the backing of the European Union bloc. Guaido has been saying that a financial package is ready for rescuing the Venezuelan economy as soon as there is regime change.

The U.S. sanctions have badly affected the country’s medical infrastructure and power grid. This has hampered the working of hospitals and emergency services. There is an acute shortage of essential medicine and equipment required to fight the pandemic. The fall in global oil prices has not helped matters. Venezuela has asked the International Criminal Court to launch an investigation into what it describes as “crimes against humanity” by the U.S. government. Alfred-Maurice de Zayas, a former United Nations Special Rapporteur, has said that some 100,000 Venezuelans have died because of “the impossibility of the timely access to medicines” as a result of sanctions.

All the same, despite the severe constraints, the Venezuelan government, with help from Cuban doctors and medical aid from China, has put up a creditable fight in its efforts to arrest the onslaught of the dreaded virus. Cuba has sent 130 doctors and medical professionals along with 10,000 doses of the drug Interferonalfa-2b. China has dispatched enough coronavirus diagnostic kits to test 320,000 Venezuelans. Russia, too, has sent sizeable amounts of medical equipment and kits. While other countries are sending medical supplies to Venezuela, the U.S. is sending a naval armada to blockade the country.

The Venezuelan government declared a medical emergency on March 11, a day before the first coronavirus case was reported in the country. The airspace was closed to international flights and schools were shut down. Within four days, a national quarantine was announced. A comprehensive national survey was undertaken to identify those who had contracted the disease. The government claims that but for its rigorous testing procedures and the quarantine, the casualties in Venezuela would have been on the high side as is being witnessed in many other Latin American countries. The government has also guaranteed a regular supply of food to the neediest, who constitute seven million people. By the third week of April, there were only 181 reported cases of the coronavirus and 9 deaths.

The worst hit nation in the region is Venezuela’s neighbour Brazil. By the third week of April, more than 22,000 people there were infected. There have been more than 1,200 deaths so far. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has made an international laughing stock of himself by taking a highly contrarian view of the pandemic. When the coronavirus came knocking, he was more focussed on destabilising the socialist government in Venezuela than on dealing with the pandemic. In the first week of March, Bolsonaro ordered the withdrawal of all Brazilian diplomats from Venezuela and forced Venezuelan diplomats out of the country. Bolsonaro had made the decision just before he flew to Washington for a meeting with his ideological soulmate, Trump. On the top of their agenda for the meeting was regime change in Caracas.

In February when Guaido visited Washington, Trump greeted him with all the pomp and ceremony reserved for heads of state. Brazil and Colombia are the main backers of the U.S.’ plans to overthrow the left-wing government in Venezuela. Brazil only jumped on the U.S.’ bandwagon after the extreme right-wing Bolsonaro was elected a year and a half ago. Colombia has been under a right-wing government for decades and has been the U.S.’ closest military ally in the region since the mid-1990s. Colombian President Ivan Duque was in Washington a week before Bolsonaro went there. Right-wing Venezuelan paramilitary groups are being given training in Colombia and Brazil.

The Trump administration is spending millions of dollars in its efforts to get high-ranking Venezuelan military officers to defect or mutiny. The message is loud and clear—Venezuela, the land of Simon Bolivar, will never succumb to the machinations of an imperial nation ever again.

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