Back to the old game

The U.S. move to impose sanctions against Venezuelan government officials comes amid the country’s attempts to ensure that basic essentials are available to its population facing an economic crisis.

Published : Apr 01, 2015 12:30 IST

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro with state oil and electric workers during an anti-imperialist rally in Caracas on March 18.

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro with state oil and electric workers during an anti-imperialist rally in Caracas on March 18.

THE United States seems to be back at its old games in Latin America. The region has ceased to be Washington’s backyard since the turn of the century, but that fact has not deterred American policymakers from making efforts to reverse the progressive “pink tide” that has swept across most of Latin America and the Caribbean. President Barack Obama’s efforts at normalising ties with Cuba after more than six decades of hostility were welcomed in the region. But soon after that historic decision, the Obama administration took the unprecedented step of imposing sanctions on the government of Venezuela. Through an “executive order” on March 9, Obama classified the country as a “national security threat” to the U.S. and imposed sanctions on senior Venezuelan government officials. Washington’s move has come in for condemnation from all the governments in the region. Only Canada, under the neoconservative Prime Minister Steven Harper, is openly supporting the action against Venezuela.

Obama’s executive order declared Venezuela as “an extraordinary threat” to U.S. national security. Venezuela and also regional groupings such as the Union of South American States (UNASUR) have demanded that Obama withdraw the order. The U.S. action will be high on the agenda of the forthcoming Summit of the Americas. Following the U.S. action, Venezuela’s parliament gave President Nicolas Maduro the power to rule by decree for the rest of this year.

President Maduro said that the decree powers were needed to prevent the U.S. from meddling in the internal affairs of the country. The Speaker of the Venezuelan Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, said that the President would use his executive powers to tide over the temporary economic crisis the country faced. Cabello also said that one of the priorities would be the repatriation of Venezuelan wealth illegally stashed away in the U.S.

The Obama administration’s action came in the wake of yet another reported coup attempt in Venezuela. On February 11, the Venezuelan authorities announced the arrest of a retired Air Force general, Oswaldo Hernando Sanchez, and 13 others on charges of plotting the overthrow of the government. On February 19, the government announced the arrest of the Mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma.

Ledezma is one of the prominent figures in the opposition and had in the past advocated non-constitutional means of overthrowing the elected government. In video evidence of the plot provided to the media, the alleged conspirators are heard talking about plans to bomb the presidential palace using air force trainer aircraft. Among those involved in the plan were cashiered military officers who were participants in the American-backed 2002 coup against Hugo Chavez. A report in the French newspaper L’Humanite said that many of the conspirators were in direct touch with American and British diplomats in Caracas. According to reports, they were guaranteed visas to the U.S. and the United Kingdom in case the coup attempt failed.

On March 3, Maduro revealed the game plan of the coup plotters. He said that the planned coup was to take place in three months’ time. After taking over the government, the plotters had planned to set up a 100-day transitional government and then call for elections. The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which consists of all the states in the region, issued a statement “reiterating its strong repudiation of the application of coercive measures that are contrary to international law” against Venezuela. UNASUR issued a statement that “rejected any attempts at destabilisation in Venezuela”. In the third week of March, the 11-member regional grouping Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) issued statements condemning the U.S. moves against Venezuela.

The Secretary General of the Organisation of American States {(OAS), Jose Miguel Inuelza, also issued a statement criticising the U.S. government’s move. He said the action would further complicate the situation in Venezuela and worsen relations between Caracas and Washington. The President of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, described the U.S. sanctions as a “bad joke”. In the third week of March, more than a hundred thousand Venezuelans took to the streets to protest against the U.S. action and support the new “enabling law” that allows the Venezuelan President to bypass the legislature in the “area of freedom, equality, justice and international peace, independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and national self-determination”.

Some U.S. commentators have compared Obama’s move to President Ronald Reagan’s 1985 economic blockade against Nicaragua. Washington wanted the left-wing Sandinistas ruling the country removed by hook or by crook. The Reagan administration went on to arm the right-wing “Contra” counter-revolutionaries. The U.S. succeeded in destroying the Nicaraguan economy and bringing about a regime change. Venezuela has been on the top of the U.S.' hit last for more than a decade and a half.

But, as Fidel Castro said recently, the Venezuelan revolution is here to stay. In a letter to President Maduro, Fidel Castro said that while Venezuela had always wanted to settle its differences with the U.S. in “a peaceful and civilised way”, the country would “never accept intimidation or sanctions”. He noted that the Venezuelan army was the best equipped and trained in Latin America and that it was “ready to sacrifice their last drop of blood for the country”.

In an “open letter” to the people of America that was published in TheNew York Times in late March, the Venezuelan government accused the Obama administration of taking “unilateral and aggressive measures” against the country. “President Obama, without any authority to interfere in our internal affairs, unilaterally issued a set of sanctions against Venezuelan officials with potentially far-reaching implications, interfering in our constitutional order and justice system,” the letter said.

Since the coming to power of Chavez and the consolidation of the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, the U.S. has been working overtime to destabilise the country. The most graphic demonstration of U.S. intent was the failed coup of 2002. It was backed by the administration of George W. Bush, but it collapsed in the face of a massive public backlash on the streets of Caracas. Washington continued its attempts to subvert the government in slightly more discreet ways by funding the opposition and encouraging violent street protests.

In early 2014, street protests that had loud backing from Washington claimed the lives of more than 44 people. The efforts to bring about a regime change have been redoubled in recent months as the country plunged into an economic crisis following the dramatic collapse of petroleum prices. Venezuela is the world’s second biggest oil exporter. A shortage of essential commodities some months ago had led to panic buying and hoarding.

Venezuela’s President has been expending all his energies to tackle the situation and ensure that poor Venezuelans have access to basic necessities. He blamed the opposition and the business interests opposed to the government’s socialist policies for the shortages. Maduro visited the major capitals of the world and the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) members to drum up support for his government and to forge unity among oil-producing nations.

He also succeeded in getting a massive $10-billion loan from China that will help his government to repay outstanding debts. Despite the economic crisis, the Venezuelan government has ensured that most basic goods are available. Unlike in other crisis-hit countries such as Greece and Spain, the unemployment rate is under 6 per cent, and 95 per cent of the population enjoys three square meals a day. Housing is subsidised by the state.

The Saudi Arabia-led move to let oil prices collapse and not reduce output have hurt all oil-producing countries. Only the rich Gulf kingdoms, having huge foreign exchange reserves, have so far been relatively unaffected by the plunging oil prices.

The Saudi move, encouraged by the U.S., has been interpreted in many quarters as being aimed primarily against Russia. The Saudis were angry with Russia’s continued backing of the Syrian government. The Americans were also keen to teach Russia a lesson after a crisis erupted in Ukraine, and the Crimean region decided to rejoin the Russian Federation. The drastic fall in global oil prices has also adversely affected America’s other enemies, notably Iran and Venezuela.

At the same time, the Western media have been carrying on sustained propaganda against the Venezuelan government. Articles in leading newspapers like The New York Times have been accusing top Venezuelan officials of being involved in activities ranging from terrorism to narcotics smuggling.

The Obama administration has facilitated the escape of two former military officials, both former Chavez loyalists. They had joined the opposition after the demise of Chavez. They have been busy since then making wild allegations against senior officials and influential politicians like the Speaker of the National Assembly. This year the Obama administration approved an additional $5 million for the funding of opposition groups in Venezuela. The U.S. Congress has chipped in with an additional $1.2 million through the National Endowment for Democracy. The money will fund opposition groups. Much more money is no doubt being routed through more clandestine channels to fund covert activities inside Venezuela.

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