Venezuela

In defiance of an embargo

Print edition : September 13, 2019

Supporters of Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro take part in a rally against U.S. sanctions on Venezuela, in Caracas on August 10. Photo: MANAURE QUINTERO/REUTERS

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Photo: FEDERICO PARRA/AFP

Juan Guaido, the opposition leader and self-proclaimed interim President. Photo: Ariana Cubillos/AP

U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton (right) and U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross attend a summit to discuss the political crisis in Venezuela, in Lima, Peru, on August 6. Photo: Guadalupe Pardo/REUTERS

The U.S. imposes a total economic embargo on Venezuela, the latest in a series of efforts to dislodge the popular elected government there.

The Donald Trump administration, after experimenting with various illegal manoeuvres and strategems to dislodge the popularly elected government of Venezuela for more than a year, has now resorted to what it considers the most potent weapon in its arsenal. In the first week of August, the United States announced that it was imposing a total economic embargo on Venezuela. President Donald Trump signed an executive order “freezing all property and interests in property of the government of Venezuela in the United States”. With this move, the U.S. wants to ensure that Venezuela is effectively cut off from all financial, capital and consumer markets controlled by it.

This move by the U.S., according to most international law experts, constitutes an “act of war” against Venezuela as it seeks to subdue the people of that country through brute economic means. A report by the U.S. Congressional Research Service conceded that the new set of sanctions announced by the Trump administration “are further exacerbating Venezuela’s difficult humanitarian crisis, already marked by shortages of food and medicine and mass migration, by limiting the source of revenue”. The Venezuelan Foreign Ministry described the Trump administration’s latest move “as economic terrorism”. The U.S. took this extreme step even as the Venezuelan government was engaged in talks with the opposition in Barbados and Oslo to find a negotiated settlement to the political and economic crisis in the country. President Nicolas Maduro called off talks that were scheduled to be held in Barbados in the second week of August with the opposition to protest the Trump administration’s latest move. The Venezuelan government accused the the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency-backed opposition leader, Juan Guaido, the self-appointed President of Venezuela, of “celebrating, promoting and supporting these actions detrimental to the sovereignty of our country and elemental human rights of its inhabitants”.

Drastic step

This is the first time a U.S. government has taken such a precipitate step in Latin America since its military intervention in Panama in 1988. The George H.W. Bush administration had first imposed wide-ranging sanctions on the Central American country and then launched a military invasion to overthrow the government of Manuel Noriega. The U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton and Trump are not ruling out a military invasion of Venezuela, frustrated as they are with their inability to achieve their goals through other devious means. The U.S. has not been able to convince its close allies in the region such as Colombia and Brazil to support a military invasion of another Latin American country. The U.S. and its allies are instead trying to destabilise the Venezuelan government by trying to sow division in Venezuela’s armed forces. The Venezuelan government foiled a coup attempt in June. The government said that the plot was hatched with the active collusion of the U.S. and its regional allies, Colombia and Chile.

Trump’s latest announcement imposing a virtual blockade coincided with a conference in Lima, Peru, on the situation in Venezuela, attended by more than 50 countries along with representatives of the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The E.U., which is part of a so-called International Contact Group on Venezuela along with a dozen other Latin American and European governments, has, however, criticised the latest U.S. action. The contact group wants to promote a process of dialogue between the legitimate government of Venezuela and the opposition. The E.U., however, has not been consistent and has sided with the U.S. in its sanctions against senior Venezuelan officials and has threatened more punitive actions if the Venezuelan government does not make concessions to the opposition.

The conference in Lima was organised at the behest of the U.S. John Bolton headed the U.S. delegation. Major countries such as Russia, China and Turkey, which were among the more than 100 countries invited, refused to attend the conference. Bolton issued a warning to the international community against engaging with the Venezuelan government. “We are sending a signal to third parties that want to do business with the Maduro regime. Proceed with extreme care,” said Bolton, making it clear that if any nation or individual dared to violate the latest round of U.S. unilateral sanctions on Venezuela, there would be severe penalties.

Bolton has been publicly airing his wish list of the three countries in the region where he wishes to see regime change. The countries, not surprisingly, are Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Bolton and his boss Trump have, on various occasions, described the three countries as the “troika of tyranny” and the new “axis of evil”. More ominously, the Trump administration is trying to revive the discredited “Monroe doctrine” of the 19th century. Named after U.S. President James Monroe, the doctrine basically states that the whole of the American continent is the U.S.’ backyard and it can unilaterally intervene in the internal affairs of its regional neighbours whenever it chooses.

The U.S. had seemingly given up on the blatantly imperialist doctrine in November 2013, when the then U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, made a speech at the Organisation of American Unity (OAU), where he officially pronounced the doctrine as “dead” and that the “era of the Monroe doctrine is over”. But the Trump administration, prone as it is to trampling on international laws and norms, did not take much time to remind the world that the days of U.S. gunboat diplomacy in the region are far from over. Elliot Abrams, the Trump administration’s special envoy to Venezuela, said recently that the Trump administration had not ruled out a military solution in Venezuela.

Trump, in a rambling address to the United Nations General Assembly last September, resurrected the reviled Monroe doctrine. “It has been the formal policy of our country since President Monroe that we reject the interference of foreign nations in our hemisphere,” Trump said. The U.S. is angry with the support extended to beleaguered Venezuela by Russia and China. Russia has established a small military presence in Venezuela which acts as a deterrent against invasion.

Close links

In early August, Venezuela and Russia signed an agreement providing for reciprocal visits of naval ships to each other’s ports and an agreement on military-technical cooperation. In February this year, the Venezuelan and Russian air forces conducted joint exercises over the Caribbean. The Russian Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu, told the media in Moscow after a meeting with his Venezuelan counterpart that his country would back Venezuela in its efforts to follow an independent foreign policy and “counteracting U.S. attempts to change the legitimately elected government”. Russia’s state-owned oil company Rosneft has taken a big stake in the development of two oilfields in Venezuela’s continental shelf. China buys most of Venezuela’s oil and has invested heavily in Venezuela’s hydrocarbon industries. Venezuela has the largest known oil reserves in the world.

The revival of the Monroe doctrine has upset the entire region, including U.S. allies. “There is a new generation that has not lived in a world where a populist President governs the United States and declares his right to intervene in Latin America whenever he chooses. The Monroe doctrine is being used as the principle to rule our relationship,” said Juan Gabriel Valdez, a former Chilean Ambassador to the U.N. His statement coincided with the visit of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Chile in April this year. Pompeo told the right-wing Chilean President Sebastian Pinera about the dangers of being overly dependent on China. The country is Chile’s biggest trading partner.

The illegal sanctions put in place earlier by the Trump administration had severely circumscribed Venezuela’s global oil sales. India, which was one of Venezuela’s biggest clients, was among the first countries to succumb to U.S. arm-twisting. Last year, it stopped buying Venezuelan oil completely. The U.S. had further pressured India to stop buying oil from Iran this year. Iran and Venezuela were among the top four suppliers of oil to India.

Venezuela had been put under severe U.S. sanctions over the last couple of years. Since the self-proclamation of Juan Guaido as President in early January, the Trump administration froze all Venezuelan government assets in the U.S. The latest move by the Trump administration constitutes a de facto total blockade of the country, similar to the one imposed on Cuba for more than six decades. Foreign exchange reserves in Venezuela have shrunk to an all-time low. The World Bank has further complicated the situation by imposing a penalty of $8 billion for abrogating a contract with the U.S. oil company ConocoPhillips in 2007. The Venezuelan economy has shrunk by two-thirds and the total defaulted debt amounts to $150 billion.

The Trump administration had earlier this year illegally taken over control of CITGO, the U.S.-based subsidiary of the Venezuelan state-owned oil company, PDVSA. CITGO is a major oil refiner in the U.S. and owns a chain of petrol stations across the country. It generated more than $23 billion in annual sales in 2018. It was a major source of revenue for the cash-starved Venezuelan government before it was seized and handed on a platter to the opposition, which, as the world knows, is financed and controlled by the puppet masters in Washington, D.C. John Bolton, whose mission in life seems to be to ensure regime change in Venezuela and Iran, played a key behind-the-scenes role in the illegal takeover of CITGO. The Venezuelan government has vowed to never let the company be run by people appointed at the behest of the Trump administration. Venezuela’s State Comptroller Elvis Amoroso said that the new group of directors that the U.S. has foisted on CITGO are “a group of people who have been committing usurpation and corruption and have appropriated companies that belong to Venezuelans”. The Venezuelan Oil Minister Manuel Quevedo accused the Trump administration of “stealing” CITGO. The Venezuelan government is suing the Trump administration in a U.S. court to regain control of the company.

After the takeover, the U.S. is finding it difficult to keep the company afloat. Under the new management, CITGO has been unable to service its debts and source oil and gas for distribution. The company has to pay $913 million in November this year to the holders of a bond issued by PDVSA that is maturing early next year. If the Trump administration fails to rustle up this amount on behalf of the puppet government in exile which it has recognised, then there is the real danger of CITGO falling out of the hands of the Venezuelan government and into the hands of rapacious creditors.

In February, the Trump administration, riding roughshod over the Vienna Convention, allowed the takeover of the Venezuelan embassy in Washington, D.C. by supporters of Juan Guaido. A far-right crony of Guaido has been anointed by the Trump administration as the country’s Ambassador to the U.S. But despite all the huffing and puffing by the U.S., the socialist government, with the support of the majority of the people, has so far been able to survive. Cuba too survived despite being blockaded since the early 1960s.

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