Resisting U.S. pressure

As the United States continues to mount pressure on Venezuela with sanctions and efforts to undermine its upcoming presidential election, President Maduro calls for a national peace dialogue to circumvent further economic warfare and prevent an armed coup.

Published : May 23, 2018 12:30 IST

President Nicolas Maduro  at a rally in Caracas to protest against the actions of the Trump administration.

President Nicolas Maduro at a rally in Caracas to protest against the actions of the Trump administration.

IN the lead-up to the Venezuelan presidential election on May 20, the United States put as much pressure as it could on the people of that country to reject the sitting government. U.S. President Donald Trump has made it clear that he would like to see the Bolivarian movement—in power since 1999—removed from office and isolated in the region. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visited the Organisation of American States (OAS) headquarters in Washington, D.C., a week before the vote and made the case for Venezuela to be removed from the 35-nation organisation. Venezuela’s diplomat, Samuel Moncada, said that the OAS had “returned to its original condition as a colonial body”. Venezuela has said it will leave the OAS.

Pence went out of his way at the OAS to deny legitimacy to the election. “There will be no real election in Venezuela on May 20, and the world knows it,” Pence said. The election, Pence said, “is no more than fraud and sham”. The U.S. government concedes that President Nicolas Maduro will win the election. It is because the opposition—fiercely divided—has little chance to win that the U.S. government is now trying to undermine the legitimacy of the election. This means that once the election result is declared, the U.S. government will not take that as a mandate of the Venezuelan people. It will, on the contrary, accuse Venezuela of having run an illegitimate election and push once more to destabilise the country.

Rising to Venezuela’s defence, President of Bolivia Evo Morales said: “Before the election, [the United States] will carry out violent actions supported by the media and after the election they will try a military invasion with armed forces from neighbouring countries.” These are strong words. They represent the sense of foreboding within Venezuela and amongst its allies.

U.S. sanctions

In the months leading up to the election, the U.S. government put immense pressure on Venezuela’s already fragile economy. Three Venezuelan nationals and 20 companies faced additional sanctions. The U.S. government accused these people and companies of being involved in a narcotics business that includes Maduro. These sanctions are merely symbolic. They will not impact Venezuela’s economy much.

Far more dangerous are the sanctions that the U.S. government could—and has threatened to—impose, including sanctions on Venezuelan oil services companies and on insurance coverage for oil tankers that carry Venezuelan oil. If the U.S. does impose these sanctions, Venezuela’s oil sector will be paralysed.

Venezuela relies on its oil exports. There were 70 active rigs in Venezuela at the start of 2016, but currently there are only about 40. This is a precipitous decline. Venezuela’s economy contracted by 9 per cent in 2017 as a result. Foreign partners of the Venezuelan oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PdVSA), have been gradually walking away from the country.

Drama is a constant feature of the oil war against Venezuela. In 2007, the Venezuelan government seized some assets of the U.S.-based oil company Conoco-Phillips. The Houston-based firm took PdVSA to the International Chamber of Commerce and then to courts in the Caribbean. The Chamber of Commerce found in favour of Conoco-Phillips—to the tune of $2 billion. A court in Curacao also found in favour of Conoco-Phillips and allowed the American company to take over oil storage and refining facilities held by PdVSA. This amounts to a total loss of facilities worth $636 million.

Conoco-Phillips has also moved on PdVSA assets in Aruba, Bonaire and St. Eustatius. If it is able to claim all these assets, PdVSA will find it virtually impossible to do business. This attack on Venezuela by Conoco-Phillips will have a much greater impact than the U.S. sanctions. A third of Venezuelan oil exports are likely to be hurt by this action.

Venezuela’s elite oligarchy, which controls the media in the country, is rankled by Maduro’s humble origins and the fact that he was a bus driver who now stands up to them. The media of the oligarchy refers to Maduro as “the donkey” (El burro de Venezuela). In a recent video, the popular Colombian singer J. Balvin called Maduro a donkey.

This is not the first time that the oligarchy has reacted in this way to the Bolivarian leadership. While Hugo Chavez, the predecessor of Maduro, was known affectionately as Mi Comandante, “my commander”, the oligarchy’s media called him Miko Mandante or “ape commander”. The use of the word “ape” is not accidental. Chavez was Afro-Venezuelan. Racism cuts to the core amongst Venezuela’s elite. It is this oligarchy that has long attempted to overthrow the Bolivarian process. In 2002, the oligarchy went along with the U.S. in an attempted coup against Chavez. It failed. The people took to the streets in defence of the Bolivarian revolution. Since 1998, Venezuela has held elections almost each year—for the presidency, for the parliament, for the Constituent Assembly and for various referendums. The entire Bolivarian process of transforming the agenda of the state has taken place at the ballot box. Each time, the opposition (the party of the oligarchy) has failed to make headway against the Bolivarians. Even immense pressure from the U.S. and money from the oligarchy have failed to bring their favourite party to the front.

In the parliamentary elections of 2015, the opposition had the upper hand. It won twice as many seats as the Bolivarians. This result should have suggested that the elections in Venezuela are fair. After all, if the elections were rigged, how did the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), the opposition formation at that time, win 56 per cent of the vote? When the tide seems against the opposition, they cry foul. When it is to their advantage, they accept the results.

National peace dialogue

Before the vote, Maduro called for a national peace dialogue to be held in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, which would include various Venezuelan political parties as well as representatives of Venezuela’s neighbouring countries. In 2017, opposition leaders and the government had almost reached an agreement until the U.S. intervened and scuttled their progress. The main opposition candidate, Henri Falcon, is hampered by the boycott of a large section of the opposition (including MUD, which controls the parliament). Falcon’s attempts to create unity have failed. It is this divided opposition that will certainly lead to Maduro’s re-election.

Maduro’s call for a national dialogue is a way to circumvent further economic warfare on Venezuela and to prevent an escalation of any armed coup. Pressure continues to mount on countries in the region to break ties with Venezuela. Dominican Republic’s President Danilo Medina denied that he was in touch with Maduro about this national dialogue. His snub was firm. It is one that is driven by Washington. Medina’s government plans to deport tens of thousands of Venezuelans back home.

Whatever the outcome of the election, there is no doubt that pressure from Washington will continue to mount against Venezuela. As a result of Washington’s withdrawal from the Iran deal, oil prices have begun to creep up. In a different situation, this would have been a lifeline to Venezuela. But with the broad attack on its economy, including with the seizure of storage and refining assets by Conoco-Phillips, Venezuela will not be able to benefit from the rise in prices. It will remain in distress, the political will of its people hampered by the intervention of the U.S.

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