September 17, 2019

BROWN | Washington Strangles a Crippled Venezuela

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Shelves bereft of food, hospitals short of medicine. Police brutality and state-sanctioned violence. Assassinations of United Socialist Party officials, government buildings set ablaze. Much of the blame for the inflation and recent economic mismanagement in Venezuela lies with President Nicolás Maduro and the ruling PSUV. But the United States’ brutal sanctions campaign and coup attempts have dramatically magnified Venezuela’s misery.

No honest account of Venezuela’s state of affairs is complete without acknowledging the essential role that economic sanctions imposed by the United States and U.S.-backed coup attempts led by militant opposition leader Juan Guaidó have had on turning the country’s crisis into a humanitarian disaster. A study conducted by economist Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University estimates that 40,000 Venezuelans died as a direct result of U.S. sanctions from 2017 to 2018. Apparently unsatisfied with the scale of the Venezuelan people’s suffering, the Trump Administration implemented more severe sanctions on the country in August, prompting Maduro to withdraw from talks with the U.S.-backed opposition. Surely thousands more will die from the dual effects of Maduro’s mismanaged economy and Washington’s depraved strategy of economic strangulation.

If humanitarian concern about the deaths of tens of thousands of Venezuela’s most vulnerable is insufficient reason to drop the sanctions, perhaps it is also worth mentioning that U.S. sanctions on the country are an outrageous and explicit violation of international law. But concerns about international law are rarely relevant in American political discourse. Here it is unlikely that either international law or pity for the suffering of so many will have any effect on President Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo’s black-hearted approach to international affairs.

Hugo Chávez, former President of Venezuela, and his “Bolivarian Revolution” have functioned as a red herring for not just the international Right, but the Western business-political class as well. Chávez was long presented as a dictator in mainstream American media before his successor, Nicolás Maduro, gave some legitimacy to these allegations by thwarting the power of the opposition-controlled National Assembly. The paranoid coverage from U.S. media and politicians across the spectrum about Maduro and the evils of Venezuelan “socialism” is quite remarkable considering that the relative share of the private sector in the economy actually increased during Chávez’s presidency. Furthermore, there are many far more sinister world leaders than Maduro, yet he seems to get disproportionate attention. As opposed to, for example, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the ruthless Egyptian dictator who will be receiving his annual $1 billion military aid package from the U.S. taxpayer, no questions asked, unless hell freezes over.

The 1989 Caracazo, an event in which an unknown number of protesters, estimated to have been in the thousands, were shot dead by the military and police in Caracas over the course of less than a week, represents the epitome of Venezuelans contempt for their previous system of government. Working-class sectors of Caracas were demonstrating against social spending cuts implemented by newly-elected president Carlos Andrés Pérez. Hugo Chávez first came to the national spotlight after a 1992 failed coup attempt against the hated Pérez, who was widely regarded as illegitimate after the Caracazo and a series of corruption scandals.

To Venezuelans angry with decades of endemic corruption, elite-driven electoral politics, and government indifference to the suffering of the urban poor, Chávez’s attempt to overthrow the murderous Pérez regime turned him into a national hero: the attempted avenger of Venezuela’s Tiananmen Square. These political realities allowed Chávez to win 56 percent of the vote in the 1998 presidential election, even after the two traditional ruling parties agreed to endorse the same candidate. Three years later Chávez was almost toppled by a U.S.-backed coup attempt; the predecessor to the failed 2019 coup attempt endorsed by the United States and The New York Times.
Principled criticism of Maduro’s authoritarian tendencies should be welcomed, but it is clear that the State Department is not interested in the well-being of Venezuela. Rather than supporting regime change and participating in the usual red-baiting, virtue-signaling paranoia about the Maduro government, the United States should join Mexico and Uruguay in their support for a negotiated settlement between opposition groups and the PSUV that would lead to new elections, as has been suggested by prominent Venezuelan-American historian Alejandro Velasco. Meanwhile, Venezuela is trapped in a stalemate, and more innocents will perish until the United States reverses course on its criminal strangulation of the country.

Jacob Brown is a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University. He can be reached at jtb257@cornell.edu. Mapping Utopia runs every other Tuesday this semester.