[News] The Plot to Kill Venezuela

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Wed May 15 11:15:13 EDT 2019


  The Plot to Kill Venezuela

By Vijay Prashad - May 14, 2019

Hugo Chávez knew that Venezuela was very vulnerable. Its oil revenues 
account for 98 percent of its export earnings. Chávez was familiar with 
the thinking of Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo, Venezuela’s minister of mines 
and hydrocarbons in the early 1960s and one of the architects of OPEC 
(Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries). In 1976, Pérez 
Alfonzo wrote, “Ten years from now, twenty years from now, you will see, 
oil will bring us ruin.” He called Venezuela’s oil the “devil’s 
excrement.” If oil prices remained high, as they were when Chávez came 
to power in 1999, then oil revenue could be used to finance a project 
for the landless workers. If oil prices collapsed, then the 
country—laden with debt—would face severe challenges.

Venezuela’s economy had not been diversified by the oligarchy that ruled 
the country before Chávez took office. By 1929, it had become apparent 
to the oligarchy that the flood of oil revenues had damaged the 
agricultural sector—which shrank in the decades to come. There was 
neither an attempt to enhance agricultural production (and make 
Venezuela food sovereign) nor was there any attempt to use oil profits 
for a wider industrialization program. Occasionally, presidents—such as 
Carlos Andrés Pérez in the 1970s—would pledge to use the influx of oil 
revenues to diversify the economy, but when oil prices would fall—as 
they did periodically—Venezuela went into punishing debt.

It would have taken Chávez a generation to pivot the economy away from 
its reliance upon oil revenues. But Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution 
simply did not have the time. In the 2000s, when oil prices remained 
high, the revenues were used to enhance the social lives of the landless 
workers, most of whom suffered high rates of malnutrition and 
illiteracy. Gripped by the need to deal with the social blight amongst 
the landless workers, Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution simply did 
not have the capacity to tackle reliance upon imports of food and of 
most consumer goods.

In 2009, a U.S. State Department cable 
<https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/09CARACAS564_a.html> from Caracas 
noted that the decline in oil prices had placed the Venezuelan 
government in great peril. The government’s oil company—PDVSA—had 
provided the revenues to fund the social missions, the programs to lift 
the low standard of social life for the landless workers. “Unless oil 
prices rise significantly,” wrote John Caulfield from Caracas, “we are 
increasingly certain that the game will be up, from an economic 
standpoint, by early to mid 2010, as no one will be willing to continue 
to finance PDVSA and a vicious cycle will be inevitable.” The June 2008 
price was $163.52; by January 2009, it had collapsed to $50.43. 
Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution was in peril.


The United States government and the Venezuelan oligarchy first tried to 
overthrow the Bolivarian Revolution in 2002. Great hope in Chávez 
prevented a discredited oligarchy from victory. Oil revenues then 
allowed Chávez to build up pillars of support for the revolution. But 
the depletion of the oil prices from 2009 threatened the Bolivarian 
process. Chávez died in 2013. The combination of low oil prices and the 
death of Chávez changed the political calculations.

Egged on by the United States, opposition leaders Leopoldo López and 
María Corina Machado called for demonstrations against the newly elected 
president Nicolás Maduro in 2014. It was clear that the protests were 
intended as a provocation, drawing a crackdown from the government 
forces, which allowed U.S. President Barack Obama to sign the Venezuela 
Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014. This act allowed 
Obama to sanction individuals in the Venezuelan government. It was 
extended in 2016 and will expire—unless extended again—at the end of 
2019. The sanctions policy was to be the new lever to pressure a 
vulnerable Venezuela.

In March 2015, Obama declared Venezuela a “threat” to U.S. “national 
security,” an extreme step, and sanctioned a handful of Venezuelan 
government officials. The administration of Donald Trump only sharpened 
and deepened the policy. Obama sanctioned seven individuals, while Trump 
has—thus far—sanctioned 75 individuals. Obama forged the spear; Trump 
has thrown it at the heart of Venezuela.

      Sanctioned Economy

These early sanctions went after individuals, offering an inconvenience 
for some Venezuelan politicians and for sections of the state. The U.S. 
government would soon move the sanctions from individual inconvenience 
to social collapse. Trump’s policy, from 2017, was to hit Venezuela’s 
petroleum industry very hard. The U.S. government prevented Venezuelan 
government bonds from trading in U.S. financial markets, and then it 
prevented the state’s energy company—PDVSA—from receiving payments for 
its export of petroleum products. The U.S. Treasury Department froze $7 
billion in PDVSA assets, and it did not allow U.S. firms to export 
naphtha into Venezuela (a crucial input for the extraction of heavy 
crude oil).

The country relied on oil revenues to import food and medicines. The 
theft of the $7 billion in PDVSA assets, the seizure of the $1.2 billion 
in Venezuelan gold in the Bank of England, the transfer of ownership of 
the PDVSA subsidiary CITGO in the United States to the opposition and 
the pressure on oil exports squeezed Venezuela very hard. U.S. National 
Security Adviser John Bolton estimated that the United States (and 
Canadian) sanctions had cost Venezuela about $11 billion.

When the United States began to put pressure on transportation firms to 
stop carrying Venezuelan oil, the schemes to export oil to the Caribbean 
(PetroCaribe) suffered 
as did the fraternal delivery of oil to Cuba. This policy inflamed the 
situation in Haiti—which is in a long-term political crisis—and it has 
deepened the crisis in Cuba—which has now had to enforce rationing 
The countries in the Caribbean, which relied upon Venezuelan oil, are 
now suffering deeply.

      Impact of the Sanctions

Economists Mark Weisbrot and Jeffrey Sachs calculate that the U.S. 
sanctions have resulted in the death of 40,000 Venezuelan civilians 
between 2017 and 2018. In their report 
<https://tinyurl.com/y5qge3hw>—“Economic Sanctions as Collective 
Punishment: The Case of Venezuela” (April 2019)—they point out that this 
death toll is merely the start of what is to come. An additional 300,000 
Venezuelans are at risk “because of lack of access to medicines or 
treatment,” including 80,000 “with HIV who have not had antiretroviral 
treatment since 2017.” There are 4 million people with diabetes and 
hypertension, most of whom cannot access insulin or cardiovascular 
medicine. “These numbers,” they write, “by themselves virtually 
guarantee that the current sanctions, which are much more severe than 
those implemented before this year, are a death sentence for tens of 
thousands of Venezuelans.” If oil revenues drop by 67 percent in 2019—as 
has been projected—the death of tens of thousands of Venezuelans is 

Venezuela has imported food goods worth only $2.46 billion in 2018 
compared to $11.2 billion in 2013. If food imports remain low and 
Venezuela is unable to hastily grow enough food, then—as Weisbrot and 
Sachs argue—the situation will contribute to “malnutrition and stunting 
in children.”

In 2018, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights—Michelle 
Bachelet—made the case that the cause of the deterioration of well-being 
in Venezuela predates the sanctions (a report 
<https://www.hrw.org/report/2019/04/04/venezuelas-humanitarian-emergency/large-scale-un-response-needed-address-health> from 
Human Rights Watch and Johns Hopkins University underlined this point). 
It is certainly true that the fall of oil prices had a marked impact on 
Venezuela’s external revenues and the reliance upon food imports—a 
century-old problem—had marked the country before Trump’s very harsh 

But, the next year, Bachelet told 
<https://reliefweb.int/report/venezuela-bolivarian-republic/oral-update-situation-human-rights-bolivarian-republic> the 
UN Security Council that “although this pervasive and devastating 
economic and social crisis began before the imposition of the first 
economic sanctions in 2017, I am concerned that the recent sanctions on 
financial transfers related to the sale of Venezuelan oil within the 
United States may contribute to aggravating the economic crisis, with 
possible repercussions on people’s basic rights and wellbeing.” A debate 
over whether it is mismanagement and corruption by the Maduro government 
or the sanctions that are the author of the crisis is largely 
irrelevant. The point is that a combination of the reliance on oil 
revenues and the sanctions policy has crushed the policy space for any 
stability in the country.

      Illegal Sanctions

Weisbrot and Sachs say that these sanctions “would fit the definition of 
collective punishment,” as laid out in the Hague Convention (1899) and 
in the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949). The United States is a signatory 
of both of these frameworks. “Collective penalties,” says the Fourth 
Geneva Convention, “are prohibited.” Tens of thousands of Venezuelans 
are dead. Tens of thousands more are under threat of death. Yet, no one 
has stood up against the grave breach of the convention in terms of 
collective punishment. There is not a whiff of interest in the UN 
Secretary General’s office to open a tribunal on the accusations of 
collective punishment against Venezuela. Allegations of this seriousness 
are brushed under the rug.

/The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not 
necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff./

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