Sanctioning Venezuela: Pain For Pain’s Sake?

As heartbreaking as it is for Americans to think one country might (might) meddle in another’s affairs, we’ve been meddling in Venezuela’s.  The US wants regime change, and has since Hugo Chavez put most Venezuelans, the poor ones, on radar.  But on what grounds?  Anarchy?  Tyranny?  Corruption?

To read and believe the hype, Maduro has gathered all the power and, simultaneously, lost all control.  The resulting ‘humanitarian crisis’ effects, not only Venezuela, but provides the (notional) threats to US security that premise our sanctions. -Sanctions that at least further -likely create- the humanitarian crisis.  Last year, Venezuela’s export revenues grew by $4 billion, yet imports fellby 31%, then another 24% so far this year, because we denied them use of banks and credit.  Now they lack 85% of needed medicines, and hospitals are canceling surgeries.  30% of children are malnourished, and in the last two years infant mortality rose by more than 30%.[i]  More sanctions, more crisis.  More crisis, more sanctions.  (More threat.)

All this is premised on Maduro’s abuses, and Kissinger’s unsound wisdom that sanctions are there to ‘make populations scream’ (which I’ll discuss below).  Never mind that a half-century siege of Cuba or a half-million dead in Iraq never led to regime change.  Nor mind the US was as keen on revolt when Venezuela was booming as it is now. Sadly, no major news agency has bothered vetting these–or any–concerns.

Yet consider,the top 5 recipients of US aid are:  Afghanistan ($5.6 billion), Israel ($3.2 billion), Iraq ($1.3 billion), Egypt ($1.3 billion), and Syria ($541,500,000).  According to the State Department’s own Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor,2017 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices all have worse human rights records than Venezuela. (Except Israel, who it claims is exempt from such scrutiny because -not joking- it ‘lacks a constitution, and so only the state of emergency rules of 1948 apply’.  (Meanwhile, we condemn Venezuela for updating theirs.)  -It’s a digression, but ponder that.) [ii]

What about Corruption?  Transparency International ranks Syria and Afghanistan at the bottom. Venezuela, well above, though not with a desirable score, is tied with Iraq, and Egypt ranks only slightly higher. Israel, the only one with an indited Prime Minister, ranks fine.

Or is it freedom itself, that sets Venezuela apart?  No, again.  Freedom House, gave them all lower ratings than Venezuela, with the exception of Israel, due to omitting the West Bank and Gaza from its scores.  For what it’s worth the two rank at the bottom, crushed by phantom or otherworldly sources, as far as one can tell.

To beleaguer the point, only Human Rights Watch cited Israel with more offenses.  But it also claimed Maduro ‘has made only limited efforts to obtain available international humanitarian assistance’ and made no mention of sanctions.  -Reminders we can’t ignore the neoliberal/ American-clientelist disposition of HRW, Freedom House, and Transparency International, much less the Times  or Post, even when their numbers are supportive.

Anarchy, then?

When Chavez died America said Chavismo would die too. People had only supported him because he gave them something.  This says a lot about our take on ‘class’.  Americans may not think clean water, sufficient meals, or open hospitals, are human rights, but I suspect offering voters something isthe point of democracy.  -There, if not here.  America discourages voting.  It makes it a lot easier to legislate for the rich if we pretend that, gifts aside, the poor don’t care.  Hence, if we, a foreign power, fund business-friendly propaganda its democracy. But for him to feed or employ the poor amounts to a bribe.

That said, $15 million from USAID and OTI to beat him at the polls or otherwise, failed exceedingly.  Chavez ‘bought’ the elections:  a 50% reduction in unemployment, a 40% decline in infant mortality, a 2 year increase in lifespans.  Extreme poverty dropped from 23% to 8%, literacy climbed from about 60% to 100%, and college enrollment more than doubled.[iii]  (Meanwhile poverty rates in the US climbed.)  So the best the evangelists of democracy could do was abandon it for darker arts.  A 2006 diplomatic cable exposed by WikiLeaks, listed penetrating Chavez’ Political Base, dividing Chavismo, and isolating Chavez internationally as our priorities.

Or economics?

Now things aren’t so rosy. The price of oil dropped, Venezuela’s economy rested mostly on oil exports to import goods, which led to massive inflation.  Whether or not  Maduro juggled it well, it pertains to global markets and fiscal policy, not tyranny or socialism.  Rather, having the US as chief trading partner has been a bigger pitfall.

Fact is, Chavez and Maduro knew they’d inherited a petrol, client state and Venezuela’s economy, particularly its agriculture, is more diverse now than it was prior, when it satisfied the US.  And fact is, shrinking profits have had the same effect on America’s arch-capitalist Rust Belt.  In either case, even if we pretend they don’t matter, cutting social services would cut costs, but wouldn’t right the economy.  Look at Scott Walker’s Wisconsin- he cut spending, then added jobs, but poverty increased.  In Caracas, as in Milwaukee, it could be fixed with aid, not with austerity or sanctions.

A crisis of democracy?

Even if high inflation threw them back into poverty, the Chavista program remains, and the majority of Venezuelans back it.  So once again, elections aren’t an option for the US.  Hence, this time they claimed Maduro coerced voters -threatened to retract the securities that he and Chavez gave them- but they have yet to provide evidence.  A day before the election the Guardian qualified it -whether or not it was true or an oppositional rumor was not important, but that it’s had a ‘chilling effect’ on democracy.  The same one hyperbole has on fact, I suspect.  (Glad we’ve such a alert free press.)

Mind, if the US is concerned, they’re the ones who told voters to stay home on election day.  Why? If you wanted to prove elections were rigged and you claim your side had the majority, you’d send everyone to the polls to demonstrate one or the other cases.  (though a boycott proves they were rigged -by the US for Maduro- if your a glass half-full type.)  Predictably, his win brought more sanctions.

Writ large tantrum?

Like Kissinger said, sanctions are there to ‘make populations scream’.  Let’s hope that includes witnesses.  Meanwhile Venezuelans need food and medicine, and we’re bent on them not getting it.  But why?  If we really think the poor are ambivalent, than they won’t ‘scream’, they’ll just suffer and get weaker (Kissinger might still enjoy it).  Thus, sanctions make no sense.  But more-likely America doesn’t think the poor are ambivalent, and our having the world’s largest prison system, and strictest voting laws of any developed democracy, for two of many examples, reveal it.  And perhaps that -poking holes in their straw man- is Chavismo’s real offense.

And of course, Kissinger’s isn’t the only rationale for sanctions.  Remember Madeline Albright’s regarding Iraq?  The point was not to make them scream for change, but to cripple them, entirely.  Worth it? ‘Yes’.  But the only measurable goal was war reparations (which don’t come from crippled economies), the rest were hypothetical s -so they can’t sponsor terrorism or build missiles, etc.- and there is scant evidence they expected regime change as a result, just a lot of blood on Saddam’s(?) hands.


So like then, they’re not twisting the publics’ arm at all, but Maduro’s. Chavismo rallied oppressed people, far beyond Venezuela. Chavismo will persist, they figure, until he turns his back on them.  But unlike our democracy, his engages, not just leads, or elides, the poor.  The Chavistas welcomed over 35,000 communal councils and 130,000 grassroots groups to assure Venezuelans not simply follow Maduro, but he’s responsive to them, too.  And yet the best excuse we can find to depose him is to call him a ‘dictator’. Then again, holding the trademark on democracy, we forget there’s other, often-better, strains of democracy in the world.  Or maybe they’re just hard to recognize when blue from our strangling them.

Let’s just hope the poor here observe how we treat their poor. (But I wouldn’t rely on the news to spread the word.)


[i] https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/venezuela-crisis

[ii] http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt/humanrightsreport/index.htm?year=2017&dlid=277367

[iii] https://www.quora.com/What-are-some-lesser-known-accomplishments-of-Hugo-Chavez