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Why is the Venezuelan Government Rejecting U.S. Food Supplies?

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

There’s no denying that a serious economic and humanitarian crisis faces Venezuela. Millions of citizens have left the country, and those who have remained have lost considerable weight and have inadequate access to food and medicine. Hyperinflation continues unabated, and, with the Trump administration recently leveling sanctions against the Venezuelan state oil company (PDVSA), the crisis is only intensifying.

Yet, although the U.S. – through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) – has flown food and medicinal provisions such as high-energy biscuits to the Colombian border with Venezuela, the Venezuelan government is refusing to allow these supplies into the country. Amid the crisis, this might appear to onlookers as gravely inconsiderate and deliberately cruel, at best.

As a result, the Venezuelan opposition led by Juan Guaidó has proclaimed that it will somehow retrieve these supplies and bring them into the country on Saturday, February 23. It is not yet clear how the opposition intends to do this. However, one thing is certain: these efforts are going to result in a high-level confrontation between opposition activists and Venezuelan military members, who the Maduro government has ordered to prohibit these supplies from entering the country. In the lead-up to this confrontation, the Trump administration has warned Maduro and his military not to harm protestors and activists. This call, of course, exists alongside Trump’s warning that all options, including a military invasion, are on the table.

Why, amid the crisis, would the Venezuelan government refuse to accept U.S. provisions?

First, the optics of the U.S. providing supplies to Venezuela legitimates the U.S. as a benevolent actor. The Venezuelan government – among many others – have drawn attention to the fact that the U.S. has continued to enact sanctions against the Venezuelan government, exacerbating the economic crisis. This isn’t to suggest that the U.S. created the economic crisis. Indeed, the economic crisis long precedes U.S. sanctions. However, there is no doubt that sanctions have, and will continue to have, a deleterious effect on the Venezuelan economy and hammer poor populations more than anyone else – and certainly more so than the Venezuelan state and military elite that these sanctions are allegedly designed to damage.

Much of the economic crisis stems from plummeting oil prices and oil production in Venezuela, that is, alongside massive corruption. As a result of plummeting prices and production, the Venezuelan government does not have the foreign currency that exporters demand when sending products, whatever they may be, into the country. The Venezuelan currency is in no way a stable currency, and it is essentially worthless outside of Venezuela. There is subsequently no incentive for exporters to accept Venezuelan bolívares. This is indeed a global dynamic that goes beyond Venezuelan currency, as U.S. dollars and Euros serve as global de facto currency, and it demonstrates the consequentiality of a state’s possession of such foreign exchange.

Without the dollars and Euros obtained through oil sales, the Venezuelan government cannot nearly import all the products – food, medicine, and otherwise – that Venezuelans require to live a healthy and dignified life. U.S. oil sanctions are specifically designed to deprive the Venezuelan government of economic resources, and, since the government is the primary entity that distributes foreign currency to importers, this results in less foreign currency for importers to bring in goods and thus results in more shortages.

From the Venezuelan government’s perspective, the U.S. is deliberately inducing economic pain in order to push Venezuelan citizens and the military into rebelling against Maduro. At the same time, though, they are trying to play the role of a beneficent actor by offering supplies to the opposition to distribute to citizens. For the Venezuelan government, among many others that see the obvious publicity stunt the U.S. has sought to generate, these actions are hypocritical and downright insincere. If the U.S. truly wanted to assist Venezuelan citizens, many point out that they should work through international groups, like the Red Cross and United Nations, and eliminate economic sanctions. Indeed, this is precisely why the Red Cross, for one, has refused to participate in these U.S. actions, instead criticizing how the U.S. has overtly politicized humanitarian support in order to generate a media spectacle, which now includes a concert sponsored by billionaire Richard Branson on the Colombian-Venezuelan border this weekend.

Second, the Venezuelan government remains skeptical about USAID activities within the country. For decades, USAID, and its Office for Transition Initiatives (OTI), supplied the opposition with funding and training to defeat the Venezuelan socialists. This included funding and training for opposition students and their organizations, sending NGO representatives critical of the Venezuelan government abroad to drum up international resistance to Venezuelan government policies, and reaching out to Venezuelan government-supporters through neutral-looking, but opposition-led, community groups in an effort to direct them towards opposition political parties.

For many years, Venezuela benefited from oil production, and thus required little economic assistance from abroad. As a result, USAID has only operated these sorts of political rather than economic development programs in the country. However, it has been reported that even USAID’s humanitarian missions have often contained hidden political objectives. For instance, under the guise of an HIV-prevention program in Cuba, USAID operatives sought to find political activists to combat the Cuban government. Indeed, one USAID member called these workshops “the perfect excuse” to find opposition activists in the country.

Given both of these dynamics – U.S. economic sanctions, and USAID’s history of political objectives in Venezuela and beyond, Maduro’s refusal to allow USAID into the country appears much more rational than it may appear to casual observers at first glance.

It may surely be the case that members of the U.S. government wish to see Venezuelans garner better access to food and medicine. It may be the case that some even prioritize democracy and human rights above all else, including Venezuelan oil and containment of a decades-long challenge to U.S. supremacy within the hemisphere.

However, it’s also quite clear what the U.S. is trying to do: generate a media spectacle that seemingly reveals President Maduro as a cruel dictator who wishes to starve his own people. In addition, it’s also clearly designed to bait the Venezuelan military into turning on Maduro. We can surely debate the cruelty of Maduro’s domestic policies and his inability and unwillingness to seriously combat the economic crisis, perhaps in an effort to benefit his cronies. Yet, Maduro is not incorrect about the U.S.’s disingenuous behavior.

At the same time that the U.S. is portraying itself as a literary protagonist with its supplies situated on the Colombia-Venezuela border, its policies are intensifying hardships for Venezuelan citizens. If it truly wanted to help Venezuelans, it could work through international and multilateral institutions to send aid to Venezuela, push for dialogue, and take some options off the table, namely military intervention.

Above all, the U.S. is currently damaging the Venezuelan economy with its sanctions, and its supplies on the border will do very little to solve the crisis writ large. If sanctions haven’t felled governments in Iran or Syria, to name just two examples, it doesn’t seem likely that they will fall the Maduro government any time soon. They’ll only perpetuate suffering and ultimately generate acrimony towards the country.

More articles by:

Timothy M. Gill (@timgill924) is an Assistant Professor in the Department Sociology and Criminology at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

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