The January 6 raid on the Capitol and the pandemic that has upended the lives of every American seemingly have nothing to do with Venezuela. But the effects they had on US political and economic stability offer a glimpse into what Venezuelans have been going through for the past several years of failed coups and sanctions.
Remember how January 6 felt? The shock, confusion and fear. The constant refreshing of Twitter feeds or eyes glued to cable news, watching a bunch of extremists attempt to overthrow the government. The not knowing what was going to happen next and whether it would impact our daily lives.
For Venezuelans, there is no one “January 6.” There are at least half a dozen. An equivalent date could be January 23, 2019, when little-known opposition figure Juan Guaidó, who only weeks earlier had been appointed president of the National Assembly seemingly out of nowhere, declared himself “interim president” of the country with US backing.
Or it could be February 23, 2019, when extremist Venezuelans, operating out of Colombia, attempted to push “humanitarian aid” through the border (the aid included riot equipment for government opponents, who then burned the trucks themselves to destroy the evidence). Or perhaps March 7, 2019, when there was a week-long nationwide blackout, allegedly the result of a covert operation that included a cyberattack on the nation’s most important hydroelectric dam. Or April 30, 2019, when Guaidó attempted a military uprising (he and a dozen or so soldiers only managed to hold a highway overpass for a few hours). Or April 1, 2020, when the Trump administration deployed warships just off Venezuelan water. Or May 3, 2020, when mercenaries attempted to sneak into the country to kidnap President Nicolás Maduro (an operation that Guaidó likely authorized).
Attempts at regime change in Venezuela didn’t start with the Trump administration, but they certainly intensified during his term. Employing a “maximum pressure campaign”, the former president sought to empower an extremist faction of the country’s opposition, while destroying the economy with sanctions.
The strategy was simple: pressure the Maduro government in every way possible (including with threats of war), drive ordinary citizens to despair so they or the military would rise up, and set up a parallel government ready to step in after the coup.
This approach failed so spectacularly that Senator Chris Murphy called it “a case study in international relations malpractice.” The US-anointed “interim president”, Juan Guaidó, now has a disapproval rating of 88%. The Venezuelan people are sick of the entire ordeal: 82% oppose the sanctions and 83% reject a military intervention.
While the Biden administration ruled out an invasion, Venezuelans feel besieged nonetheless. Angel Prado, a grassroots leader and spokesperson for El Maizal, one of over 3,200 communes or self-governing communities in Venezuela, laments the human and economic toll of US policy.
“It’s like a war… the first bomb hasn’t fallen here – although President [Maduro] had a drone almost explode in his face – it’s a different sort of war, but it’s still a war that affects us,” Prado said. (The explosion he references was an attempted assassination of President Maduro and most of his cabinet using drones laden with C-4 explosives – another potential January 6.) Calling it a war might sound like an exaggeration to Americans, but even a cursory examination of recent events in Venezuela bears out his claim.
US aggression towards Venezuela 2013-2020
It’s impossible to understand what’s going on in Venezuela without a clear picture of how the United States has been involved in regime change. The Bush administration infamously backed a coup against then-President Hugo Chávez in 2002 – a coup that lasted 48 hours before thousands of people took to the streets to demand, and win, the reinstallation of the Chávez administration.
More recently, Senators Bob Menendez and Marco Rubio have been spearheading the bipartisan effort to overthrow the Venezuelan government since March 2013, when President Hugo Chávez died. He had easily won a presidential election in late 2012, beating his opponent by 11 points. Two months after his death, Nicolás Maduro, a former vice-president and foreign minister, squeaked by that same opponent by one-and-a-half points. Rubio, Menendez, their allies in the Cuba lobby and the State Department smelled blood. Secretary of State John Kerry initially refused to recognize the election results, foreshadowing a tactic the Trump administration would employ over and over again.
In 2014, Congress passed a law sponsored by Menendez and Rubio calling on the White House to sanction Venezuela. In 2015, President Obama declared a national emergency in the United States, arguing that Venezuela was an “unusual and extraordinary threat.”
In 2017, the Trump administration put the military option on the table and sanctioned PDVSA, the state oil company. This sanction ended up being a death sentence for thousands of Venezuelans.
The sanction and threat occurred two months before nationwide gubernatorial elections that the Venezuelan opposition had high hopes of sweeping. Their pollsters had them winning in 18 of 23 States, and opposition leaders crowed that the elections should be interpreted as a referendum on President Maduro. His socialist party ended up winning in 19 states; there were no credible claims of fraud.
These elections are worth highlighting because it was the last time the opposition would fully participate. Following the embarrassment of the gubernatorial elections, an important faction decided that a democratic path to power was unobtainable. Since then, this faction boycotted a presidential election in 2018 to set the stage for January 2019, when Guaidó was appointed president of the National Assembly and then declared himself “interim president” of the country with the backing of the US. Then, in 2020, this faction boycotted legislative elections because it didn’t not want to risk losing the presidency of the legislature, which would have dealt a fatal blow to their entire argument for an interim presidency.
The boycotts were conducted in coordination with the Trump administration, which denounced both elections as fraudulent before they were even held. The Biden administration continues the Trump policy of refusing to recognize the results.
The Trump administration went beyond blatant electoral interference. It also sabotaged two promising attempts at finding a political solution to the multiple crises in Venezuela. The first was in early 2018. After months of talks in the Dominican Republic produced a draft agreement, negotiators returned to Venezuela for final consultation. During this interim, the State Department threatened an oil embargo, implied the US would welcome a military coup and said it would not recognize upcoming elections – the very ones that were still being negotiated.
The second time was in August 2019, when Trump imposed what the Wall Street Journal characterized as a “full economic embargo” and said the “time for dialogue was over.” On cue, the faction of the opposition left the negotiating table.
Economic war on Venezuela
Over the past four years, the United States has imposed over 150 sanctions on Venezuela. These include broad economic sanctions, such as on Venezuela’s ability to issue bonds, on its oil and gold industries, and even on its newly launched cryptocurrency, the Petro. Most of the sanctions are on individuals, businesses, even ships and airplanes. They raise the cost of doing business: insurance premiums go up, risk ratings worsen, interest rates go up, among other cost increases. On top of that, companies, including financial institutions, stopped doing businesses with Venezuela out of fear of being sanctioned.
Billions of dollars of Venezuelan funds are frozen abroad, unable to be accessed even for humanitarian supplies. This includes 34 tons of gold held by the Bank of England, which refused a request by the Venezuelan government to release it to the United Nations, which would then sell the gold to purchase food and medicine for the Venezuelan people. The Bank – which claims to be independent of the British government – says it cannot give the gold to the Maduro government because the UK recognizes Juan Guaidó.
Not to be outdone by the British, the Trump administration committed piracy on the high seas. In August 2020, US Navy ships seized a tanker carrying fuel purchased by Venezuela from Iran. The fuel was then sold on the open market for $40 million, the money went to a US fund for victims of state-sponsored terrorism, none of whom are Venezuelan. This wasn’t the first time the US spent Venezuelan funds on completely unrelated expenses. In June 2020, it was reported that the Trump administration used $601 million in assets seized from allegedly corrupt Venezuelan businesses in the US to help pay for his border wall in Mexico.
The act of piracy raises questions as to why Venezuela, the country with the world’s largest oil reserves, needs to buy fuel. The answer is simple: the sanctions have devastated its oil industry and its ability to refine oil into gasoline. In August 2017, the Trump administration issued an executive order targeting PDVSA, the state oil company. This decree prevented the company from restructuring its debts and from repatriating profits from Citgo, its US based subsidiary. Eventually the sanctions came to impede the import of spare parts for maintenance and chemical additives necessary to transform oil into gasoline and diesel.
Citgo, once considered the crown jewel of PDVSA’s assets abroad, is now about to be stripped down and sold off to Venezuela’s creditors. Prior to the sanctions, Venezuela paid its debts on time, or at least came to terms with creditors. Now though, the sanctions forbid repaying those creditors, and a US court ruling allowed Crystallex, a Canadian gold mining company, to collect by selling parts of Citgo. Anticipating that Venezuela might seek to sell Citgo to avoid exactly this scenario, Senators Rubio and Menendez pressured the Trump administration to prevent such a sale, which he quickly did.
The economic aggression from the United States contributed significantly to government revenues falling from $56.6 billion per year in 2013 to $477 million in 2020 – a drop of 99%. Venezuelan economist Pasqualina Curcio estimates that the economic war has cost Venezuela $194 billion.
While the true economic cost may be up for debate, the fact that the sanctions have caused severe harm to the economy should be considered settled. Even US government institutions agree on this point. A February 2021 investigation by the Government Accountability Office found that the Venezuelan economy “has fallen steeply since the imposition of US sanctions.”
Sanctions as deadly as a pandemic
It would be hard for people in the United States to understand the emotional toll caused by having the economy upended if we weren’t living through a pandemic that has upended everything. The Venezuela sanctions are like a pandemic that’s been going on for seven years.
The precipitous drop in government revenue, the difficulties in importing food, medicine and other essential supplies, and the increased cost of living have a profound effect on ordinary Venezuelans.
“Finding food, finding medicine, it’s really hard to live, finding gas, finding sources of livelihood – that puts a lot of pressure on people,” said Lorena Giménez of feminist human rights organization Género con Clase (Gender with Class). She explains how women have borne the brunt of the sanctions, which have even affected the availability and cost of contraceptives. Her organization commissioned a survey last year that found that the sanctions cause “psychological violence” and impacted their human rights.
The sanctions should be thought of as a massive violation of human rights. United Nations Special Rapporteur Alena Douhan said as much following a fact-finding mission to Venezuela in February:
“The Special Rapporteur notes with concern that sectoral sanctions on the oil, gold and mining industries, the economic blockade of Venezuela and the freezing of Central Bank assets have exacerbated pre-existing economic and humanitarian situation by preventing the earning of revenues and the use of resources to develop and maintain infrastructure and for social support programs, which has a devastating effect on the whole population of Venezuela, especially those in extreme poverty, women, children, medical workers, people with disabilities or life-threatening or chronic diseases, and the indigenous population.” (Emphasis added)
Douhan also laid out the case that sanctions, the Obama administration’s declaration of a national emergency and the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign violate international law, including the UN charter and other treaties the US has signed onto.
A 2019 report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) argued that “sanctions would fit the definition of collective punishment of the civilian population as described in both the Geneva and Hague international conventions, to which the US is a signatory.” Collective punishment is the right way to put it, as every single person in Venezuela is affected by the US sanctions.
The most troubling thing to come of the CEPR analysis was the conclusion that sanctions caused more than 40,000 deaths in 2017-2018. By March 2020, a former UN Special Rapporteur, Alfred de Zayas, estimated that the sanctions killed 100,000 people. It’s mass murder through economic strangulation.
“Despite the economic situation and the blockade we have in the country, we are a people that builds, very optimistic and very hopeful in what we’re doing,” emphasized Prado. This resilience comes through in conversations with Venezuelans like Prado and Giménez. In the face of the cruelty of US policy, these aren’t people who are despairing.
They, like every other Venezuelan, viscerally experience the impacts of sanctions on a daily basis, yet they’re committed to finding solutions. Prado speaks of preserving the country’s sovereignty and independence, of ensuring “supreme happiness for our people.” He notes how El Maizal commune was forced to switch to organic farming, as it became impossible to import pesticides and chemical fertilizers. The commune has also begun technical cooperation with peasant movements in Latin America.
“We’re not prepared to resolve everything, the blockade affects us. Although it has awoken in us a level of creativity, of inventing things, it will always affect us,” Prado said. Yet he cautioned that creativity can only go so far. His biggest worry these days is the shortage of diesel fuel, just as planting season is set to begin. Three million liters of milk and 20 tons of food are being lost every week, spoiling in farms and warehouses, unable to be delivered to consumers.
The Trump administration gave a parting blow to Venezuelans when it banned diesel swaps in October 2020. Through these swaps, PDVSA, the state oil company, was able to provide crude oil to foreign companies in exchange for diesel fuel. The country’s diesel reserves began to be stretched in January. Diesel is needed for agriculture, hospital generators and the distribution of food, medicine and other necessary goods. The Biden administration has given no indication it will lift this – or any other – sanction.
Leonardo Flores is a Venezuelan political analyst and a Latin America Campaign Coordinator at CODEPINK, a women-led grassroots organization dedicated to peace. Click here to sign CODEPINK’s petition urging President Biden to lift sanctions during the pandemic.