May 28, 2023 will mark exactly two years to the date of Rep. Jim McGovern’s letter imploring President Biden to “stop using the Venezuelan people as a bargaining chip.” “The impact of sectoral and secondary sanctions is indiscriminate, and purposely so,” the congressman wrote in what has been referred to by policy experts as “the best letter that we’ve ever seen out of Congress on sanctions, period.”
His letter was applauded by his constituents and human rights defenders around the world and remains frequently cited by leading experts in the field – including supporters of the Venezuelan opposition who are calling for an end to the US sanctions.
But, two years later, the sanctions remain intact, and negotiations between the Biden and Maduro administrations on the issue have stalled. During this time, tens or even hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have died, primarily due to a lack of medicine that was once provided by the government, which – as a result of the sanctions – no longer has the funds to provide its citizens with basic services.
The sanctions are widely considered to be an act of war (“hybrid war,” which uses unconventional, non-military but highly deadly tactics to further US interests and seek regime change), leading Venezuela to experience “the largest economic collapse outside of wartime since 1950” according to a recent report by economist Francisco Rodriguez. In Cuba, meanwhile, the tightened unilateral coercive measures contributed a 10.9% contraction in the economy in 2020, pushing 220,000 economic refugees to leave the country the following year – the largest exodus in the country’s history.
As both countries find themselves in the midst of an ever-increasing migrant exodus and worsening humanitarian and economic crisis, we are also seeing a shift in the political landscape that could provide the Biden administration with political cover to lift the sanctions. Even conservative republicans in the US have recognized the impact of the sanctions on the migrant crisis, suggesting that the Biden administration is “now free to pursue more pragmatic policies towards Cuba and Venezuela” and that the “relaxation of sanctions… is the right policy to follow,” while governments across the Americas express their opposition to US policy towards both countries, isolating the US position and furthering what has been an embarrassing and spectacular failure to implement regime change (with even the Venezuelan opposition expelling the US-backed puppet and self-proclaimed president Juan Guiadó). Furthermore, Venezuela, with the world’s largest known oil reserves, could provide US residents and others across the world much needed relief in the face of the oil crisis spurred on the war in Ukraine.
This brought activists to once again gather to ask McGovern to take further action, primarily in the form of a cosigned letter that would rally more support amongst representatives and finally lift the sanctions against both Cuba and Venezuela. And such a letter appeared, not sponsored by Rep. McGovern, but by members of Congress representing districts at the US border. It calls on President Biden to lift the broad sanctions against Venezuela and Cuba imposed by the Trump administration.
McGovern, meanwhile, seems to have stalled on his promise to constituents and his rhetoric of human rights. As Anti-Imperialist Action Committee member Aidan Mastroianni said in a rally outside of Rep. McGovern’s office on May 5, the congressman “urged us that now was the time to act, to help push his colleagues to condemn the cruel and inhumane sanctions placed on Cuba and Venezuela, and how urgency here was key. … Now it is his time to sign this new letter…By refusing to sign on to this new letter, Congressman McGovern is stifling this momentum towards sanction relief and missing his chance to show us that he is the leading voice of opposing sanctions that he claims to be.”
This new letter, cosponsored by congressmen at the US border – at heart of the current migrant crisis – reflects, the activists say, their discussions with Congressman McGovern as recently as a week prior, in Washington DC, and just months before then in January 20, where the congressman spoke with a sense of deep urgency. “The time is now” to act to lift the sanctions, McGovern told his constituents in their January meeting, and then then again in Washington DC on April 28.
But in correspondences with McGovern’s office the week leading up to the May 5 rally – with the congressman himself nowhere to be found – McGovern’s staff has refused to respond to repeated requests to talk to the congressman or provide a statement on the letter, leaving constituents with no choice but to gather – again – outside of his office and ask, amidst an air of hope and disappointment, “where is Jim?”.
As Héctor Figarella, a Venezuelan American activist who has lost his father, uncle, aunt, and countless members of his family to the lack of medicines resulting from the sanctions, said:
We are here to ask the congressman to do the right thing; sign the letter! You have told us over and over again, meeting after meeting, that you care about the people of Venezuela and the people of Cuba, that sanctions are a form of collective punishment. You said it in your first letter. Stop using the Venezuelan people as a bargaining chip. People are dying. Every day people are dying. … The sanctions have become a tool of war; it’s a new way of waging war…. We’re here to tell people, to tell the world, that sanctions kill. Lift the sanctions. Sign the letter, congressman.
Each speaker insisted on the importance of McGovern joining with other congressmen to call on Biden to lift the sanctions in both countries, expressing hope that McGovern – a longtime leader on this issue in Congress – would take action to amplify his earlier stance outlined in his 2021 letter. There are, of course, other crucial measures to be taken: notably, removing Cuba from the state sponsor of terrorism list (as McGovern implored in a 2021 letter to Biden) and releasing Venezuela’s $3.2 billion in frozen funds (which the congressman called for in a recent letter to Biden). But releasing the funds, for instance, will not solve the crisis that is spurred by a concerted decision by the US government to “tighten the circle” and “increase… the humanitarian crisis,” in former US Secretary of State Pompeo’s words, creating so much hardship that the Venezuelan people overthrow their own government.
As Gloria Caballero Roca, a Cuban American activist, pointed out during the May 5 rally, McGovern has long prided himself on being a leader on lifting the blockade against Cuba: “Two years ago he [McGovern] showed me a picture of him[self] showing me a picture standing with Fidel Castro. And he was so happy, he was so proud of it. Where is his pride right now when people need him to sign this letter? … Where is his humanity? Where is it when people are dying in Venezuela and Cuba and people are leaving their country?”
McGovern himself told constituents in January – and again in April – that he has been visiting Cuba since the 1970s and has never seen such hardship as the country is currently experiencing. Gloria, who, had just returned from Cuba to visit her family for the first time in 5 years, echoed this perspective, sharing that during her recent visit, “My mom wanted me to bring her bread.. Bread! Not a pair of shoes, not a purse, but bread. This is because this country [the United States]… will not lift the embargo.”
According to Rep. McGovern during a Tom Lantos Commission hearing on sanctions in October 2022 that he called for at the behest of the same constituents who found themselves outside of his office on Friday, economic sanctions’ “effects are felt mostly by the civilian population. I believe the record shows that these end up being a collective punishment that fails to achieve anything except for human misery.” Misery that is forcing hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans and Cubans to flee their homes.
Representative McGovern has long led the way in US Congress advocating for a more just policy in Cuba, and, more recently, in Venezuela, using his platform to lift the blockade against both countries. As McGovern wrote to Biden two years ago, on 28 May 2021, “it is time for a course correction on U.S. policy toward Venezuela”. It is well past time to lift the sanctions. It is time for Congressman McGovern to act now, together with his colleagues, to move President Biden to lift the sanctions.
Celina della Croce is the director of publications at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and a cofounder of the Anti-Imperialist Action Committee. Previously, she worked in the labor movement with the Service Employees International Union and the Fight for $15, organizing for economic, racial, and immigrant justice.
First published on Venezuela Analysis.