The Dangers of U.S. Brinkmanship in Venezuela

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In 1995, William Blum wrote a masterful book, Killing Hope: U.S. Military and C.I.A. Interventions Since World War II, in which he chronicled 55 U.S. regime change operations around the world, from China (1945-1960s) to Haiti (1986-1994).

Since 1995, the U.S. has been involved in 12 more regime change operations — Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti, Somalia, Honduras, Libya, Syria, Ukraine, Yemen, Iran, Nicaragua. Venezuela makes it 13. Judging from the miserable U.S. record at coercing changes in other countries’ governments, U.S. interference in Venezuela threatens to turn a crisis into a catastrophe.

The U.S. government has been opposed to Venezuela’s socialist revolution since Hugo Chavez was first elected in 1998, and it supported a previous unsuccessful coup in 2002. Unbeknownst to most Americans, Chavez was well loved by poor and working class Venezuelans for his extraordinary array of social programs that lifted millions out of poverty. Between 1996 and 2010, Venezuela’s level of extreme poverty plummeted from 40 percent to 7 percent. The government also substantially improved healthcare and education, cutting infant mortality by half, reducing the malnutrition rate from 21 percent to 5 percent, and eliminating illiteracy.

Since Chavez’ death in 2013, Venezuela has fallen into a deep economic morass stemming from a combination of government mismanagement, corruption, and the 2014 precipitous fall in the price of oil, which provides 95 percent of Venezuela’s exports. U.S. economic sanctions have only added to that toxic mix.

The first sanctions in 2015 focused on individuals. But in 2017, they broadened to cut off access to international financial markets to prevent Venezuela from issuing new debt and restructuring its existing debt obligations. The sanctions significantly hamper the ability of Venezuelan companies to do business in the United States.

The freezing of the funds of Venezuela’s oil company in the U.S., CITGO, deprives Venezuela of billions of dollars in revenue that it previously received from the export, refining, and retail sale of gasoline to American drivers.

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton predicted that sanctions would block $7 billion in the state oil company’s assets plus over $11 billion in lost export proceeds over the next year. Exposing the real U.S. interest in Venezuela, Bolton brazenly told Fox News: “It will make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies really invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela.”

U.S. sanctions are designed to “make the economy scream” in Venezuela, exactly as President Nixon described the goal of U.S. sanctions against Chile before the CIA engineered the overthrow of democratically elected Salvador Allende in 1973. Venezuela’s economy is indeed screaming. It has shrunk by about half since 2014, the greatest contraction of a modern economy in peacetime. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that the average Venezuelan lost an incredible 24 pounds in body weight in 2017.

On January 31, UN Special Rapporteur Idriss Jazairy said that “sanctions which can lead to starvation and medical shortages are not the answer to the crisis in Venezuela,” and warned that “precipitating an economic and humanitarian crisis is not a foundation for the peaceful settlement of disputes.”

Tightening the economic screws is indeed causing more chaos and hardship, but so far it is not toppling the government. That is why the U.S. is throwing its weight behind the creation of a parallel government headed by Juan Guaido and trying to divide the Venezuelan military. But two governments and two militaries seems like a recipe for one terrifying outcome: civil war. A violent future is even more likely with the U.S. threat of force, an option evidenced on the notepad of National Security Advisor John Bolton that read: “5,000 troops to Colombia.”

The U.S. government claims to be acting in the best interests of the Venezuelan people, but over 80 percent of Venezuelans, including many who do not support Maduro, are opposed to these crippling economic sanctions and to international military intervention.

We can’t let the violence that plagues the Middle East be transferred to Latin America. There is another way. Mexico, Uruguay, and the Vatican are committed to diplomacy and have offered their services as mediators. Before Venezuela devolves from a humanitarian crisis to a catastrophic civil war, the U.S. should lift the sanctions, take the military option off the table, and get behind a negotiated, nonviolent solution.

Medea Benjamin is the co-founder of CODEPINK: Women for Peace, and the author of Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran. She lives in Washington D.C. and Miami. Follow her on Twitter: @medeabenjamin

Nicolas J S Davies is the author of Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq.  He is a researcher for CODEPINK: Women for Peace, and a freelance writer.  He lives in North Miami.