The human cost of America’s “economic war” in Venezuela

Canadian lawyer and political scientist Ajit Singh was part of a recent fact-finding mission organised by the End Venezuela Sanctions coalition. He tells the New Statesman what he saw there.

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When Juan Guaidó stood before crowds in Caracas in January to declare himself the president of Venezuela, it ushered in a new era in the country. The United States, Canada and their allies in the region swiftly recognised Guaidó’s parallel government over that of president Nicolas Maduro’s. The Trump administration then set out to do more: impose new sanctions on an embittered, polarised nation, sanctions that continue to be deeply punitive towards everyday Venezuelans.

The latest assessment of these sanctions can be found in a new report by US think tank Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), by economists Mark Weisbrot and Jeffrey Sachs. Among their many findings, the researchers conclude that sanctions from 2017 to 2018 resulted in the deaths of 40,000 Venezuelans, while sanctions since January 2019 have led to a 36.4 percent plunge in oil production. The report’s authors predict thousands more deaths this year should the measures continue, with the civilian population, not government officials, bearing the brunt of their impact.

“Venezuela’s economic crisis is routinely blamed all on Venezuela,” Sachs said of the findings. “American sanctions are deliberately aiming to wreck Venezuela’s economy and thereby lead to regime change. It’s a fruitless, heartless, illegal, and failed policy, causing grave harm to the Venezuelan people.”

It was reported just this week that the United States is preparing new sanctions targeting the country’s food aid program, known by its Spanish acronym, CLAP – which many Venezuelans rely on.

It was with this backdrop that a global coalition called End Venezuela Sanctions organised a ten-day fact-finding delegation to Venezuela from March 26 to April 7, 2019 to assess the impact of foreign sanctions there.

Ajit Singh, a Canadian lawyer and political science graduate student at the University of Manitoba, was among the 12 participants of the mission that brought together medical professionals, activists, journalists and others from across the United States, Canada, Costa Rica and Turkey.

In the following interview, which has been condensed and edited for clarity, Singh discusses witnessing first-hand what he calls the “economic warfare” being waged against Venezuela by the world’s most powerful country.

New Statesman: Can you tell me more about how and why the delegation came together?

Ajit Singh: What particularly motivated this particular trip was the heightened tensions in Venezuela with the self-proclamation of Juan Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela. And especially when communication between Venezuelans and North Americans are being made more difficult through the cut-off of diplomatic ties between our governments… we thought it was really important to have a people-to-people exchange so that we could actually see what's going on there, and try and relate that to people back at home.

I think all of us [in the delegation] had a bit of an understanding of sanctions; those of us who are perhaps familiar with the use of sanctions in Iraq in the 1990s, and how that led to the death of hundreds of thousands of particularly vulnerable people like children and the elderly. We know that they are very aggressive; some would even call it a form of economic warfare. So we wanted to be able to see first-hand: one, because it’s so technical, how do sanctions work. And, two, just see on the ground, how do they actually affect people’s lives day-to-day.

NS: What were the first impressions that you got on the ground? Especially because Venezuela is described in international media as a place of chaos, of misery, where there’s a humanitarian crisis, and a dictator unwilling to relinquish power.

Singh: I wasn’t expecting the amount of normalcy and the day-to-day calm that I witnessed in Caracas and elsewhere. For everything that this country is going through, in terms of, the very real challenges that that they’re facing, and the intense pressure they’re facing internationally, and then also the domestic polarisation … in such a situation, I was still was expecting some sort of, I guess, sense of tension. But there were a surprising amount of people just going about their their day-to-day lives, like going to work, or going to school, or hanging out in a public square.

And I think a lot of times, in conversations I have back [in North America], or in media representation I see about Venezuela, the picture you get is … very sensational stories of people who are so desperate, and they’re eating out of trash cans, and it's total chaos, and barbarity.

Regardless of where people fall on the political spectrum, their main thing is: how do I meet my day-to-day challenges. Like if there’s a blackout, how do we deal with this? How do we deal with our lighting situation? Or how do we deal with our lack of water? And how do we coordinate maybe with the people in our community to make sure that everyone has their water needs met?

The idea that this country [under Maduro] is a dictatorship seems completely out of touch with what I saw in Venezuela. When I was there, there were calls for opposition marches on several occasions, which were allowed to proceed without impediment. Meanwhile, you have this figure, Juan Guaidó, who’s openly calling for the government to be overthrown, or the military to defect and launch a coup. And this is the person that’s free to call for marches in the cities; he hasn’t been arrested.

And second, the vast majority of newspapers are certainly not pro-government and, in fact, often are sympathetic with the opposition and publish a lot of anti-government – sometimes very virulently anti-government – reporting every day.

NS: I’m interested to know what some of the leaders that you met with had to say about the challenges facing Venezuelans.

Singh: We met with Venezuelan professor of economics, Pasqualina Curcio – she’s the author of a book called The Visible Hand of the Market: Economic Warfare in Venezuela – and she discussed her findings on the impact that sanctions and the commercial blockade have had. One of her findings was that they have cost the country $114bn, which is nearly equal to one year’s worth of Venezuelan GDP at a typical oil price, or 26 years’ worth of medical imports.

One way that sanctions work is that it becomes very difficult for the Venezuelan government to access financing. It also creates the difficulty of other actors not wanting to engage in an economic relationship with the Venezuelan government … for fear of being sanctioned themselves. So we all might know that US entities won’t engage with Venezuela. But even countries, for example, in Europe, that don't necessarily have an antagonistic relationship with Venezuela, are fearful of facing some sort of consequences. We heard this particularly pronounced in the healthcare sector.

The way it was illustrated to us was … let’s say Venezuela imports a certain drug from a pharmaceutical company in Germany. The Venezuelan government, in normal transaction, will wire funds to a financial institution in Germany. And in a normal situation, that financial institution will wire the money to the private company or pharmaceutical company, and then the transaction will be carried out and Venezuela will receive the medicine. But now you have a couple of problems. One, you have a situation where the financial agency or the financial institution, the bank, might hold on to the money because it wants to see how the United States is going to respond. And so this creates the issue of delay … which in itself creates health challenges, because you have people not getting the medicine when they need it.

What also happens – and what happens more often – is that the bank will hold on to the money, not go through with the transaction and also won’t repatriate it back to the Venezuelan government. And so the money is just lost. It doesn’t pay for goods, and it isn't given back to the government. And so they’re basically out of out of money, with nothing to show.

Another example is Industria Canaima. So this is a state-owned enterprise, but also a social program that produces free laptops, tablets and other technological items for students. At full capacity, this plant can produce 1,000 of each product per day. At present, plant operations have been hindered significantly by sanctions, but also by electricity shortages. The workers there believed an electrical attack took place to slow down production. And so this has damaged their transformers and emergency generators. So they’re currently not producing; they don't have power.

NS: Can you tell me about community programs in place to deal with this impact?

Singh: One place we went to was the town of Las Juanas. Like a lot of shanty towns, it literally wasn’t on the map prior to 1998. It was just a makeshift community with dirt roads, no running water, electricity. And so we got to see the impact of the Bolivarian Revolution on this town, and then the impact of the current situation on these people. And so now they have paved roads, they have electricity, running water – interrupted by the blackouts, of course – but otherwise, they have these services. They have houses, basic infrastructure, a public health clinic, and near-free food delivery every 15 days from the government in order to alleviate food insecurity, through the CLAP system.

So that was very interesting to see in this town, the way that people, but also the government are trying to find solutions to the difficulties that they’re facing. There’s definitely a very big emphasis on increasing food production for local consumption in Venezuela … and becoming less dependent on imported foods.

But while a lot of staple goods are being provided at a very subsidised manner by the government. There are still difficulties in terms of the purchasing power of people and the purchasing power of the [Venezuelan currency] Bolivar.

NS: So given your experience on the ground, and everything that you saw, do you think there is a gap in coverage of Venezuela in international media?

Singh: Yeah, without question. For example, the notion of humanitarian crisis. Well, one, when we think of humanitarian crisis, what do we mean? If we mean the US-and-Canadian-supported Saudi war on Yemen, that is definitely a humanitarian crisis of mass starvation, and health crises, and suffering, and war. By comparison, this is not the situation in Venezuela. What exists in Venezuela, I think more accurately, is that the United States, Canada and their allies are trying to impose a humanitarian crisis on this country … I think with the express aim of creating enough instability to advance their stated goal of changing the government of Venezuela.

I say all of this not to downplay the difficulties or suffering that is being faced by the Venezuelan people … but just to put it in a sense of context and proportion. I don’t think you can understand the situation in Venezuela without understanding the economic warfare that is being waged on it by the most powerful countries in the world. The best analogy would be the situation that has been normalised with Cuba … The international community after 60 years now is in quite near-unanimity in recognising that it is the blockade by the United States that is primarily responsible for difficulties in Cuba.

NS: What are you now leaving with after your trip, in terms of what you heard from Venezuelans about what their hopes are for their country’s way forward?

Singh: Speaking to the Venezuelan people, I took away that these are people that don’t want a war, they very much want to be able to live in peace and stability. They very much want to be given the space to conduct their own affairs independently, and to resolve their differences amongst themselves … These are also people that are prepared to resist and stand up for their independence.

And so I think, in particular, for all peace-minded people, that should probably encourage us to really work for peace, and towards a peaceful approach from our own governments, those of us that live in Europe, Canada, and in the United States.

Urooba Jamal is a freelance journalist based in Canada. A former staff reporter at teleSUR in Quito, Ecuador, she writes extensively about Venezuela, and her work has recently appeared on CNN, Vice, and Truthout. You can read more of her work here, and she tweets @UroobaJamal.