If he is to prove he is different from Trump, the new US president will have to change approach in Latin America, writes KEN LIVINGSTONE
DESPITE enormous costs to its economy and its people imposed by illegal US sanctions, Venezuela has seen off President Donald Trump’s term in office and his clear goal of toppling the elected government of Nicolas Maduro.
From his earliest days in office, Trump had drastically ratcheted up the sanctions first levied against Venezuela by the Obama administration, increasingly meaning there is a full-on Cuba-style US blockade of the country.
Accompanying them have been constant threats of military action and a persistent campaign of disinformation designed to turn countries and opinion against Venezuela internationally, and support Trump’s objective of “regime change.”
The prize has been to gain access to the largest oil deposits in the world.
US strategy has been to ruin the Venezuelan economy, aiming to push the population towards mass migration or internal civil conflict and thus creating the conditions for a so-called “humanitarian intervention.”
The effects have been far-reaching, especially on a country heavily dependent on oil exports for revenue.
Sanctions interfere with Venezuela’s international trade, severely restricting access to medicines but also food and other essential goods.
They block financial transactions, both payments and remittances, freeze Venezuela’s financial assets held externally, and delay buying and selling operations, not only of the Venezuelan government and companies but also foreign business partners.
The impact of sanctions has always been known to hurt the poorest and most vulnerable citizens of Venezuela.
A 2019 report by the Washington-based Centre for Economic and Policy Research estimated that sanctions had inflicted more than 40,000 deaths from 2017 to 2018.
All told, they have cost Venezuela’s economy upwards of $116 billion (£84.8bn).
As the Covid-19 crisis has unfolded through 2020 and into 2021, Trump’s unilateral coercive measures against Venezuela are not only more damaging to the Venezuelan people, but also even harder to justify.
Opposition to them has come from a range of voices, such as the Pope’s appeal for an end to sanctions preventing countries from “providing adequate support to their citizens.”
UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres also called for the waiving of sanctions, saying: “This is the time for solidarity, not exclusion.”
But despite these high-level pleas, the US has refused to lift the sanctions to enable Venezuela (and other similarly sanctioned countries such as Cuba and Nicaragua) to deal with the pandemic more effectively.
Instead, throughout 2020 the US acted even more vigorously to tighten the blockade.
Since May 2020, it has targeted four shipping companies for sanctions and considered sanctions against dozens of vessels in a drive to put Venezuela “off limits.”
As Brian Hook, a senior policy adviser to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, boasted in an interview in mid-July: “I think the maritime community knows that if you get a phone call to move fuel to Venezuela, that’s an offer that you should not accept.
“Five tankers that did make their way to Venezuela, all their captains were sanctioned and they’re going to face a very tough future economically because they said yes to that offer to move fuel. So we’re going to continue to sanction any sanctionable activity.”
A month later, the US seized over a million barrels of petrol being shipped to Venezuela by four tankers from Iran, exacerbating domestic fuel shortages caused by the blockading of diluents and spare parts for the country’s crude oil refineries.
And in November, US Special Envoy for Venezuela Elliott Abrams announced a clampdown on Venezuela’s oil-for-diesel swap deals, ramping up the blockade against the country despite a group of NGOs warning in a letter to the Trump administration that “this decision would have devastating consequences for the population.”
Venezuela, though, is surviving thanks to the support and solidarity from friendly countries.
Since March 2020 China has airlifted more than 250 tons of supplies, medicines and health equipment to tackle the pandemic.
Cuba has sent 50 highly qualified healthcare professionals from the Henry Reeve Brigade to assist Venezuelan medics to contain the Covid-19 emergency.
Politically, Venezuela has moved onto fresh terrain with the election of a new National Assembly.
No longer an assembly member, self-professed “interim president” — in reality a coup-monger — Juan Guaido now completely lacks any legal or constitutional legitimacy.
This has not stopped Trump continuing to recognise Guaido, although in a significant break with US policy the European Union is no longer referring to him as “interim president.”
Trump has put yet more sanctions on Venezuela recently and is now all but gone from the White House, but his Special Envoy for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, has urged incoming president Joe Biden to retain the sanctions policy and its goal of “regime change.”
President Maduro has said he is willing to participate in “decent dialogue” based on “respect and co-operation” and come to “agreements” with the new US administration.
But given Biden’s track record and position to date, such a dialogue cannot be assured.
Now more than ever it is vital to step up our expressions of international solidarity with Venezuela in defence of its national sovereignty and make it clear that sanctions are not only illegal but also unacceptable and unjustifiable.
Sign the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign petition against the US’s illegal sanctions on Venezuela at bit.ly/stopvenezuelasanctions.
This article originally appeared in The Morning Star