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Gordon Campbell on collective punishment in Venezuela

Gordon Campbell on the rites of collective punishment in Venezuela

First published on Werewolf

tomtomorrow_ancientYemen, Venezuela, Iran, Gaza… beyond the particulars of their suffering, each of these countries currently share one thing in common: their ordinary citizens are being subjected to collective punishment, in order to bring about regime change. In each case, a powerful external country (Saudi Arabia, the US, Israel) is intent on making the life of ordinary citizens so utterly miserable that they will turn against their current leadership.

Under international law, collective punishment is a war crime. Punishing entire communities for the actions of a few militants (or for the decisions taken by a few leaders) is a Nazi-era practice that the UN has done its best to eliminate. It has failed to do so. That’s partly because modern media coverage is structured to depict the effects and not the causes of war crimes – and so, unsurprisingly, the criminals involved tend to get away scot free.

We see this approach being played out every night on news bulletins concerning the world’s trouble spots. Brevity and impact are the name of the game. We will be told something awful has happened somewhere, and the screen/soundtrack will then be filled with explosions and naked emotions aplenty – grief and anger or (preferably) both at once. If there’s an interview with a local stringer, the news anchors will routinely suggest that city X, country Y or refugee camp Z seems to have degenerated into “chaos”. This is helpful because chaos by definition, defies rational explanation. Clashes are occurring. Emotions are running high. There are chaotic scenes right now in downtown... Caracas?

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Caracas it was, last week. The recent news from Venezuela was presented spectacularly devoid of historical or social context as to why a coup attempt was (a) occurring and also (b) failing just as spectacularly - thereby spoiling the narrative that had been plonked down onto Venezuela, regardless. Self-declared president Juan Guiado and his followers were hailed as the self-declared goodies (they certainly talked a lot about freedom) while Nicolas Maduro and the armed forces were treated as the bad guys clinging on to power.

Inexplicably for this media narrative… the coup failed, the army stayed loyal, the two coup leaders fled to the sanctuary of friendly foreign embassies and thousands of Maduro supporters who had (inexplicably) come out to defend the regime, went home again. For now at least, the only thing in chaos seemed to be the media expectations of what should have happened. Try again, the Economist urged the Guiado forces.

Heroes and Villains

No doubt, Venezuela is currently a mess. Not because of any heroes vs villains struggle, though. It is not hard to find a concise, balanced explanation of Venezuela’s recent history. Shortly before the latest coup attempt, the mainstream US economist Jeffrey Sachs issued this brief, 27 page account of why – for example- the US sanctions imposed on Venezuela have had such a devastating effect on an oil- dependent economy that was already suffering from the decline in global oil prices:

Quite simply, the August 2017 sanctions stopped the Venezuelan government from borrowing in US financial markets. This meant the Maduro government could not restructure its foreign debt. Thus, these sanctions prevented the economy from recovering from a deep recession which had already taken a large toll on the population, which along with the economy was more vulnerable to these sanctions and the ones that followed as a result of the economic crisis.

Once the economy had been crippled by US sanctions, the suffering of the civilian population could then be cranked up:

It is important to emphasize that nearly all of the foreign exchange that is needed to import medicine, food, medical equipment, spare parts and equipment needed for electricity generation, water systems, or transportation, is received by the Venezuelan economy through the government’s revenue from the export of oil. Thus, any sanctions that reduce export earnings, and therefore government revenue, thereby reduce the imports of these essential and, in many cases, life-saving goods.

But following the August 2017 [US] executive order, oil production crashed, falling at more than three times the rate of the previous twenty months. This would be expected from the loss of credit and therefore the ability to cover maintenance and operations and carry out new investments necessary to maintain production levels. This acceleration in the rate of decline of oil production would imply a loss of $6 billion in oil revenue over the ensuing year.

This by itself is an enormous loss of foreign exchange, relative to the country’s need for essential imports. Imports of food and medicine for 2018 were just $2.6 billion. Total imports of goods for 2018 were about $10 billion.

The loss of so many billions of dollars of foreign exchange and government revenues was very likely the main shock that pushed the economy from its high inflation, when the August 2017 sanctions were implemented, into the hyperinflation that followed.

Instead of a humanitarian response to the crisis it had engendered, the Trump administration racheted up the pressure:

Other executive decisions made by the Trump administration resulted in the closure of Venezuelan accounts in financial institutions, loss of access to credit, and other financial restrictions that have had severe negative impacts on oil production as well as the economy, as detailed in this paper.

The most immediate impact of the January sanctions was to cut off Venezuela from its largest oil market, the United States, which had bought 35.6 percent of Venezuela’s oil exports in 2018, or about 586,000 barrels per day on average. In the week of March 15, US imports of Venezuelan oil fell to zero for the first time, and they remained at zero for another two weeks before rebounding to a fraction of their 2018 average.

As a result of these and other efforts Venezuela’s oil production declined by 130,000 barrels per day from January to February. In the six months prior, it was declining by an average of 20,500 barrels per day. Then in March it fell another 289,000 barrels per day, for a total of 431,000 barrels per day. This is an economically devastating 36.4 percent plunge in oil production just since the January sanctions.

This drop, if maintained over the next year, would cut another $6.8 billion from Venezuela’s available foreign exchange earnings. This is about 21 percent of export earnings from 2018. However, oil export revenues in 2019 are projected to fall by a cataclysmic and unprecedented 67.2 percent from 2018, as a result of the impact of tightening sanctions.

Not surprisingly, this externally imposed straitjacket began to have serious effects on the living standards of ordinary citizens. Suffering formerly restricted to the teeming poor began to bite into the middle class in Caracas and other urban centres. Those that could do so fled the country. The middle class who remained have found common cause with the elites who opposed the Chavez/Maduro era from the outset.

The previous advances made by the country’s poor in health, literacy and other human services during the Chavez area are now but a distant memory. Many of the poor however, regard the rise of the current crop of opposition leaders as likely to herald something even worse. Namely, the return of the old elites backed by the Americans (who have always had their eyes on Venezuela’s oil reserves) and led by Leopoldo Lopez, whose autocratic personality has long been compared to that of the late Hugo Chavez, but without the social conscience.

Onwards and downwards

Since 2017 at least, the US has been starving Venezuela of essential and life-saving imports:

The sanctions implemented in 2019, including the recognition of a parallel government, accelerated this deprivation and also cut off Venezuela from most of the international payments system, thus ending much of the country’s access to these essential imports including medicine and food — even those that could normally be bought with available dollars. There is no doubt that all of these sanctions since August 2017 have had severe impacts on human life and health.

How serious have the impacts of these sanctions on human life and health proved to be? Sachs again:

According to the National Survey on Living Conditions (ENCOVI by its acronym in Spanish), an annual survey of living conditions administered by three Venezuelan universities, there was a 31 percent increase in general mortality from 2017 to 2018. This would imply an increase of more than 40,000 deaths.

This massive death toll is likely to accelerate:

More than 300,000 people were estimated to be at risk because of lack of access to medicines or treatment. This includes an estimated 80,000 people with HIV who have not had antiretroviral treatment since 2017, 16,000 people who need dialysis, 16,000 people with cancer, and 4 million with diabetes and hypertension (many of whom cannot obtain insulin or cardiovascular medicine). These numbers by themselves virtually guarantee that the current sanctions, which are much more severe than those implemented before this year, are a death sentence for tens of thousands of Venezuelans. This is especially true if the projected 67 percent drop in oil revenue materializes in 2019.

The accelerating economic collapse (that current sanctions have locked in) assure further impacts on health, and premature deaths. For example, the increasing collapse of export revenue — and therefore imports — has also created massive public health problems in the areas of water and sanitation. The electricity crisis has also impacted hospitals and health care.

The country is (literally) being starved into revolt and subsequent submission to US interests:

Food imports have dropped sharply along with overall imports; in 2018 they were estimated at just $2.46 billion, as compared with $11.2 billion in 2013. They can be expected to plummet further in 2019, along with imports generally, contributing to malnutrition and stunting in children.

The United Nations finds that the groups most vulnerable to the accelerating crisis include children and adolescents (including many who can no longer attend school); people who are in poverty or extreme poverty; pregnant and nursing women; older persons; indigenous people; people in need of protection; women and adolescent girls at risk; people with disabilities; and people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex.

Sanctions Kill

This murderous process is not a fresh tactic. Those who remember the deadly impact of the US sanctions levied against Iraq by the Clinton administration will recall this famous exchange between CBS journalist Lesley Stahl and then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright:

Stahl: We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?

Albright: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it.

Regime change that benefits the US is always worth it. In Iraq then – and in Iran and Venezuela now - the crucial point is that the target of these sanctions is not the much-reviled leadership who have all the resources they need to survive – or even flourish as the leadership in Iran currently does – under the impact of sanctions. Those who suffer are the ordinary people and they are the intended target. In Yemen for instance, the Saudis have deliberately targeted water infrastructure, blockaded ports and bombed schools in order to turn people against the Houthi rebels. Such are the strategies of collective punishment.

Maybe it's time then that we stopped filling news bulletins with the visible effects of war conducted by such means, and started identifying how the process is being orchestrated. To that end, the media would profit from being more sceptical about the current division of the Venezuelan struggle between the erstwhile champions of democracy (Leopoldo Lopez, Juan Guiado) on one hand, and the scowling tyrants of repression (Maduro and the military) on the other. If only to spare us in a year’s time from the surprised revelations that President Lopez seems bent on betraying the hopes placed in him, by so many.

Footnote One. Not that it seems to matter, but the unilateral sanctions imposed on Venezuela have violated the Charter of the Organisation of American States(OAS), especially articles 19 and 20 of Chapter IV. As mentioned above, they are also illegal under international human rights law. In addition the sanctions violate domestic US law, as Sachs has explained:

Each executive order since March 2015 declares that the United States is suffering from a “national emergency” because of the situation in Venezuela. This is required by US law in order to impose such sanctions, and the national emergency is invoked under the 1976 National Emergencies Act….The executive order also states, as required by law, that Venezuela presents “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security” of the United States.” There is no foundation in fact for either of these declarations.”

Even more severe and destructive sanctions were instituted by executive order 13857 of January 28, 2019 and subsequent executive orders the same year; and the recognition of a parallel government, which as shown below, created a whole new set of financial and trade sanctions that are even more constricting than the executive orders themselves. Statements from the [Trump]administration indicated that the purpose of the sanctions was to provoke a military rebellion to topple the government.

Shortly after Sachs published those words, Juan Guiado tried to provoke a military rebellion to topple the government.

Footnote Two: The Night King has not been the only one seeking to erase human memory of historical context and social analysis. Venezuela (like Cuba before it) is being cited as evidence of how socialists just can’t run an economy. Well, I'd suggest instead that when the world’s greatest economic power – and the strongest regional power – prevents a smallish country from exporting, importing, borrowing or obtaining international credit then the chances are that said economy (whether socialist or capitalist ) would struggle to flourish.

Footnote Three: The Iraq sanctions from the 1990s are not the sole relic from the past that’s currently evident in Venezuela. The contras – who were financed and trained by the US in the 1980s to overthrow the government of Nicaragua - also have their modern equivalent. Reuters reported last Monday that Erik Prince of the notorious Blackwater security firm was trying to assemble an army of mercenaries to invade Venezuela:

Erik Prince - the founder of the controversial private security firm Blackwater and a prominent supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump - has been pushing a plan to deploy a private army to help topple Venezuela’s socialist president, Nicolas Maduro…..

Over the last several months, the sources said, Prince has sought investment and political support for such an operation from influential Trump supporters and wealthy Venezuelan exiles. In private meetings in the United States and Europe, Prince sketched out a plan to field up to 5,000 soldiers-for-hire on behalf of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, according to two sources with direct knowledge of Prince’s pitch. One source said Prince has conducted meetings about the issue as recently as mid-April.

The US could not of course, officially hire Prince for the job. But if ‘patriots’ inside Venezuela wished to contract Prince’s services…then Washington wouldn’t exactly stand in their way.

Sacred Paws, Return

In 2017, the Scottish duo Sacred Paws (Rachel Aggs, Eilidh Rogers) won the country’s top award for pop album of the year, for their debut full length album, Strike a Match. It's a propulsively positive amalgam of familiar ingredients: West African highlife guitar, call and response vocals reminiscent of the classic riot grrl era and a DIY ethic that calls to mind 1980s forerunners like the Raincoats and the Slits. From the debut album, here’s “Voice”:

And here’s the first single “The Conversation” from the new album that’s due later this month:

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