Like many nations worldwide, Venezuela has been hit by Covid-19. Nonetheless, to a lesser degree than Europe and the United States. As of 7 April, 165 cases and 65 deaths were reported. To prepare for a potential medical emergency, the Venezuelan government asked the US to lift its economic and financial blockade that has been crippling the country since 2017.
Venezuela is currently ill-equipped to face the coronavirus pandemic, particularly because of the devastation of its medical sector. As a result of the US-imposed economic and financial blockade, “only a quarter of Venezuelan physicians have access to sufficient access to water, and two-thirds have no soap, gloves or masks. And there are only 73 intensive care beds in the whole country,” reports The Guardian.
It is further estimated that about 15-20 per cent of Venezuelans have insufficient access to safe drinking water in their houses because the blockade prevents the government from importing spare parts to repair damaged pumps and pipes, reports Nino Pagliccia in the US journal Counterpunch. “Water is shipped by trucks weekly to needy communities. But the blockade and the lack of parts for vehicles, is also impacting the number of water trucks that can be kept running. In some cases, the fleet of trucks has been reduced by 75 per cent over the last 3-4 years, to now only a handful of trucks.” The Venezuelans’ limited access to potable water poses additional life-threatening conditions in times of pandemic.
In response to Venezuela’s demand for blockade relief — in addition to requesting a $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund in emergency aid funds to combat the virus, a move prohibited by US sanctions that pressured international financial institutions to refrain from servicing Venezuela and other “enemy” countries like Cuba, Nicaragua and Iran — the US State Department devised an ingenious plan to effect regime change in the beleaguered country.
Euphemistically labelled a “democratic transition framework”, the plan calls for the ouster of democratically-elected President Nicholas Maduro and the departure of “foreign forces” (ie Cuban physicians aiding in the treatment of infected patients and correlative Cuban security personnel). Moreover, “democratic transition” stipulates the establishment of an interim government, a new “Council of State” designated by the US supported right-wing opposition-led National Assembly. Based on this plan all personnel serving in the National Electoral Council, the Supreme Court, the Council of State and the presidency would be discharged and replaced by people designated by the National Assembly. And it is only after this transition to a new “interim government” is in place that the US will begin to lift sanctions, stressed the State Department.
It goes without saying that the Venezuelan government dismissed the so-called “democratic transition” plan. Venezuela’s Attorney General Tarek William Saab condemned the persistent blockade that prevents the purchase of drugs and supplies to combat the spread of the pandemic.
US efforts to force regime change in Venezuela, by any and all means possible, are not new. In early 2019, the Trump administration decreed that Maduro should be replaced by self-proclaimed “Interim President” Juan Guaidó. The former president of the National Assembly — a rotating title for party delegates in the legislature — Guaidó has been the US-backed candidate of choice since he unceremoniously appointed himself president in a street rally on 23 January 2019, only one day after US Vice President Mike Pence posted a video online claiming that Maduro is a dictator with no legitimate claim to power, and asserting US support for Guaidó’s bid for the presidency. More importantly, on 4 February 2020 Guaidó was invited to attend Donald Trump’s State of the Union address, held in the chamber of the US House of Representatives where he was given a “very warm bi-partisan reception” reported The Grey Zone. Welcoming him to the event, Trump quipped: “It’s a very brave man who carries with him the hopes, dreams and aspirations of all Venezuelans. Joining us in the gallery is the true and legitimate president of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó. Mr President please take this message back. Socialism destroys nations, but always remember freedom unifies the soul.”
Trump’s assertions aside, it is Nicholas Maduro — and not Guaidó — who is the uncontested democratically-elected president of Venezuela. Maduro first won the presidential elections on 14 April 2013. He won his second election on 20 May 2018. A review of the validity of the elections based on international standards was verified by a group of some 150 foreign observers, including former Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa who lauded the elections’ organisation as “impeccable”. And in 2012 former US president Jimmy Carter referred to Venezuela’s electoral system as “the best in the world”.
Since it started to levy sanctions on Venezuela, the Trump administration has worked hard to delegitimise Maduro’s socialist Bolivarian government. At the heart of the US insistence to push for regime change are the country’s oil reserves, the largest worldwide. “But it is not only the greed for oil,” explained Venezuelan Ambassador to Egypt Wilmer Omar Barrientos. “The US onslaught on our country is also based on their drive to eradicate our successful socialist history, dating back to Hugo Chavez’s election to the presidency in 1998.” Since then the US has been on the warpath to shatter Venezuela’s socialist achievements, such as providing free healthcare, free education at all levels, subsidised food networks and housing construction for its people. Prior to US sanctions, the country also boasted the lowest inequality level in the Americas, having reduced poverty levels from 80 to 20 per cent.
The Trump administration has largely succeeded in its drive to decimate Venezuela’s socialist accomplishments by throttling the economy. It has unilaterally imposed an oil blockade that has prohibited US (foreign companies and) trade partners to purchase oil from Venezuela’s state company PDVSA, threatening sanctions in case of non-compliance. In addition, the blockade extends to the US-controlled World Bank and the International Monetary Fund that are ordered to refuse to do business with the besieged country. The administration “has also confiscated Venezuela’s US subsidiary CITGO, worth $8 billion. This is a huge blow for Venezuela, which received 90 per cent of government revenue from the oil industry. The US government has also frozen $5.5 billion of Venezuelan funds in international accounts in at least 50 banks and financial institutions,” reports Pagliccia.
Because sanctions kill, the human cost of the blockade may be higher and more devastating than the toll of the creeping pandemic. A 2019 report, published by the Centre for Economic Policy and authored by renowned economists Mark Weisbrot and Jeffrey Sachs, recounts: “We find that sanctions have inflicted, and increasingly inflict, very serious harm to human life and health, including more than 40,000 deaths from 2017 to 2018; and that these sanctions would fit the definition of collective punishment of the civilian population as described in both the Geneva and The Hague international conventions to which the US is a signatory.”
Even so, unperturbed by international law, the US adamantly continues to cause the death of tens of thousands of Venezuelans under the guise of “liberty and democracy”, to use the US president’s parlance.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly