Tracing the Threads in Venezuela: “Playing a Game of Chicken”

March 03, 2019

Alexander Campbell

On January 23, the United States recognized Juan Guaidó as president of Venezuela. As CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot has pointed out in The Nation, this is not a merely diplomatic maneuver:

On January 23, the Trump administration announced that it was recognizing Juan Guaidó, currently head of the Venezuelan National Assembly, as “interim president” of the country. By doing so (together with politically allied countries), Washington basically imposed a trade embargo against Venezuela. This is because any revenue from oil sales to about three-quarters of Venezuela’s export markets?the United States and its allies?would no longer go to the government but to the “interim president.”

On Tuesday, the International Crisis Group’s Ivan Briscoe wrote in Foreign Affairs that around 90 percent of the Venezuelan population receives food aid from Maduro’s government, a crucial lifeline currently endangered by US policy:

The state now provides citizens with monthly boxes of subsidized rations that offer high-carb sustenance—pasta, rice, and flour—along with a few tins of tuna. According to a recent independent social survey, these boxes are now provided to more than seven million households, or around 90 percent of the population; a high-level government source estimates the cost at more than $400 million a month.

But the state’s food supply is now in peril. At the end of January, the United States sanctioned Venezuela’s state-run oil firm, PDVSA, which until then had been the Maduro government’s single largest source of hard currency. By freezing the proceeds on its purchases of Venezuelan oil, the United States hoped to starve the regime and convince factions within the government to abandon Maduro, making way for Guaidó and free elections.

In the Financial Times, noted Venezuelan economist Francisco Rodríguez wrote that humanitarian aid was inadequate to make up the shortfall resulting from Venezuela’s economic collapse:

While several governments have made commitments of humanitarian aid to Venezuela, the magnitude of that type of aid is far from what is needed to feed a nation of 30m people. Humanitarian aid is not normally intended as a substitute for an economy’s productive capacity, but rather to deliver medical and nutritional supplies to treat life-threatening malnutrition. The total of all the commitments made by the international community to date amount to $126m. This amount of aid would be the equivalent of just two weeks of what the country imported in food and medicines last year (when there was already substantial scarcity).

When discussing the foreign aid going into Venezuela, media coverage has often focused on that coming from Russia and China. But “The European Commission (EC) was the largest donor to organisations working inside Venezuela in 2018, according to the [UN’s Financial Tracking Service],” BBC’s Reality Check reported Thursday. “It has been sending humanitarian aid to Venezuela since 2016. The EC focuses on projects to improve access to food and nutrition, water, hygiene and sanitation for people in Venezuela.”

At a hearing of a subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week, Congressman Andy Levin (D-MI) pointedly questioned expert panelists about the Trump administration’s strategy and its impacts on the Venezuelan people:

Levin: The New York Times ran a story earlier this month on this very question and I think the headline said it all: “US Sanctions Are Aimed at Venezuela’s Oil. Its Citizens May Suffer First.” So my question is: could these particular sanctions worsen the humanitarian crisis that has already gotten so bad in Venezuela?

Marcela Escobari, Brookings Institution: I think the strategy is that one, of being able to starve Maduro of his ability to maintain himself in power….

Moises Rendon, Center for Strategic and International Studies: In a way, it’s going to limit Maduro [from] importing food and other products. It’s the only way the Venezuelan people are getting fed, by imports, so Maduro’s no longer gonna be able to import as much as before…

Levin: So we’re sort of playing a game of chicken with him, where at the risk of the people starving…

Rendon: I think the key part here, again, to the point of Guaidó’s government, is to make sure that he has the power to keep, and the national assembly, to import now. If we’re now recognizing Guaidó as the only legitimate president, we need to give him that power. And I think providing humanitarian aid is a first step.

Notwithstanding diplomatic recognition, there is no disputing that Maduro’s government overwhelmingly controls the country’s armed forces, ports, and borders. While the US insists that legitimate aid to Venezuela be channeled through Guaidó, it also must understand that he has no capacity to distribute it.

Venezuela’s opposition understands that its inability to effectively distribute aid does not diminish its effectiveness as a geopolitical strategy. CNN recently reported:

Guaido has thrown all his weight behind a “humanitarian channel” that would bring tons of much-needed aid from foreign countries into Venezuela. But the plan isn’t just benevolent — it’s also a direct jab at Maduro, who for years has denied that a humanitarian crisis was happening in Venezuela.

“The impact of the humanitarian aid is highly political,” admits Juan Miguel Matheus, an MP for the opposition. “Our first and primary goal is to provide relief for the Venezuelan population, but after that, with this move we want to checkmate Maduro.

“If the aid gets in, Maduro is shown to have lost control of the situation; if it doesn’t get in, we show that Maduro doesn’t care for the suffering of the people,” he says.

Meanwhile, major international aid groups with ongoing operations in Venezuela, including the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and Catholic Church-affiliated Caritas have not participated in US aid efforts and have expressed concerns about the politicization of aid.

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