Interview | Sanctions and ‘shock doctrine’ in Venezuela

Venezuelans are living through a protracted economic and social crisis, with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic combining with longer-term economic malaise. States including the US and the UK continue to demand the ouster of the country’s president, Nicolás Maduro, and have imposed brutal sanctions on Venezuela since the unsuccessful attempt to oust Maduro in a coup in 2019.

We spoke with MC, a Venezuelan socialist and long-time participant in the Bolivarian revolutionary process, about the way forward for Venezuelan socialists and their comrades around the world.

Nicolás Maduro at the funeral of Hugo Chávez in 2013.
Nicolás Maduro at the funeral of Hugo Chávez in 2013. Photo: Diariocritico / Flickr

The United States obviously increased its economic sanctions against Venezuela after the after the events in early 2019. And then they imposed the oil embargo from April. Can you describe the effects and just generally, what the economic situation was in Venezuela before the arrival of Coronavirus earlier this year?

Venezuela has had drastic economic cycles, positive and negative. In the early 2000s, or at least after around 2006, things were pretty good: the economy was rocketing, people earned good salaries and could easily travel around the world as it was easy to access dollars at a good exchange rate. Wealthier people even used this to buy up apartments and so on around the world. Hugo Chávez did a great job in this period of working towards high oil prices with the other OPEC countries.

At some point – it’s hard to be exact given there’s no paper trail – the United States found an effective way of attacking our economic system, and it was through the dollar, using the exchange rate of dollars to our currency, the bolívar, to affect the Venezuelan economy. This involved backing and utilising the activities of mafias based in Cúcuta, on the Colombian border, who controlled illegal currency exchanges, and helped to push the exchange rate up a lot in favour of the dollar. That in turn started impacting dramatically on prices within Venezuela. It’s hard to say how much of an organised plan was involved in this, but it appears there was one: businessmen, companies and manufacturers all began setting prices according to this unofficial and partly external exchange rate, which was listed on a popular website called DolarToday. When the US found that this was hitting the Venezuelan economy, they used this mercilessly, over and over and over again, and inflation went sky-high.

When did inflation really start to pick up?

Probably before Chávez died [in 2013]; but after he died, it accelerated wildly, and became totally unbelievable. You could see that a quite well-oiled weapon was being used against our economy in a conscious way, taking into account all the other factors related to the process of fixing prices.

And then around 2014-15 global oil prices started dropping as well.

Yeah, that was very bad timing (for us – for the US government it was perfect timing!). I remember oil prices went down to less than $20 a barrel, and even lower, and that was a critical situation for Venezuela as an oil-producing country.

One of the things then really picked up under Trump was economic sanctions, such as sanctions on state oil revenues in the last year or two. Has there been a visible impact in terms of worsening conditions?

It’s been really bad; really bad. We are an oil-producing country, and we don’t have petrol; we have to buy it from Iran, which has been the most daring of Venezuela’s few remaining allies in helping us. We don’t have cooking oil or fuel for stoves. In some parts of the country they’re chopping down trees to cook with, in electric kitchens. There was an explosion last year at Venezuela’s main electrical dam, which put the country into darkness for four months. In many places there isn’t enough electricity – they have power for a few hours, six or seven hours a day, twelve hours maximum.

Speaking for myself, the sanctions affect my life every day. Food prices are going up all the time. I don’t have petrol. My mother doesn’t have a way of supporting herself. She doesn’t have a salary; she has a pension lower than $1 a month, and she needs $20 for medicine alone. To go to the supermarket and get enough groceries for a month you probably need around $300; the salary of a regular employee is at around $1 a month. Sanctions are hitting the population; sanctions are not hitting the government at all. You think Maduro is chopping trees to cook his steaks?

Is it possible for Venezuelans to draw a distinction between the impact of the guerra económica (economic war) – the impact of sanctions, the embargo and so-on – and the negative economic trends that were already there?

I have learned it is not black and white. There is always a scale of greys. And you cannot blame the enemy for attacking you. Venezuelans blame the government for allowing them to attack us successfully. People are fed up with the government blaming external actors for what’s happening within Venezuela. They feel, they’ve been in power for more than 20 years; they had the chance to do things right. But now that the enemy is attacking us, they weren’t prepared for it – they didn’t set up the right defences. People see Maduro as incompetent as he isn’t able to stop these attacks.

The idea of diversifying the economy to depend less on oil exports seems like it was never realised in practice, for example.

There was a lot of corruption. There was a lot of incompetence. There was a lot of nepotism.

Were people pointing that out at the time? Or were people just not paying attention because, overall, because the economic situation was good due to high oil prices?

Twenty years ago, people felt: ‘Let them be in office, let them rob the state treasury, as long as they share it with us too!’ As long as people were getting a part of the cake, they were happy enough. If people can go to the supermarket and get whatever they need, whatever they want, they won’t pay much attention to corruption. But over time corruption has really done a lot of damage to us as a country, and now people have turned against it in a big way.

So if the US government’s strategy with sanctions is to undermine the Venezuelan economy so much that people eventually rebel and overthrow the government, is it succeeding?

We have to analyse it from a different point of view. If you treat it as an attempt to get rid of Maduro and accomplish a political transition in Venezuela, then no, it’s been a total failure. But I don’t believe that was really the main goal of these measures. For the most part, it was an electoral play – appealing to Cubans and Venezuelan expats in Florida, for example. That was the main point of the sanctions, I think, not getting rid of Maduro. Not the only point – they care about the large amount of oil under our feet, but as long as the Venezuelan government is incompetent, and weak, that oil will remain there so no harm is done to the US. And there are other geopolitical situations in play as well.

Because if you really want Maduro to leave office and for there to be a transition, you’d stop putting a price on his head. Why? Because it only makes him grab onto power even harder, even stronger, as he doesn’t want to die!

Politically, I would imagine the sanctions may even have the opposite effect from removing Maduro, in that it must make the opposition very unpopular if aspects of the opposition are publicly supporting sanctions against the country.

But Venezuelans also feel that they just don’t want any more trouble. They don’t want conflict. There are lots of people who now feel like they just want the US marines to come, push out Maduro, re-establish capitalism, whatever. Are you familiar with The Shock Doctrine, by Naomi Klein? That’s what they’re doing – pushing us to accept whatever. It gets to a point where, if they ran Mickey Mouse as a candidate for president against Maduro, people would vote for Mickey Mouse. Because we’re tired – our spirits are low and we’re living in despair.

But the idea that there’ll be a social explosion in Venezuela? Forget about it! That won’t happen.

How do you mean exactly, a ‘social explosion’?

We call it a social explosion, what happened in 1989. Venezuela had a recently elected president called Carlos Andrés Pérez Rodríguez, who took the recipe from the IMF and applied it very literally, without anaesthesia. There was one week of riots across the whole country, and many people were killed by law enforcement, especially the National Guard. They took the army out onto the streets.

You have said that for the US government trying to take out Maduro isn’t an effective strategy. Do you think the Biden administration is likely to switch to a different approach?

They have already selected this guy from Harvard, Anthony Blinken, to be Secretary of State. He’s mentioned that they’re going to keep the sanctions, they are not going to withdraw the sanctions.

I believe they’re going to start some dialogues here in Venezuela. Possibly they’ll take the price off Maduro’s head, and start talking. Guarantee him his life, and a way out. That’s the way it is going to work. If they want a transition, they’re going to have to let him leave power, because the Venezuelan government, that political elite, is well-rooted in power. [The US government] don’t have anything else to work with here in Venezuela. The political liberals are nobodies. So what are their options?

Do you think the situation will just go on in this stalemate until the US government makes Maduro an offer to leave, and he’ll just leave? It’s hard to see how this can last forever.

I think the conversation is not even with Maduro. I think the conversation is between China, Russia, and the US. They’ll get together, talk about Venezuela, and then tell Maduro what to do.

I wanted to ask about how the coronavirus pandemic has affected this situation. What the pandemic has been like in Venezuela? Did sanctions have an impact on the medical system and obtaining medical supplies?

Well, thank God China has been a great help to Venezuela. I know that won’t exactly come for free; everything has its price; but it’s been helpful to us. They’ve been sending a lot of resources to deal with the pandemic.

Things are very complicated in Venezuela. You never know the truth. You’re kind of confused all the time; you can’t trust the media. We don’t really know the proper data or statistics; you can’t trust the numbers they’re giving out, saying that we only have 300 new cases per day or whatever. Nobody trusts that. But right now, the streets are crowded; we are alternating: one week, strict social distancing, the next week, flexible social distancing, where some types of businesses, companies and stores etc. can open.

We’ve had cases in Venezuela, we know about people dying, but it’s not been a massive catastrophe. We aren’t seeing people dying in the streets, or bodies being burned in the streets, like happened in Ecuador some months back, or in Peru. Fortunately, it’s not like that in Venezuela.

What do you think the difference is that’s been allowed Venezuela to weather it slightly better than Ecuador or Peru?

If you go out in Venezuela, everybody is using a mask. Everyone. At every store in Venezuela, at the entrance there’s a person with alcohol to put into your hands, and everybody who comes into the store uses this alcohol, everybody’s trying to be protected. So, people are conscious about the situation, and they’re trying to protect themselves from the virus. We have measures all over.

What has the government’s response been like on this?

I believe the government have led the way on how to deal with the situation. We have a very strict curfew. They made it more flexible from time to time, and as the numbers have gone down the measures and the curfews have been lighter. They have the power; they have the military, and they use it. People would be amazed in the UK if they did what the government here have been doing in relation to this situation. They’ve been very strict with that since the beginning, and have kept control of it. They put hands to work on this since the start, and I believe they’ve done a good job. I don’t know the statistics. But if I if I look around, I don’t see anyone with coronavirus around me. I hear about some cases, I know about people dying of coronavirus, but I don’t see it around.

What would you say to socialists in Britain who want to act to support the original principles of the Bolivarian Revolution?

Firstly – the Bolivarian Revolution is on hold. It passed away some years ago, probably when Chávez died. Unfortunately, it’s hard for us to recognise that, because we believe in a historical and political process [that] has been going on for decades and even centuries. But in this particular case, in this particular time of our history, this process stopped with Chávez; he was the only one who could pull it off. And unfortunately, he couldn’t see the dangers of gathering all the power around him, concentrating power in himself. And that was a big mistake. He made two mistakes, really: firstly, believing people are good by nature; secondly, concentrating power, and criticising anyone who mentioned that situation. Those two things are haunting us right now.

So, what can I say to people in other countries about the Venezuelan revolution? We have to start again, and we have to learn from these mistakes. We have seen a lot of the mistakes made by the Soviet Union’s bureaucracy, again: the elites taking over control and taking decision-making power away from their bases. The nomenklatura is back again in Venezuela. So we have to rethink revolution; we have to see Venezuela as a process that had a lot of nice plans, did a lot of good things, but now is failing. And we have to resuscitate this body. I believe it is possible. But we need some kind of closure here, and to start afresh. We need a fresh start based on keeping ourselves away from the mistakes. And they’ve been very bad, dreadful mistakes.

We’re mainly an organisation based in the UK. Our state is in the US-led geopolitical block and the UK was one of the countries that recognised Guaidó as president, and then has played a role in the sanctions regime. For example, the Bank of England has essentially tried to steal a lot of Venezuela’s remaining gold reserves. What kind of solidarity would you want from people in the UK or any other part of the world?

Stop the blockade. It is really killing people here. Come up with a different way, a third way: don’t give money to Maduro, don’t let the US do the harm they are doing. We need something else; I will just say – some kind of independent, autonomous force. The world will want to participate in the recovery of Venezuela – but it must be as an autonomous, not a governmental, force. But like, a people of the world force. We need people to take action, look at the situation in the right way, stop the blockade and make a third way possible. Without Maduro, and without the United States leading the way.


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