Beware Americans bearing gifts

US ‘humanitarian aid’ ups the risk of violent conflict in Venezuela, writes Vanessa Baird.

A supporter of Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro holds a banner during a rally in support of him in Urena, Venezuela 11 February 2019. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Food has long been used as a weapon of war. And the $20 million worth of US food and medicine at the border of Venezuela is a veritable bombardment.

Its purpose is cynical and hostile: to topple the government of President Nicolás Maduro. It comes atop the most punishing US economic sanctions which President Trump has just scaled up to include oil exports.

There is no doubt that the beleaguered Venezuelan people could do with supplies of food and medicine, but this is an abuse of humanitarianism. The Red Cross and the charity Caritas, operating in Venezuela, have indicated that they cannot co-operate in the distribution of aid given in such circumstances.

But the aid gesture is effective in PR terms. The image of the bridge linking Colombia and Venezuela last week, blocked (by the Army, apparently) to prevent entry of food and medicine, was not going to win Maduro’s administration any plaudits. Here was a government getting between the people and what they most desperately need. Maduro is demanding that US sanctions are lifted first.

The Francisco de Paula Santander International Bridge linking Colombia and Venezuela is shown in this satellite image, taken 11 February 2019. ©2019 DigitalGlobe, a Maxar company/Handout via REUTERS

This week, Juan Guaidó, the US-backed self-declared ‘interim president’, says he will mobilize volunteers to open routes to get the USAID supplies past Maduro’s blockades and into the country. It looks like a recipe for violence.

Indeed, Maduro has threatened that the actions of the opposition could lead to civil war. He has the army on his side, still, and has been photographed with them repeatedly over the past few days.

Interference from foreign powers are not helping to defuse the tension. Interim ‘president’ Guaidó is now recognized by over 40 nations around the world, led by the US, Brazil, Canada, Argentina, Peru, Paraguay, Colombia, Australia and numerous EU states including the UK, Spain, Germany and France. Supporting the Maduro government are Russia, Cuba, Bolivia, North Korea and China. Many others have not declared support either way.

Venezuelans have a right to choose their own government in free, fair and democratic elections

Lying in the middle of this high-stakes geopolitical game is the world’s largest reserve of crude oil.

US interference in Latin America has a terrible and bloody history – memories of which were triggered by Trump’s recent appointment of Elliott Abrams as special envoy. This is the man who ran Reagan’s dirty wars in Central America. Guaidó, aged 35, and up until now relatively unknown within Venezuela as well as abroad, should be careful who he is getting into bed with.

On the international legality of all this, Alfred de Zayas, the first UN rapporteur to visit and report from Venezuela in 21 years, did not mince his words in an article for the British Independent newspaper last week:

‘There is nothing more undemocratic and corrosive to the rule of law than a coup d’etat. Members of the United Nations are bound by the Charter, articles one and two of which affirm the right of all peoples to determine themselves, the sovereign equality of states, the prohibition of the use of force and of economic or political interferences in the internal affairs of sovereign states. Yet these fundamental principles of international order are being grossly violated in the case of Venezuela.’

He went on to compare the current campaign against Venezuela with the ‘coalition of the willing’ to embark on a war against Iraq, declared illegal by the UN.

Whatever the desirability of Maduro stepping down – his rule has been plagued not only by US sanctions, falling oil prices, hyper-inflation, corruption, shortages of basic items, but also spectacular economic and political incompetence – it must not be achieved by outside powers or at their behest.

The best that can happen now is that the two sides talk. Maduro has said he is open to discussion. The opposition says: no, the time for talking is past. Pope Francis has offered his services, providing both sides agree to it.

There did seem to be a glimmer of hope in the shape of the more neutral International Contact Group, which had its first meeting in Montevideo on Thursday, attended by Bolivia, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Ecuador and a number of EU nations.

But the group maintained its support for new elections and this was rejected by Maduro.

The call for a poll is a sticking point. The recent history of elections in Venezuela is complex and messy. Neither the government nor the opposition have covered themselves in democratic glory in recent years.

At times the opposition has chosen to boycott elections to undermine the legitimacy of the result. Technically, Maduro was the winner of the May 2018 elections – but only after banning leading opposition parties and candidates from running. This – along with cancelling a recall referendum in 2016, dissolving the opposition-led National Assembly in 2017, and ‘stealing’ the October 2017 Governor elections – has seriously dented his democratic credentials.

Venezuelans have a right to choose their own government in free, fair and democratic elections.

But they also have a right not to have a new president (interim or not), armed with rightwing neoliberal economics and privatization imperatives, foisted upon them by the US and its allies.

Remember, it was this savage neoliberalism that caused Venezuela’s deep crisis of the 1990s in the first place – a crisis that a certain Hugo Chávez had an answer to.