Venezuela’s strategic importance was established roughly 100 million years ago when petroleum deposits were being formed. Venezuela has the Earth’s largest oil reserves — more than Saudi Arabia — 300-plus billion barrels. If you ever wondered why the United States cares so much about Venezuela, you can stop wondering.
By the end of the 1990s, the Venezuelan reserves were being exploited by major American and European oil giants with the help of a rightist Venzuelan government long controlled by the country’s economic elite. Although Venezuela’s oil industry had been nationalized in 1976, and the government owned Citgo, the world’s third-largest oil company in the ‘90s, the money flowed mostly to private hands. As Venezuela’s oil revenues climbed into the tens of billions of dollars, per capita income for ordinary people declined, “exacerbating poverty and housing insecurity to an unprecedented degree,” said a 2013 story for the magazine of the North American Congress on Latin America, NACLA Report on the Americas.
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Hugo Chavez, a socialist, was elected Venezuela’s president in 1998 on promises to use the nation’s oil wealth to improve the lives of the country’s people and the entire region. The first president in some 40 years not from the ruling elite’s party, Chavez remained extremely popular in Venezuela, winning two more presidential terms, because he largely kept those promises. When Chavez died in 2013 just before his third inauguration, his political party carried on. In a 2016 op-ed in the New York Times, U.S. economist and Latin America expert Mark Weisbrot wrote, “Since Hugo Chávez first took office, he and his party have won 13 of 14 national elections, mainly because they greatly improved the living standards of the majority of voters in Venezuela. Since 2004…poverty has been cut by half and extreme poverty by more than 70 percent.”
The United States, historically unwilling to let democracy choose a socialist president in Latin America, joined two efforts to stop Chavez and the political principles espoused by him — an ideology called “Chavismo” in Spanish. The first attempt failed quickly and the second escalated already severe economic problems in Venezuela into a humanitarian disaster. These interventions arguably violated international law and ultimately turned out to be bad for the United States and deadly for the Venezuelan people.
Between the 9-11 attack, the initiation of the “war on terror,” and the unnecessary war in Iraq, George W. Bush’s administration was advised of a planned military-and-business-backed coup to throw Chavez out of office. Several UK and U.S. newspapers reported connections between coup plotters and “senior officials” of the Bush administration in the months before the coup. Some say the U.S. tacitly approved the right-wing coup; others say the U.S. fully backed it and participated. In April 2002, the coup managed to remove Chavez for only 47 hours before a popular uprising returned him to power. During those two days, a right-wing business leader swore himself in as president, the National Assembly was dissolved, and the Supreme Court and attorney general were dismissed. The original complaint of the coup leaders had been that Chavez was undermining democracy, but the coup’s initial actions showed they cared nothing about democracy.
When Chavez died in 2013 following a long bout with cancer, Nicolás Maduro, his vice president, took his place, as Chavez had wished. Vowing to continue Chavismo, Maduro narrowly won a snap election. Maduro made mistakes and misjudgments that worsened the impact of falling oil revenues and high inflation, making the new president increasingly unpopular. In the 2015 legislative elections, Maduro’s opponents won total control of the National Assembly.
Seeing Venezuela’s socialist president at odds with its right-wing legislature, the newly elected Trump administration saw what they thought was an opportunity to force Maduro from office. Trump signed executive orders for two rounds of punishing economic sanctions. The first, in 2017, stopped Venezuela from borrowing in the U.S. The second, in 2019, prohibited Venezuela from selling oil to the U.S, its biggest customer. Together, the two orders effectively shut off the Venezuelan government from most foreign commerce and dealt a lethal blow to the economy.
With encouragement from the U.S., the right-wing-controlled National Assembly staged what amounted to another coup by acting unilaterally to name its young legislative leader, Juan Guaidó, as Venezuela’s “interim president.” The U.S. immediately recognized Guaidó as Venezuela’s new leader and severed diplomatic ties with the country’s real government. Trump and his second secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, began advocating regime change in Venezuela and both threatened U.S. military action.
Maduro stayed in office and no U.S. troops were ever sent. But Trump’s actions cut off “much of the country’s access to…essential imports including medicine and food,” said a 2019 analysis from the Washington-based Center for Economic Policy and Research (CEPR). It also seized control over billions of Venezuela’s dollars in U.S. and other foreign accounts, switching control from the elected Venezuelan president to the right-wing’s alternative government.
Weisbrot and Jeffrey Sachs, the two U.S. economists who wrote the CEPR report, stated in their executive summary in 2019:
“We find that the sanctions have inflicted, and increasingly inflict, very serious harm to human life and health, including an estimated more than 40,000 deaths from 2017 – 2018; and that these sanctions would fit the definition of collective punishment of the civilian population as described in both the Geneva and Hague international conventions, to which the US is a signatory. They are also illegal under international law and treaties which the US has signed, and would appear to violate US law as well.”
The deaths and illnesses accelerated by the U.S. sanctions affect people of all ages and genders, the UN found, particularly infants, children and adolescents, pregnant women and nursing mothers, old people, indigenous people and others “in need of protection,” the CEPR reported.
Needless to say, by targeting the “general population of Venezuela,” the sanctions added significantly to the forced emigration of millions of Venezuelans.
Even-handed chronicles of Chavismo acknowledge that Chavez’s presidency attached too much power to the president, even though Chavez remained popular to the end. His successor has been far less popular and a UN fact-finding mission has found Maduro, his police, and his military guilty of numerous human rights violations against his opposition. None of this, however, can justify the United States’ economic and political war on the entire population of the country.
In retrospect, we can see that the U.S. government was both cruel and clueless in its attacks on Venezuela and the entire region. The American role in the failed 2002 coup against Chavez only served to convince the region that the U.S. was both anti-democratic and inept. Leftist governments multiplied in the region, a phenomenon called “the Pink Tide.”
Our subsequent sanctions and the U.S. decision to support fracturing the Venezuelan government also failed to bring down Chavismo, succeeding only in deepening human misery and anti-U.S. sentiment while worsening the U.S.’s own problems with immigration and energy. Now that we face a dire need to replace Russian energy and reduce pressure on our southern border, we are in worse shape for having reduced oil production while pushing Venezuela closer to Russia and OPEC.