When 50 exhausted Venezuelan refugees got off two chartered planes on Martha’s Vineyard last month, it captured national attention. But Americans were told by the news media and our government that it was the result of petty domestic political scheming by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. The message was: Nothing to see here.
Since then, the news has delivered effusive detail about the lies that lured these migrants onto those expensive private planes and the murderous journey that got them to the U.S.border. But the deeper question has been treated like a secret, not to be touched by the press or the politicians, despite being obvious: What caused these impoverished Venezuelans to leave their homes in the first place and make a perilous 3,000-mile journey to seek a life in the U.S.?
It’s surprisingly hard to find an honest answer to that question. First, it’s very difficult to trust anyone’s version of the facts. Everything about the tortured relationship of the U.S. to Venezuela and Latin America is obscured by choking clouds of conflicting bullshit from different political camps. (My best effort at summarizing the facts: “The Sad, Deadly History of America’s War on Venezuela”) When the U.S. media report anything at all about the situation in their news pages, which is rare, they tend to parrot the U.S. government’s version of the story, which is solely about countering “authoritarian” Latin governments. If any fuller explanation, context, or history reaches mainstream audiences, it is usually through the occasional op-ed by an academic.
See related article: "The Sad, Deadly History of America’s War on Venezuela"
In all the widely seen stories about the Martha’s Vineyard incident, the American news media failed to offer a hint of how past and current U.S. policy has contributed significantly to making Venezuela one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters. There’s been no mention of U.S. efforts to control Venezuela and its oil reserves, which are the world’s largest. Those efforts include a failed illegal coup attempt in 2002 against Hugo Chavez, the democratically elected president, and sweeping economic sanctions imposed by Donald Trump in 2017 and 2019 that have decimated the country’s economy, starving, sickening, and impoverishing millions of Venezuelans.
Since 2017, increasingly severe U.S. sanctions have worsened the lack of food and medicine in Venezuela, killing tens of thousands, including infants and children, according to an independent analysis by the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research in 2019. The analysis also concluded that the sanctions violate international law. Overall, an astounding 6.8 million people have been forced to flee the country, a number significantly swollen by the U.S. sanctions, which essentially cut off Venezuela from foreign exchange. These sanctions, put in place by Trump and Mike Pompeo, his second secretary of state, have now been ratified by Biden, whose National Security Council Spokesperson Adrienne Watson told Reuters last week, “We will continue to implement and enforce our Venezuela sanctions.”
An exhaustive search of news reports about the Martha’s Vineyard incident found no questions about any of this from numerous reporters and editors — not from the lofty, globe-girdling New York Times; not by anyone at the lowly, hyper-local Martha's Vineyard Times; not by the White House, and not by State Rep. Dylan Fernandez, a Democrat from Falmouth, or any of the other Massachusetts officials who showed up at the church where the immigrants found temporary shelter after being dumped on the island.
Editors at the New York Times, apparently recognizing their initial failures, finally ran a front-page story this past weekend (with a link to their Martha’s Vineyard coverage) about the deadly journey north that Venezuelans are now making in increasing numbers. The story (“In Record Numbers, Venezuelans Risk a Deadly Trek to Reach the U.S. Border”) involved significant effort and it’s worth reading. But the word “sanctions” never appears (except in one of 245 reader comments online). To omit such information about the U.S. role in this disaster is so at odds with the basics of journalism that it raises questions about the level of self-censorship needed to keep American journalists quiet about the lethal and counterproductive history of American foreign policy in the region.
All the lies and silence tend to cover up how U.S. policy has helped create and worsen the United States’ and the world’s massive migration crises. Hiding America’s contribution to this humanitarian disaster makes it impossible to understand how a seemingly small story about four dozen migrants, a couple of planes, and vicious local politics in Florida and Texas is intimately connected to everything in the vast, global mess we all face — an interconnected catastrophe that presently involves worsening widespread poverty, inequality, and forced migration in Latin America and the Caribbean; a brutal war in Europe that may become a nuclear war; a worsening climate catastrophe that governments seem unwilling to counter; inflation-wracked economies being pushed by central banks into global recession; energy and food prices rapidly growing beyond the reach of ordinary people; OPEC resurgent; and authoritarianism and racism on the rise again, driving more human rights abuses around the world.
These awful events are united by their cumulative result: a growing global crisis of mass migration. The world’s total number of displaced persons stood at 89.3 million at the end of last year and grew to an estimated 100 million or more by mid-2022, according to the UN. The three countries whose people have been forced to emigrate in the largest numbers are Ukraine, Syria, and, you may have guessed, Venezuela. In a seemingly unending feedback loop, the impacts of these migration crises are being used by the far right to destabilize democracies around the world and accelerate political pressure for more right-wing populism, authoritarianism, and facism.
What comes clear, if you have a week or two to dig through research, is that the United States is a primary actor in creating and maintaining the chaos and poverty that forced desperate journeys on the migrants who were hijacked to Martha’s Vineyard and millions like them.
The most important lesson here is that the press and the U.S. government are equally unwilling to deal with the complicated, cruel, and often misguided reality of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America (and elsewhere). We are, effectively, creating our own worst problems and we refuse to even talk about it. This has dire implications for our future. It’s extremely dangerous because a democracy can’t fix what its people don’t understand. And we can’t understand anything if our sources of information are incomplete and untruthful.
At Philadelphia’s Independence Hall on September 1, Biden gave a nationally televised speech which the White House titled, “Remarks by President Biden on the Continued Battle for the Soul of the Nation.” Biden said he sees this as a battle against “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans.” Many other times, he also has framed it as a worldwide struggle between the forces of democracy and authoritarianism — us against Russia, China, North Korea, and others. Winning this struggle, Biden said, “is the work of my presidency, a mission I believe in with my whole soul.” He added, “But first, we must be honest with each other and with ourselves.” What came next, however, wasn’t completely honest.
Immigration and the problems of mass migration have come to be the key political wedge issue buoying anti-democratic forces in the United States and across the world. Migration, particularly from Latin America, is the issue that did the most to put Donald Trump in the White House, ultimately fueling the on January 6 Capitol riot and pro-Trump forces’ subsequent attacks on voting rights and election integrity across the country. Immigration, particularly from eastern Europe and Syria, is the key issue that split the U.K. from the E.U. and, just last month, put the fascists back in power in Italy for the first time since World War II and raised them up in Sweden.
Biden and all other U.S. political leaders know or should know that his battle to preserve democracy cannot possibly be won until we reimagine the U.S.’s fatally flawed and unjust immigration policies and repair the ill-considered economic and climate-related foreign policies that worsen the worldwide migration crisis.
Yet, Biden has done virtually nothing to address immigration policy coherently. Instead, he has left some of Trump’s worst immigration and immigration-related policies unchanged, including the punishing sanctions against Venezuela.
Since Biden believes in honesty, he can start by acknowledging how U.S. policy contributes to driving Venezuelans and so many others to seek refuge in the United States. He can lay out a plan to remove the U.S. sanctions and end other policies that have worsened the migration crisis for decades. Finally, he can begin to lay out a detailed plan to fix America’s failed immigration system and to create a new foreign policy based on the principle of supporting economic and human rights for everybody, including everybody in the U.S.
Facing the real damage that the U.S. has done to itself with its Latin American policies, Biden has been said to be considering an application by Chevron to allow the California-based oil company to restart its Venezuelan operations, which were ended by U.S. sanctions. The Venezuelans have said they would allow Chevron back. But the Wall Street Journal reported that even if Biden grants Chevron’s request, it would take months to get the company’s pumping operations back in service and, once back, Chevron’s output would likely be only 20 percent of OPEC’s recent 2-million-barrel-per-day cutback. Now, the White House says Biden was never considering any changes to the sanctions.
This all comes at a moment when Venezuela has less reason to talk to us. The Maduro government recently reported Venezuela’s economy grew 19 percent in the last quarter of 2021 and 17 percent in the first quarter of this year, according to Reuters reported. Still, Reuters wrote, “Its GDP, which was equivalent to about $400 billion a decade ago, is now between $50 billion and $60 billion, according to estimates by analysts and economic firms.”
Whatever Biden decides to do or not do, it’ll be far too little, too late to help either Venezuela or the U.S. solve the immediate crises of immigration and energy. Still, there’s no better time than now for the United States to begin honestly appraising and changing its wrong-headed, short-sighted, punitive and illegal approach to Venezuela and Latin America.