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The U.S. Is Using Coronavirus to Push Regime Change in Venezuela

In the midst of the global crisis opened up by the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration has redoubled its efforts to overthrow Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro. It is dangling the lifting of devastating sanctions and offering foreign aid in exchange for Maduro’s ouster. We must demand that all sanctions be lifted unequivocally and denounce all U.S. military interference in the region.

Madeleine Freeman

April 5, 2020
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Image by Sou Mi

While hundreds of thousands of working people in the U.S. are fighting for their lives in the midst of one of the world’s worst outbreaks of coronavirus, the United States is taking advantage of the pandemic in Venezuela to renew its push for regime change and oust sitting president Nicolás Maduro once and for all. The coup, which has been slowly unfolding over the last year, has recently regained steam as the coronavirus risks tearing through a heavily-sanctioned and overburdened Venezuela. In the last two weeks, the Trump administration has filed drug trafficking charges against Maduro and other high-ranking officials, demanded that Venezuela set up an interim government between Maduro and Juan Guaidó in return for lifting sanctions and foreign aid, and sent navy ships to Venezuela to launch an anti-narcotics operation in the country.

Despite the fact that Venezuela is at particular risk of devastation in the event of an uncontrolled coronavirus outbreak, the U.S. and its allies refuse to lift the extensive sanctions that have crippled Venezuela’s economy for the last five years at least. They refuse to extend foreign aid and the IMF just recently refused to issue Venezuela a loan of $5 billion to combat coronavirus. While Venezuelans starve and try to stave off the outbreak of another highly infectious disease, the United States, in conjunction with the European Union, is pushing for regime change. 

Make no mistake: this isn’t about drug trafficking or human rights abuses or restoring “democracy” to Venezuela. The U.S. imperialist military machine is using the coronavirus outbreak as an excuse to complete its long-standing plan to move in on a country with rich oil reserves, one which has resisted U.S. hegemony in Latin America for years. As the U.S. diverts military funding towards a coup attempt in Venezuela at the same time that millions of people are unemployed and tens of thousands of people are sick with COVID-19 in the U.S., we must demand that the U.S. lift all sanctions in Venezuela and abroad and immediately withdraw all military presence there. 

Trumped Up Trafficking Charges

On March 26, Attorney General William Barr announced that the Trump administration had filed criminal charges against Maduro, other high-ranking Venezuelan officials, and former officials. According to the indictment, Maduro “helped manage and ultimately lead the Cartel of the Suns, a Venezuelan drug-trafficking organization comprised of high-ranking Venezuelan officials” to “flood the United States with cocaine.” The U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) reports say that Maduro, who the U.S. has deemed an illegitimate leader, “prioritized using cocaine as a weapon against America.”

The indictment alleges that the Venezuelan government has made an alliance with the Colombian guerilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—People’s Army (FARC) to use Venezuela as a safe haven for cocaine produced by cartels in Colombia before shipping it to the United States. The U.S., along with other western powers, characterizes the FARC as a terrorist organization while Maduro’s government does not; when Hugo Chavez was in power, Chavez at one time considered the FARC a legitimate arm of the Colombian state.

Maduro faces a minimum sentence of 50 years in prison and a maximum of life imprisonment. There is a $15 million reward for information leading to Maduro’s arrest and $10 million rewards for information on the other identified respondents. The total price hanging over their heads is $60 million. 

The DOJ has stated that it hopes to eventually take the defendants into custody and that it will “explore all options for getting custody.” Though extradition of Maduro and the other officials is unlikely, the DOJ has sworn to take any opportunity to arrest them. U.S. prosecutors are also seeking to seize any assets held by the defendants overseas.

In a classic display of U.S. imperialist interventionism, the Trump administration has made top officials in the Venezuelan government fugitives of the law. As Barr said, “Today’s actions send a clear message to corrupt officials everywhere that no one is above the law or beyond the reach of U.S. law enforcement.” In the name of restoring “democracy” to Venezuela, the U.S. government has given itself the right to exercise imperial extraterritorial “justice” and indict the highest officials of a sovereign state. The U.S. government — backed by Democrats and Republicans alike — has made itself judge, jury, and executioner of the Maduro regime, pressuring it from every angle: economic, social, and political. 

A Brewing Coup Attempt at Home

The indictment was announced in the context of an ongoing coup attempt against Nicolás Maduro, spear-headed by Juan Guaidó of the Popular Will party along with his allies in the U.S. and Europe. Since Guaidó attempted to seize power in early 2019, he has been recognized by the U.S. and over 60 other countries as the legitimate leader of Venezuela. President Trump even invited Guaidó to his State of the Union address, referring to him as “Mr. President.” However, Guaidó has so far failed to win over the Venezuelan military to his side, and so, despite U.S. imperialism’s attempt to intervene, Maduro remains in power, however tenuous his hold on the presidency may be.

But now Guaidó seems to be making a renewed bid for power. Just days before the indictment against Maduro was announced in the U.S., the Venezuelan government reported the capture of a Colombian national with a shipment of arms from Colombia. According to the report, these arms were part of a plan for military actions within the country. According to Venezuelan intelligence, the plan was approved by Juan Guaidó and financed by Venezuelan capital and the United States.

The plot was confirmed by a former high ranking official, General Clíver Alcalá Cordones. According to Alcalá, he was tasked with heading an operation that hired “American advisors” under a contract signed by Guaidó.

Suspiciously, only days later, Alcalá was one of the officials named in the U.S.’s indictment. He is being charged with drug trafficking alongside Maduro and others. He was subsequently flown to the United States from Barranquilla, Colombia to be interrogated by the U.S. government before Venezuelan officials could take him in for questioning.

For its part, the Venezuelan government’s response was quick. The Venezuelan prosecutor’s office has just announced that it is starting an investigation into Juan Guaidó and Clíver Alcalá Cordones “for the convicted and confessed crime of attempted coup d’état.” Members of Guaidó’s inner circle have been captured under suspicion of having COVID-19. 

U.S. Offers Aid in Return for Regime Change

In response, on March 31, Mike Pompeo announced that the U.S. would lift sanctions against Venezuela if Maduro agreed to step down and form a transitional government with members of Guaidó’s party and his own. The shared government would govern Venezuela until new elections could be held — Maduro would not be eligible to run in these elections.

That this apparent “olive branch” was extended right after the discovery of a shipment of guns involved in a plot against Maduro (with the knowledge of the U.S. government) should come as no surprise. The U.S. is maneuvering to oust Maduro and gain a foothold in Venezuela by whatever means necessary, even if that means lifting the sanctions that have crippled Venezuela’s economy for years. As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: “Nicolás Maduro will never again govern Venezuela.”

The proposal would lift the harshest sanctions against Venezuela, including those against individual government officials and against Venezuela’s national oil company. It would also open Venezuela up to global markets, especially opening it to trade with the United States. 

Importantly, the easing of restrictions would also allow other countries to send aid to Venezuela as it tries to shore itself up against an impending outbreak of coronavirus. It would also enable the IMF to extend a loan and restructuring program to Venezuela. The U.S. is getting more than it’s giving with this deal — an IMF restructuring of the Venezuelan economy would mean additional years of the harshest austerity measures. It would not mark an improvement in the lives of the millions of people who call Venezuela home. 

In other words, the transitional framework proposed by the U.S. is a unilateral deal completely in the favor of the U.S. and its interests. In addition to Maduro’s resignation, it calls for the release of political prisoners and the departure of all military forces from Venezuela, particularly Russian, Chinese, and Cuban troops who have been protecting their own interests there, paving the way for the U.S. to build its influence in the country. 

If the framework is adopted by the Venezuelan government, Maduro will be forced to step down and his party would likely lose new elections after the scandal of the drug trafficking charges and human rights abuses. There is no doubt that the U.S. would meddle in these new elections to ensure that their preferred puppet candidate rose to power. The transitional government is not a step towards increased democracy but only towards authoritarian shadow rule by U.S. capitalist interests thirsting for access to oil reserves.

As the threat of a coronavirus disaster loomed greater on the horizon in Venezuela, in March Maduro’s government was making moves to negotiate a truce with opposition parties in the country to coordinate a response to the outbreak. Many of the leaders of these parties called for solidarity with the government in the face of the pandemic. The U.S.’s indictment and proposal for a transitional government will likely make the prospects of such negotiations — and the possibility of a collective response to the outbreak — nearly impossible.

A “Toned Down” Approach?

In the days following the announcement of the transitional plan for Venezuela, many in the U.S. media heralded the plan as a “toned down” approach towards relations with the Latin American country, in contrast to Trump’s expanded sanctions and outright support for Guaidó’s coup attempt in 2019. In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, however, this is nothing less than another chapter in Trump’s reinvigorated campaign of imperialist conquest.

Tweeting about the announcement, Pompeo wrote, “Today the US presented a framework for a democratic transition as a clear, equitable, and common sense path to end the political crisis in Venezuela. Economic pressure will continue until Maduro accepts a genuine democratic transition.”

His comments show clearly that the United States is issuing Venezuela with an ultimatum. The Trump administration is holding the lives of millions of people in Venezuela hostage — denying the country any hope of fighting the pandemic if sanctions are not lifted. Added to this is the fact that as a result of the pandemic, Venezuela is caught in the middle of a global oil price war which is cutting into demand for Venezuelan oil, which makes up 90% of the country’s revenue. The national oil company has been forced to sell oil at a loss this month. If the sanctions are not lifted, Venezuela does not have to look any further than Iran, which has a death toll of nearly 3,500 at the time of writing, to see just how bad things can get. Iran’s economy is being crushed under the dual weight of coronavirus and U.S. sanctions.

Read more: In the Face of the Pandemic, Lift the Sanctions on Iran Now!

U.S. Sends the Military to Venezuela

But just in case there there was any doubt that the U.S. government is willing to do whatever it takes to get access to Venezuelan oil, on April 2 the Trump administration announced that it was deploying a sizable force of Navy warships, surveillance aircraft, and on-ground special forces to the coast of Venezuela to combat the production and distribution of illegal drugs, particularly cocaine. According to the Associated Press, “The deployment is one of the largest U.S. military operations in the region since the 1989 invasion of Panama to remove Gen. Manuel Noriega from power and bring him to the U.S. to face drug charges.” It will double the U.S.’s anti-drug military forces in the region.

As Trump said in the announcement — which came the same day that the U.S. recorded 800 deaths related to COVID-19 — “the U.S. Southern Command will increase surveillance, seizures of drug shipments, and provide additional support for eradication efforts that are going on right now at a record pace.” Added to the indictment of Maduro and other top officials, by deploying armed forces to the region to fight the narcotics trade, the Trump administration is giving the military and DEA carte blanche to interfere in Venezuelan affairs, with the final goal of overthrowing the Maduro regime and instituting a more U.S.-friendly government in its place. 

Many observers are speculating that this escalation from the Trump administration is fueled by a domestic objective of consolidating support for military aggression against the Venezuelan government among its right-wing electorate. In particular, analysts are hypothesizing that the reinvigorated coup is an attempt to garner support from anti-Maduro ex-patriot Venezuelans living in Florida, New York, and elsewhere across the United States as Trump prepares to run for reelection in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic.

This may very well be true, but it does not change the fact that the U.S. — whether it’s led by a Republican or a Democrat — has been hungry for regime change in Venezuela and to get its hands on bountiful oil reserves at cheap prices for years. Undermining Russian and Chinese influence in the region is also a priority in order to ensure access to cheap resources and new venues for U.S. investment.

As Elliot Abrahms said: “The United States has long been committed to finding a solution to the man-made crisis in Venezuela. The urgency for this has become all the more serious in light of the Maduro regime’s failure to adequately prepare for and address the global COVID-19 pandemic.”

The U.S. sees an opportunity in the coronavirus to finally overthrow Maduro’s government for good. It is enacting a slow-moving operation that is hitting Venezuela from every angle: first political, then extrajudicial, then diplomatic, and now militarily. If the rest of the Venezuelan parties and the military join forces with Guaidó against Maduro — which they do not yet show signs of doing — then this would be the final nail in the coffin of Maduro’s regime and potentially the start of a new era of U.S. imperialist domination in the country. The regime cannot handle a coup attempt and a pandemic at the same time.

Down with U.S. Imperialism

The bottom line is that if the U.S. does not lift sanctions in Venezuela, COVID-19 will devastate the county’s population. Years of embargoes and austerity measures by the Maduro regime have already left the country in tatters, with its infrastructure, particularly its healthcare system, completely gutted. 

Venezuela is estimated to only have 84 ventilated beds across all of its hospitals’ intensive care units. According to some sources, more than 30 percent of Venezuela’s hospitals lack power and water, while 80 percent lack basic supplies or qualified medical staff. There is a dire shortage of healthcare professionals because many of them have fled the country’s dismal economic conditions over the years. Added to this is widespread malnutrition among the population and outbreaks of other infectious diseases like measles, diphtheria, and malaria, which make Venezuelans even more susceptible to severe complications from COVID-19.

Meanwhile, in an attempt to stem the outbreak before it becomes uncontrollable, the Maduro government has instituted harsh repressive measures to enforce its national quarantine. When cases of COVID-19 were in the single digits in the country, Maduro ordered all schools and businesses closed. This early response was paired with the deployment of every branch of the military and the national guard to enforce the quarantine. The military is blocking all major highways to prevent people from moving within the country. Gasoline is reserved only for government purposes. The police guard hospitals with guns.

But we must be clear that this dismal picture in the face of the coronavirus pandemic is the result of years of U.S. embargoes and sanctions. U.S. imperialism has created a humanitarian crisis in the country that has absolutely crippled Venezuela’s economy and left it ill-equipped to handle a crisis of such magnitude. In just the last four years, the economy has contracted by 60%, in no small part due to the rapid expansion of sanctions under the Trump administration. With the ascendance of the right in Latin America, Venezuela is on its own in the region; Maduro is now opening it up to privatization and speculation by foreign capital.

Even so, the no-choice deal that the U.S. has presented Maduro and backed up with its military is absolutely untenable. It will do nothing but crowd all of Venezuela under the thumb of U.S. oil interests and keep the country and its people impoverished for years to come. IMF loans and foriegn aid will not save Venezuela from this crisis.

In light of this, it is imperative that here in the U.S., we demand the immediate lifting of all sanctions in Venezuela and abroad, with no strings attached, as well as the withdrawal of all U.S. military presence in the region and across the world. 

The cynicism displayed in the U.S.’s reinvigorated coup attempt against Maduro at a time when the country is particularly vulnerable, shows that the U.S. is more interested in ensuring profits for capitalists than putting a stop to a worldwide pandemic that threatens millions of lives. While the U.S. should be sending much-needed medical supplies to a region devastated by its imperialist interventionism, it is sending guns and warships instead.

The U.S. has forced the Venezuelan government into the impossible position of ceding power to the U.S. or putting millions of lives at risk. It would rather spend millions of dollars on military intervention abroad than provide for the 10 million people who are unemployed as a result of the crisis or provide adequate attention to the tens of thousands of people who have been infected with coronavirus. Both at home and abroad, the U.S. is interested in only one thing: shoring up U.S. financial interests and regional hegemony in the face of a global recession.

We must demand that the U.S. lift all sanctions against Venezuela. It must remove the military. And it must end its interference in Venezuelans’ sovereignty. Before it’s too late, we must demand: Hands off Venezuela!

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Madeleine Freeman

Madeleine is a writer and video collaborator for Left Voice. She lives in New York.

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