by Ken Livingstone
AS STATES around the world struggle to tackle to coronavirus pandemic, Venezuela’s efforts to protect its population are being severely jeopardised by Trump’s aggressive tactics which have been ramped up over the past few weeks.
Trump’s strengthening of illegal US sanctions against Venezuela since 2017 — creating an economic blockade of the type employed against Cuba since the 1960s — have undoubtedly weakened its health infrastructure by cutting deeply into its oil revenues and its capacity to import key medical supplies and equipment.
Inevitably, this is affecting Venezuela’s capacity to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, but unlike Bolsonaro in Brazil the government has taken swift action to contain its spread.
First, it decreed a health emergency, prohibited crowds from gathering, and cancelled flights from Europe and Colombia. An online survey about possible symptoms has been completed by 13 million people, identifying the need for almost 35,000 door-to-door medical visits, of which 27,000 have already been completed.
A nationwide lockdown is now in force, with only food stores, pharmacies and some public institutions remaining open. Long-distance transport has been suspended, while local public transport is being reserved for healthcare workers, public officials and those attending activities deemed essential.
A swathe of other measures prioritising people’s health and wellbeing has also been put in place.
International solidarity donations — virus testing kits from China, doctors and drugs from Cuba and medical equipment and supplies from Russia — have also helped enormously. To date, Venezuela has 165 cases reported and seven deaths, compared for example to neighbouring Colombia’s 1,579 cases and 46 deaths or Brazil’s 12,232 cases and 566 deaths.
Nevertheless, additional resources would be welcome. Recognising this, President Maduro requested a $5 million (£4m) emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Yet the IMF refused to consider Venezuela’s request on the grounds “there is no clarity on recognition” of who the official government is amongst its 189 member states.
In fact, only just over a third of the IMF membership recognise Juan Guaido, the failed coup leader and self-proclaimed president, while the United Nations continues to recognise Nicolas Maduro as the legitimate leader of the country.
But it is the United States with its unremittingly hostile policy of securing illegal regime change through sanctions against Venezuela which calls the shots at the IMF.
Last August UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet criticised the sanctions, warning that they “are extremely broad and fail to contain sufficient measures to mitigate their impact on the most vulnerable sectors of the population,” with “far-reaching implications on the rights to health and to food in particular.”
That is even truer today amid the coronavirus crisis. Venezuela’s response to the virus could be immediately improved, for example, if it could access $7bn (£5.6bn) estimated to be in its international accounts, currently blocked by US sanctions.
Yet in March the US announced new punitive measures against Russian energy giant Rosneft for buying oil cargoes from Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA, while pressing companies in India, China and Spain to halt all purchases from Venezuela.
The knock-on effects of this are forcing Venezuela to sell its major source of revenue below production cost, at a time when crude oil prices have halved, reflecting forecasts of a global recession.
The IMF’s position on Venezuela’s request has attracted widespread criticism. It is putting ideology above the welfare of an entire people, accepting more deaths in Venezuela rather than take a humanitarian position and offend Donald Trump, who is busy putting corporate interests and his re-election chances above the health and lives of American citizens.
But the European Union’s foreign ministers have rightly supported Venezuela’s application to the IMF for financial aid.
As EU Foreign Affairs Chief Josep Borrell explained, “we are going to support this request because these countries are in a very difficult situation mainly due to the US sanctions that prevent them from having income by selling their oil.”
In the US, where currently there is the highest number of confirmed cases of any country in the world, 11 US senators have written to US Secretary Mike Pompeo, saying “US sanctions are hindering the free flow of desperately needed medical and humanitarian supplies due to the broad chilling effect of sanctions on such transactions, even when there are technical exemptions.”
UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres has also advocated the lifting of sanctions imposed on Venezuela, Cuba and other countries to ensure access to food, essential health supplies and Covid-19 medical support, rightly saying “this is the time for solidarity not exclusion.”
Trump, though, is clearly hell-bent on using the pandemic to effect regime change in Venezuela.
He has threatened to increase the sanctions on the country unless the government accepts the Trump plan for a so-called “peaceful democratic transition” requiring Maduro to resign.
In a further move to disrupt positive signs of dialogue between the government and more moderate elements of the opposition who are calling for the US to lift the sanctions, the Trump administration has resurrected its false claims that Venezuela is a “narco-terrorist state.”
Outrageously, this includes offering a $15 million (£12m) reward for the arrest of President Maduro for drug trafficking. Moving forward, whether the EU and European countries are prepared to oppose violent insurrection against a democratically elected government and break with US policy of regime change remains to be seen.
But whatever happens, Venezuela will need our solidarity against Trump’s blockade more than ever in the months ahead.
Venezuela Solidarity Campaign has launched a petition to join the EU & others in urging the IMF to grant Venezuela’s request for a $5bn loan from its emergency fund to help combat Covid-19. You can sign it here at http://chng.it/S8jm7F5q.
This article originally appeared in The Morning Star