Report: Venezuela – End Sanctions, Give Back The Gold

By Tim Young, Venezuela Solidarity Campaign

A major meeting entitled Venezuela: End Sanctions, Give Back the Gold was hosted by the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign and supported by Labour Friends of Progressive Latin America, and focused on the urgent need to end sanctions against Venezuela and allow it to fund its fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

The meeting was chaired by filmmaker and actor Suzie Gilbert, well known for being co-producer on the Oliver Stone-directed documentaries “South of the Border”, about the progressive movements in Latin America and “Castro in Winter”, as well as the documentary series “The Untold History of the United States” and the feature film “W.” about George W. Bush.

Before introducing the speakers, Suzie set the scene for their contributions. With Trump gone, the Biden administration in the US has the opportunity to end the illegal coercive sanctions against Venezuela, stop blockading the country’s economy and pursue constructive engagement with the Maduro government.

But this has not happened so far. Meanwhile, to help alleviate the devastating impact of the US’s sanctions, the Venezuelan government desperately needs access to the 31 tonnes of gold worth more than $1bn (over £800m) that it had deposited with the Bank of England some years ago.

The Bank, however, has consistently refused the Maduro government access to the gold deposits on the grounds that the legitimate title to the assets is held by Juan Guaidó, the self-declared ‘interim president’ of Venezuela.

This was supposedly an “independent” decision by the Bank of England but investigative reporting has revealed the extent to which the Bank’s position has been heavily influenced by what the Tory Government has wanted – in turn reflecting what the Trump administration’s priorities were.

The Venezuelan government obviously challenged this decision in the courts, losing at first but winning an appeal against the lower court’s decision. The issue will now be decided by the Supreme Court, but in somewhat new circumstances.

Venezuela Solidarity Campaign’s campaigning is therefore focused on Venezuela’s right to these assets and the need for the US’s sanctions, which have caused so much damage and misery to the Venezuelan economy and its people, to be lifted.

Say no to US and UK intervention in Venezuela!

The first speaker, Susan Grey from VSC’s Executive, set out in more detail the background to the US’s hostility towards Venezuela, which started early on in Hugo Chávez’s presidency with the aim of getting rid of the Venezuelan government and re-establishing its influence over the country.

US interference in Venezuela, with the aim securing a more compliant government and getting better access to Venezuela’s oil, has taken many forms. These have included not only political pressure, sanctions and propaganda, but also funding of right-wing opposition activity through organisations such as the National Endowment for Democracy.

A US-backed coup to unseat Chávez in 2002 by a combination of industrialists, businessmen, media owners and conservative military officers was unsuccessful thanks to popular support for the government. Other undemocratic efforts to topple the elected government have included a management lock-out of the oil industry, aided and abetted by US-linked IT staff who sabotaged computer systems, multiple incidents of street violence and attacks on government institutions and public services.

US sanctions started under Obama in 2015 and these coercive measures increased dramatically under President Trump. They include cancelling visas, freezing Venezuelan assets, penalising companies who trade with Venezuela and cutting the Venezuelan economy off from the international financial markets – representing all told a blockade virtually indistinguishable from that imposed on Cuba.

This has caused enormous damage to Venezuela’s economy in terms of pushing up prices, creating shortages of food, medicines and other essential goods, and imposing significant hardship, especially on the poorest and most vulnerable citizens.

The reach of the US’s sanctions, which are illegal under the charters of both the UN and the Organization of American States, is extensive, such that in 2020 the US forcibly intercepted several Iranian oil tankers on their way to Venezuela and confiscated the shipments. It has even encompassed the arbitrary detainment of Venezuelan diplomat Alex Saab in Cape Verde for his role in purchasing essential food supplies for Venezuela.

The US’s ‘regime change’ agenda for Venezuela took a new turn in January 2019 with the Trump administration supporting the self-declaration of Juan Guaidό as ‘interim president’ of Venezuela, a position that the new Biden presidency is continuing despite Guaidό’s appalling record of involvement in corruption and coups against the elected government. As yet, and even though Guaidό now holds no elected office in Venezuela at all, there are no signs from Biden and his Secretary of State Anthony Blinken that this policy is changing.

So VSC is continuing to support Venezuela’s right to national sovereignty and to urge the US and UK governments, and the EU, to lift all sanctions and engage constructively with the Venezuelan government.

Making these arguments and countering misinformation is an important part of what VSC do, so the campaign has hosted Venezuelan visitors, sent delegations to Venezuela, provided observers at elections and of course held lots of public meetings and other events.

VSC has grown thanks to the support of major trade unions and many individual supporters and volunteers, for which we are very grateful. As the COVID pandemic continues, US sanctions are causing huge hardship to the Venezuelan people but they are even harder to justify.

Sue ended with a plea for people to keep on supporting the campaign and providing solidarity to Venezuela.

Luke Daniels, the President of Caribbean Labour Solidarity, noted how English-speaking Caribbean people were raised on the myth of British justice, a powerful myth that many people still want to believe in despite the number of examples contradicting it in practice, whether it be the unjust imprisonment of the Guildford Four or the Windrush scandal, affecting hundreds of Black Commonwealth citizens who had been wrongly detained, deported and denied legal rights.

As a result of Britain’s deeply flawed and discriminatory immigration system, Black Britons were treated in a notably hostile environment, losing their homes, jobs and even lives as the government placed the onus of proof of citizenship on their shoulders, despite having destroyed the landing cards of those travelling on the Windrush.

The lessons of these struggles are an important guide for how to support Venezuela in its struggle to determine its own future, free from external interference. Caribbean Labour Solidarity has stood by Caribbean peoples’ fight for peace and justice for more than 40 years.

He recalled how the British Government had abandoned Grenada when the US invaded to squash the revolution. What was needed was for Britain to show leadership and stand up for national sovereignty, for the right of Venezuelans to choose what kind of government they wanted.

The British Government, he argued, needs to respect Venezuela’s national sovereignty, remove its sanctions and return the gold to Venezuela.  

Luke pledged that Caribbean Labour Solidarity would continue to raise these issues to make the people of the English-speaking Caribbean aware of the injustice of not returning the gold, the need for the US’s illegal sanctions to cease, and the need for Britain to stop acting as poodle in carrying out the wishes of the US government.

Venezuela – for peace and dialogue

Fravia Márquez, an adviser to the Vice-Presidency of the National Assembly of Venezuela, explained that she was speaking on her own behalf rather than for the assembly vice-president.

She started by focusing on the deeper background to the Bank of England withholding Venezuela’s gold assets that had first been deposited with the Bank in 2008. By 2011 Chávez could see the rising tide of hostility by the US against his government and its independent foreign policy, and so started to bring back other gold deposits that had been lodged in various banks overseas.

But the deposits in London were left untouched. It was not until 2018 that the Central Bank of Venezuela asked the Bank of England to sell some of the gold to raise cash to assist the economy, which by now was beginning to be seriously affected by US sanctions. But the Bank refused, citing uncertainty as to who had legitimate title to the assets, given Guaidό’s self-declaration as ‘interim president’ in January 2019.

This led to the Venezuelan government mounting a court case for its release, which at first it lost – only to see the lower court’s decision overturned by the Appeal Court in 2020.

This Appeal Court decision has reopened the argument that whatever Guaidό claims about being ‘interim president’, the British Government is currently recognising President Maduro as exercising some or all of the powers of the Venezuela presidency and has legitimate claim to the gold. The Supreme Court will now decide on the case between 19-21 July 2021, and Flavia believed that Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab had been authorised to speak on the issue.

In the meantime, Flavia explained, the consequences for the Venezuelan people had been more than 40 000 deaths between 2017-18 alone because of the US’s illegal coercive measures. Because of them, Venezuela had not been able to access treatments for insulin, cancer, HIV and other conditions.  

The impact of the sanctions has been documented in an interim report published in February this year by a UN special rapporteur. She will be publishing her official complete report in September 2021.

A key finding is public revenue has been reduced by 99%, so currently Venezuelan people live on the remaining 1%. Sanctions have proved very harmful for the economy and for the people in general. But they affect not only the providers of goods such as vaccines, medicines, chemical additives for gasoline etc but also those companies who are not sanctioned but don’t want to be targeted and caught up in the process.

Venezuela also has huge sums frozen by the sanctions in banks and financial institutions overseas. All told, this has created serious impediments to food imports, forcing some 2.5 million Venezuelans to cut back on their way of life or face the sort of poverty that the government had overcome in the years before sanctions were applied.

Flavia then turned to the new National Assembly elected in December 2020. The elections saw more than 14,000 candidates participating, representing around 114 political parties, as well as the PSUV (the party of the government).

To delegitimise the election Guaidό had asked opposition parties not to participate, but some disagreed so that 20 of the 277 National Assembly members now represent opposition parties. Although they are in a minority, they are in key positions on Assembly committees and although they oppose the government, they are committed to resolving issues through democratic participation as Assembly members.

The Assembly also has a commission for dialogue and reconciliation, not only for political issues – it brings to the table a range of sectors such as private owners, producers, Afro-Venezuelans etc  to have a constructive dialogue.

This year, elections will be held for mayors and state governors. More opposition parties are expected to participate as a result of talks that led to the appointment in May of two opposition politicians who have previously declared themselves as abstentionists or electoral boycotters.

As a result, there is currently peace in Venezuela although things are still difficult, especially in the oil sector. But COVID is a difficult challenge: the government has put in place health measures that have been very successful. Venezuela’s rate of COVID recovery is around 92% and the number of deaths is decreasing day by day.

Venezuela’s vaccination campaign is picking up and President Maduro has said that probably in October students will go back to school – classes are currently online but sanctions are restricting internet access and available technology.

Flavia closed by referring to the case Alex Saab who has appealed and is having a new hearing. He is ill with cancer and it still looks as if he is going to be deported to the US. In her view this is a totally political case of persecuting someone acting on behalf of the government to secure food for Venezuelans.

Sanctions are a crime!

Mark Weisbrot, aco-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) in Washington, DC started by explaining about a paper he had co-authored that was the first to estimate how many people had died in Venezuela (between 2017-18) as a result of Trump’s 2017 sanctions which were more severe than those previously in effect.

The paper’s sources were the only available data for mortality at the time, produced by an opposition group that did a survey for 2018.  CEPR compared 2017 to 2018 to discover the figure of 40,000 deaths, but the paper did a lot more, talking about Trump’s sanctions and their economic impact.

Interestingly, the only reason CEPR were able to get those numbers at all was because the UN leaked them ‒ the opposition didn’t want people to know how many have died as a result of sanctions and they still don’t. They never produced another the survey, even though they intended to produce one every year.

Mark estimated that by now deaths as a result of sanctions are almost certainly in the hundreds of thousands, which emphasises the enormity of this crime. It is important to call it a crime and to make people understand how much of a crime it is because it’s one way solidarity campaigns can win this fight.

Mark explained he wanted to frame this struggle in terms of winning because it can be done. He gave the example of campaigning against US military intervention in Yemen where, although it took five or six years, both Houses of Congress eventually voted for the US to stop intervention such as logistics, intelligence sharing and refuelling of Saudi planes.

Congress had never before voted to do that under the 1973 War Powers resolution ‒ it still didn’t count as a win because Trump was President and he didn’t care about the law. But nonetheless campaigning had to show what the US was doing, killing hundreds of thousands of people in Yemen and still killing them today.

Mark observed that the first thing everyone needs to realise is that the US sanctions are the cause of the economic crisis that Venezuela has today. It’s easy to show that because in August 2017 the US government prohibited the Venezuelan government from borrowing and restructuring its debts and being able to participate in the international financial system.

This was a massive attack on the economy and one of the things it led to was hyperinflation. The classic definition of hyperinflation is a country has to have at least 50% price increases in a month which is an annual rate of about 13,000 % a year.  Venezuela has had 40 months of

hyperinflation, which really destroys an economy. If you look at all the cases in Latin America since World War 2, the median lasted four months. So Venezuela’s 40 months is one of the longest in the history of the world and it is because of the sanctions.

In fact, one of the only ones that’s bigger is Nicaragua during the US-backed ‘Contra’ war where they had 58 months of hyperinflation, with a more directly violent US intervention preventing Nicaragua from having their economy recover.

So the sanctions really prevent any real economic recovery and that’s what makes them so lethal, not to mention the loss of revenue. The best estimate for the decline in the Venezuelan economy from 2015, which is when the sanctions actually started, to 2020 is just over 74%.

In other words, Venezuela has lost three-quarters of its economy in terms of real inflation-adjusted GDP. It is estimated that the Venezuelan economy has lost about $17 billion in just oil revenues from the sanctions. If you compare that to the cost of what the government spent on medicines back when the economy was growing, it’s about $2.5 billion a year.

This is certainly a record in the history of Latin America and shows what these kinds of losses do and the kind of human impact that they have. In terms of the crime that has been committed, there are statements from the US government that show what the sanctions are projected to do, so there is clear intent.

Mark emphasised that the sanctions regime is an actual crime, according to the Geneva and Hague conventions to which the US is a signatory, but because these conventions apply only to war the US cannot be prosecuted under them, although from a human or moral or political point of view the US’s sanctions are a war crime.

Sanctions are a collective punishment of Venezuelans, as confirmed by statements by Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo when he said in March 2019: “The circle is tightening, the humanitarian crisis is increasing by the hour. I talked with our senior person on the ground there in Venezuela last night, at 7:00 or 8:00 last night. You can see the increasing pain and suffering that the Venezuelan people are suffering from.” In Mark’s view, Pompeo was pointing to the sanctions policy as something that was going to accomplish the US’s goal of ‘regime change’.

The US gets away with this, even though it’s been going on for more than five years, because the media doesn’t mention the sanctions when they run stories about Venezuela in terms of lives lost, suffering and shortages of medicines. 

The Venezuelan government is clearly doing what it can in these circumstances but an economic recovery is impossible until the sanctions are lifted. In addition to the levying of sanctions since 2015, the US’s recognition of Guaidό as ‘interim president’ was equivalent to another set of sanctions because it further deprived the Venezuelan government of revenue through asset confiscation, the cutting off of oil exports and the threats to other governments such as India and Russia to force them to stop importing Venezuelan oil.

While these actions, including the threats of secondary sanctions, are all being done with the very explicit purpose of regime change, since that’s not allowed under US law it has had to be justified by the completely ridiculous charge that Venezuela presents an unusual and extraordinary threat to the United States, creating a national emergency.

Mark concluded by saying that he thought we can win this battle even though the Biden administration has shown no change in policy at all – but there is some change in the world. The European Union, for example, have stopped recognising Guaidό as the so-called president.  If we can get the world to see the enormity of this kind of a crime, then in his view we can succeed in in getting rid of the sanctions, which is a necessary step towards a negotiated solution.

The final speaker, Francisco Dominguez,summed up as theSecretary of the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign.

Francisco highlighted the enormity of the crime against 30 million Venezuelans and how the death toll must now be much higher than the loss of 40,000 lives occurring between 2017-18. The US blockade is tantamount to economic asphyxiation of Venezuela, impacting hugely on the quality of life of the population, especially the elderly, children, the chronically ill and many other people who are made vulnerable by the circumstances.

Meanwhile, US government spokespersons are saying weekly how their policy is working. One US calculation is that at some point the Venezuelan government will surrender, enabling the US to get their hands on its oil deposits. A second calculation is to split the country politically between the Armed Forces and the civilian population in order to create a crisis so that the US can mount an intervention. A third calculation is that the terrible impoverishment of millions of people as a consequence of the sanctions is going to lead to a social explosion, again creating the ideal conditions from the US’s point of view to justify an external intervention.

Any one of these scenarios is intended to flow from the application of sanctions ‒ the wrong name really, because they are actually unilateral coercive measures that are totally illegal and violate absolutely every single imaginable protocol that exists internationally, including the United Nations charter.

The US sanctions in Francisco’s view are war-like aggression, with the intention to destroy the country and finally get what they want. This is a very worrying concern that VSC has expressed before. It should be part of the consciousness of many leaders internationally: if the US is able to inflict such a level of economic asphyxiation and suffering on Venezuela, then nobody’s exempt from the same aggressive treatment.  

Venezuela is trying to do its best to ensure that governments around the world realise that not only the Venezuelan government is vulnerable to this crime against humanity but also they themselves can be the victims of aggression by the United States, with all the brutality that the US always inflicts in attacks of that kind.

Why is the UK government joining in with and supporting this US policy?  People may know from pieces of investigative journalism that the UK government set up a secretive unit for the reconstruction of Venezuela, with the intention to participate in the pillage of Venezuela once the Maduro government has gone. But now Guaidό is fading: the European Union no longer recognises him as ‘interim president’, although the UK continues to do so, not just a ‘interim president’ but bizarrely as the president of the National Assembly that ended in 2020, with Guaidό not a member of the newly elected Assembly.

In Francisco’s opinion, the obvious reason for doing so is to have some little excuse to hold on to the 32 tons of gold in the Bank of England vaults, now subject to a Supreme Court decision.

There is a lack of clarity about legally what will happen next but according to information that appeared recently it appears that Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab or someone from the Foreign Office is going to appear to make a case of some description regarding what to do with gold.

There is no moral justification for it being withheld: as Venezuela has previously requested, it should be used to save lives by purchasing vital health inputs, medicine, food and so on through the United Nations Development Programme.

With regard to the European Union’s position, Francisco agreed with Mark that it is excellent that the European Union finally has done something positive re Guaidό, albeit with a huge amount of timidity. Reading the resolution with which the EU stopped recognising him reveals the amount of verbal acrobatics used, which is an indication of the pressure that the EU is under on this issue.

Nevertheless, no position has been taken by the European Commission or any EU authority to tell the financial institutions in Europe to return the illegal holdings of more than $6 billion that belong to the people and the state of Venezuela. We therefore have to be watch what the European Union and the European Parliament do: the EU for example sanctioned two members of the Venezuelan National Assembly because they decided to participate in the electoral process which is going to take this place this year.

In conclusion, it is about time that the United States is isolated, starts changing his policy and abandons this aggression because it’s going nowhere. The gold must be returned and sanctions lifted immediately and unconditionally.

Viva Venezuela!

Suzie invited closing comments from Flavia and Mark. Flavia emphasised how important it is to raise awareness of the consequences of sanctions for the people in Venezuela and how sanctions are really to blame for Venezuela’s crisis. All governments have problems and nobody’s perfect of course, but Venezuela’s problems accelerated with the imposition of sanctions and the US’s pursuit of its policy of ‘regime change’.

On the positive side, things are now moving with the opposition because they understand the need to sit down and talk and move forward, given that their own supporters are disappointed and tired of life.

It’s well known that Guaidό and his gang were taking the money that people donated for humanitarian purposes, siphoning off cash from the ‘humanitarian aid’ concert in Colombia and from various frozen assets. All this was reducing the possibilities for a better life in general for Venezuelans as a whole, even the ones that do not support the government. This, Flavia argued, is going to change in the next elections.

In answer to a specific question, Flavia explained that the government does still have a progressive international agenda. There will be an international summit, the Bolivarian Congress for the Peoples of the World, in Caracas in June from the 21st to the 25th, encompassing all social sectors, to connect various struggles and build an agenda to go forward for Venezuela. It’s not only to receive international solidarity support that Venezuela really needs and appreciates right now, but also to connect these struggles and make them visible.

In answer to Suzie’s question about what space there is to pressurise for a change in US foreign policy, Mark responded that there are definitely people in Congress who want change on Venezuela.  In an article in the Washington Post a couple of weeks ago Greg Meeks, the Chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, criticised the administration on Venezuela and said that the US government is missing an opportunity to have or to promote a negotiated solution, and he offered to play a role in that event – but he didn’t get any response as far as Mark could tell.

In the US more than other countries Congress has a role in foreign policy, a bigger role than legislators do in in most countries and so you do have other efforts in the Congress, such as legislation introduced last year to make it impossible for the President to impose sanctions without the consent of Congress.

But there are a lot of complications around this issue in US politics and the political system, including Florida politics which is a very bad influence on US foreign policy.  There’s definitely more resistance to this than there has ever been. Building a stronger base in Congress is the best chance of changing policy.

Suzie concluded the meeting by thanking all the speakers and all the campaigners and activists in in the audience, which included people from Namibia, Norway, Canada, California and the UK.

She asked everyone to sign the VSC’s statement against the sanctions and the petition to give Venezuela back its gold, and to please donate or become a member of the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign and help to push the UK government to abandon its adherence to the US’s ‘regime change’ agenda and to get involved in dialogue with the Venezuelan Government.