Greg Grandin on March 10, 2015 – 1:47PM ET
Yesterday, Barack Obama sent a letter to Congress announcing that he was applying the International Emergency Economic Powers Act to Venezuela, declaring the «situation» there to be an «unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.» Washington named seven Venezuelan politicians as targeted by the act, their property in the US liable to seizure.
It’s a serious step taken with extraordinarily strong language (as the head of the Organization of American States pointed out; «very harsh,» he said). Reuters writes: «Declaring any country a threat to national security is the first step in starting a U.S. sanctions program. The same process has been followed with countries such as Iran and Syria, U.S. officials said.»
Set aside the irony (within hours of an administration spokesperson’s accusing Venezuela of criticizing other nations in order to distract from its problems, New Jersey’s soon-to-be-indicted senator Robert Menendez applauded the sanctions), the hypocrisy (forget Saudi Arabia, think of Mexico or Colombia), or the hyperbole (an «extraordinary threat»?). It’s hard to figure out what the White House hopes to accomplish with this move. It will achieve exactly the opposite of its stated intention to isolate Caracas.
Within Venezuela, it will confirm to many the validity of President Nicolás Maduro’s accusations that the United States has been leading a soft coup against his government. One doesn’t have to be a committed Chavista to appreciate the irony, condemn the hypocrisy or recoil from the hyperbole. Obama just threw Maduro a lifeline.
Outside Venezuela, Latin American nations will bristle at the attempt to apply a sanctions regime associated with the mess Washington has made in the Middle East to the region. The more suspicious among them will see the opening to Cuba as bait-and-switch, an attempt to use the good will generated by that move to isolate and destabilize other adversaries, pressing its advantage as falling commodity prices put strains on Latin American economies (the Trans Pacific Partnership is part of this divisive strategy).
Over the last few months, there was some indication that support for Venezuela by other South American nations, like Brazil, was waning. In an essay that was posted yesterday but probably written before the threat designation, Time argued that Obama’s «decision to reopen relations with Cuba is having an interesting side effect: it’s helping isolate Latin America’s other hard-line leftist regime in Venezuela.» Daniel Wilkinson, the managing director of Americas Watch, which has been sharply critical of Venezuela since at least 2008, said: «Until very recently, most countries in the region were reluctant to say anything about Venezuela …. If this is just U.S. sanctions, and the U.S. is doing it on its own, then it’s much easier for Venezuela to play the victim card. That’s why it’s really important for the U.S. government to be working with other democratic governments in the region to make this more of a collective.»
I’m assuming that quote was provided before the White House went ahead and did «it on its own.»
The most dangerous consequence of this action is to put Colombian peace talks between the government and the FARC in jeopardy. Over the last few years, Colombia has rejected its assigned role as a regional Israel, much to the disappointment of anti-Chavistas. Its president, Juan Manuel Santos, refuses (unlike his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe) to play the part of an Andean Netanyahu. Santos knows that a stable Venezuela, on good terms with Bogotá, is essential to bringing Colombia’s internal conflict to an end. As Rafat Ghotme, a Colombian professor of international relations, puts it, «both presidents need each other. Maduro needs Colombia, in order to legitimate the Bolivarian Revolution in a regional system. And Santos needs Venezuela, because it is the principle external actor that can convince FARC to continue in the peace process.»
Santos is a conservative who has brought Colombia in from the regional cold, establishing good and working relationships with South American left-of-center governments. Recently, the Colombian president has proposed turning the massive Colombian-Venezuela-Brazilian border into the «world’s largest ecological [corridor] and would be a great contribution to [the] fight of all humanity to preserve our environment, and in Colombia’s case, to preserve our biodiversity.» This, of course, would be practically difficult, if not impossible. Still, it serves as a sharp alternative vision to the reality of the US-Mexico border, which Washington has turned into a militarized death-march.
A cynic might say that the point of the threat designation isn’t directed at Caracas at all, but is aimed to break up the Colombia-Venezuelan partnership that is taking shape and pull Bogotá back into the fold.
Venezuela is, without doubt, in crisis. And people of good will can debate whether the origin of the crisis is inherent in the Bolivarian Revolution or results from the backlash. Caracas represses, to some degree, civil society. The United States manipulates the civil society of the countries it deems a problem. Since both of those statements are true, some perspective is required.
As far as economics is concerned, David Smilde, who lives in Caracas and runs the Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights blog, provides some. Here’s a recent post: «My wife and I went grocery shopping for a family of four last night, in a chain supermarket in Eastern Caracas. There were fruits and vegetables of all kinds. There was also plenty of: cheese, yogurt, lunchmeat, sausages, bacon, pasta, bread, crackers, cookies, nuts, wine, beer and soy oil. From the meat cooler we got a nice pork loin and some smoked pork chops…. Not available were: chicken, beef, milk, coffee, rice, sugar, corn oil, laundry soap, dish soap, paper towels and toilet paper.» Importantly, Smilde mentions that one researcher told him that «data collection was showing much lower levels of scarcity in homes than in stores.» Even more importantly, «from 2007-2012, consistent scarcity levels of around 10-20 percent coincided with a historic increase in calories and protein consumption» [my emphasis]. In other words, people under Chavismo are eating better and more healthily. Inflation is a serious problem, but it is fixable, as Mark Weisbrot, argues.
As to political repression, neighboring Colombia, Washington’s well-funded ally, provides some perspective: it ranks behind only Syria in the number of internally displaced peoples, 5.7 million according to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. Afro-Colombians and indigenous communities have «borne the brunt» of the repression that has taken place since the Colombian-US free trade treaty went into effect three years ago, many at the hands of right-wing demobilized paramilitaries. Along with trade unionists.
And where do those victims who don’t stay in the country flee to? Venezuela. The UNHCR, which writes that «refugees continue to cross into the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela regularly,» calls Caracas’ refugee integration program «inspirational.» It is what «can be achieved when UNHCR, its partners and Venezuelan government agencies work together to include refugees in public policy.»
And what do at least some of the refugee children do once they are in Venezuela, according to the UNHCR? They learn to play Beethoven’s «Ode to Joy.»
Read Next: Greg Grandin on the battle between the government and opposition in Venezuela.
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Islamic Republic of Iran
Ministry of Foreign Relations
Dr. Zarif`s Response to the Letter of US Senators
Asked about the open letter of 47 US Senators to Iranian leaders, the Iranian Foreign Minister, Dr. Javad Zarif, responded that «in our view, this letter has no legal value and is mostly a propaganda ploy. It is very interesting that while negotiations are still in progress and while no agreement has been reached, some political pressure groups are so afraid even of the prospect of an agreement that they resort to unconventional methods, unprecedented in diplomatic history. This indicates that like Netanyahu, who considers peace as an existential threat, some are opposed to any agreement, regardless of its content.
Zarif expressed astonishment that some members of US Congress find it appropriate to write to leaders of another country against their own President and administration. He pointed out that from reading the open letter, it seems that the authors not only do not understand international law, but are not fully cognizant of the nuances of their own Constitution when it comes to presidential powers in the conduct of foreign policy.
Foreign Minister Zarif added that «I should bring one important point to the attention of the authors and that is, the world is not the United States, and the conduct of inter-state relations is governed by international law, and not by US domestic law. The authors may not fully understand that in international law, governments represent the entirety of their respective states, are responsible for the conduct of foreign affairs, are required to fulfil the obligations they undertake with other states and may not invoke their internal law as justification for failure to perform their international obligations.
The Iranian Foreign Minister added that «Change of administration does not in any way relieve the next administration from international obligations undertaken by its predecessor in a possible agreement about Iran`s peaceful nuclear program.» He continued «I wish to enlighten the authors that if the next administration revokes any agreement with the stroke of a pen, as they boast, it will have simply committed a blatant violation of international law.
He emphasized that if the current negotiation with P5+1 result in a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, it will not be a bilateral agreement between Iran and the US, but rather one that will be concluded with the participation of five other countries, including all permanent members of the Security Council, and will also be endorsed by a Security Council resolution.
Zarif expressed the hope that his comments «may enrich the knowledge of the authors to recognize that according to international law, Congress may not modify the terms of the agreement at any time as they claim, and if Congress adopts any measure to impede its implementation, it will have committed a material breach of US obligations.
The Foreign Minister also informed the authors that majority of US international agreements in recent decades are in fact what the signatories describe as «mere executive agreements» and not treaties ratified by the Senate.
He reminded them that «their letter in fact undermines the credibility of thousands of such mere executive agreements that have been or will be entered into by the US with various other governments.
Zarif concluded by stating that «the Islamic Republic of Iran has entered these negotiations in good faith and with the political will to reach an agreement, and it is imperative for our counterparts to prove similar good faith and political will in order to make an agreement possible.»