But What About the Oil? US Senators Get to the Heart of the Matter in Wake of Venezuela Sanctions

Last week, lawyer and journalist Glen Greenwald acerbically asked if there was “anyone, anywhere, that wants to defend the reasonability” of Obama’s claim that Venezuela is an “extraordinary threat” to U.S. security. On Tuesday at a Senate Foreign Relations Hearing on Venezuela, a band of rightwing “human rights” specialists including US senator Marco Rubio decided to make a Herculean attempt.


Last week, lawyer and journalist Glen Greenwald acerbically asked if there was “anyone, anywhere, that wants to defend the reasonability” of Obama’s claim that Venezuela is an “extraordinary threat” to U.S. security. On Tuesday at a Senate Foreign Relations Hearing on Venezuela, a band of rightwing “human rights” specialists including US senator Marco Rubio decided to make a Herculean attempt.

Entitled “Deepening Political and Economic Crisis in Venezuela: Implications for U.S. Interests and the Western Hemisphere”, the hearing revealed little about Venezuela. The usual baseless claims regarding alleged human rights abuses, Venezuela’s “links” to Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), as well as an “invasion” headed by the Castro brothers which has seen “Cubans crawling” all over Venezuela (thanks to Senator Rubio) were all trotted out. The usual thoroughly discredited “sources of evidence” were also cited.

As expected, murdered FARC commander Raul Reyes’ dud computer records, discovered (and not tampered with, obviously) by Colombia’s honourable military forces in the jungle raised their head once more, and we even had anecdotes that were astutely ferreted out of unsuspecting mystery Cubans at charming dinner party encounters by Dr. Christopher Sabatini subsequently submitted as testimony to Castro’s vice-like grip over Venezuelan politics.

What the hearing did reveal, however, aside from Senator Rubio’s lack of regular interaction with reality, is that U.S. intervention in Venezuela looks set to intensify over the coming year and will be implemented through a variety of mechanisms. Chiefly; further “targeted” sanctions against Venezuelan officials, more funding for Venezuelan opposition groups and NGOs, destabilisation of Venezuela’s economy, specifically its oil industry, an international media campaign against the country aimed at constructing a matrix of opinion surrounding human rights abuses and through further efforts to weaken Latin American integration and unity.

Firstly, let’s begin with the impressive curriculum vitae of our band of merry expert witnesses, invited to present their “evidence” and give their opinion to the Senate.  

Alex Lee
Deputy Assistant Secretary for South America and Cuba.

Lee has substantial blood on his hands, having intensified the U.S. “War on Drugs” in both Colombia and Mexico. He was directly responsible for the Merida Initiative in Mexico, implemented during the disastrous presidency of Felipe Calderon, leading to the increased militarisation of the country and contributing to the bloody situation it is living today. He also helped create Plan Colombia, further blurring the already sketchy line between Colombian state authorities and paramilitaries, resulting in the murder of thousands, mass graves filled with “false positives” and the chemical aerial spraying of poor rural workers’ homes and land with countless damaging consequences for their health.

Mr. John Smith
Acting Director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC)

OFAC is tasked with implementing sanctions against “targeted foreign states, regimes, terrorists and their financial supporters, international narcotics traffickers, transnational criminal organizations, and weapons of mass destruction proliferators.” Smith has worked at this office since 2007 and thus throughout the Obama administration’s sanctions on Syria, Libya, Iran and Russia. Smith also served as an expert to the United Nations’ Al-Qaida and Taliban Sanctions Committee from 2004 to 2007.

Mr. Douglas Farah
President at IBI Consultants

President of IBI Consultants, a Senior Fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center and former journalist. As the Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) pointed out, Farah’s presence as a witness “signals that the committee is not especially interested in facts. Farah has written and testified about supposed links between Venezuela, Iranian weapons, Hezbollah, the FARC and “terrorism” in general, without evidence, for years.”

Mr. Santiago Canton
Executive Director of Partners for Human Rights
Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights

Former Executive Secretary for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for the Organization of American States (OAS). In 2002 Canton sent a letter recognising the defacto and unconstitutional government of Pedro Carmona, which briefly came to power in Venezuela via a short-lived coup against then President, Hugo Chavez.

Dr. Christopher Sabatini
Adjunct Professor at School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University

Sabatini was Director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) between 1997 and 2005. He has also served as an advisor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Both of these U.S. agencies have a longstanding history of funding anti-government groups and NGOs in Venezuela which has been well documented by authors such as U.S. attorney Eva Golinger.

Sanctions: Less is more?

One of the hottest topics at the hearing was the third set of “targeted” sanctions recently imposed by President Barack Obama against selected Venezuelan officials. To pass the  sanctions without Congressional approval, Obama invoked the IEEPA (International Emergency Economic Powers Act) and declared a national emergency…a designation which even Christopher Sabatini conceded may have been “a little overblown”.

From the exchanges which took place, there can be no doubt that further action is already being set in motion. The ink has barely settled on Obama’s farcical declaration, and yet many senators at Tuesday´s hearing were already chomping at the bit to get a fourth round of sanctions penned up. There was less consensus, however, around what kind of sanctions to implement. Targeted or sectoral sanctions? Or should we just go the whole hog and slap a veto on Venezuelan oil?

With the glee of a kid in a sweet shop, Senator Rubio beseeched those present to identify further “human rights abusers’ in Venezuela in order to open up more possibilities of “who to sanction”.

Equally partial to the enactment of further sanctions was Senator Menendez, who called for Venezuelan Defence Minister Padrino Lopez, and Venezuelan Ambassador to the U.N., Rafael Ramirez, to be added to the next list. As well as a whole host of others.

“Do you agree that… the parameters set forth in our legislation and their expansion under the president’s executive order leave many other Venezuelan officials eligible to sanctions?” Menendez asked Andrew Lee, who answered in the positive.

Yet others at the hearing, such as CEO and Republican Senator Perdue, failed to conceal their frustration with what they clearly consider to be the application of inadequate sanctions in an urgent situation.

“How long would we be patient, to watch the human rights violations in Venezuela, before we stiffen those sanctions?” asked an ominous Senator Perdue, whose preference seemed to be for slapping Venezuela with a set of economic sanctions, such as those which have been imposed against Russia. Up until now, Perdue explained, U.S. pressure in all of its forms has been unsuccessful in “steering” the Venezuelan government in the required direction or substantially “changing its behaviour”.

“We have really very little evidence around the world that sanctions against individuals have ever really changed behaviour. So again, I think it’s more a question now, let’s see how long it’s gonna take. My question is, what’s a reasonable expectation on our part of these sanctions relative to changing behaviour?”.

“If we really wanted to change behaviour in Venezuela, oil is the way to do it”

Senator Perdue recommended keeping world oil prices low through flooding the market with US shale oil, and the expansion of “critical” projects such as the Keystone XL pipeline.

According to the senator, projects such as Keystone will be vital for reducing U.S. “dependence on oil from bad actors such as Venezuela”.

Secondly, and borrowing a leaf out of Vice-president Biden’s book, Perdue drew particular attention to the fact that Venezuelan oil initiatives in the region such as Petrocaribe are a point of weakness for Venezuela (and thus a possible target), and finally even suggested that it would be advisable to cease Venezuelan oil imports to the U.S.

“It seems quite hypocritical to me to limit what others are doing in Venezuela while we are quite happy to keep importing 30 billion dollars of oil each year… Mr Smith, what do you believe would be the impact if we were really to get serious about changing behaviour in Venezuela, to go after the oil? Which would mean that we would have to pay a price too”.

Of course, the next time Maduro states that falling oil prices are the result of U.S. geopolitical strategy to unseat his government, the press will doubtlessly suffer a bout of amnesia surrounding these comments.

Despite the pressure from Perdue, however, Lee confirmed that at the present moment the State Department prefers to deal out sanctions to specific individuals with one hand while it continues to aid and abet Venezuelan opposition movements with the other.

“We have made, after consulting with a variety of civil society actors and political actors in Venezuela, we have made the decision that it really advances US interests not to use sectoral sanctions in Venezuela.”

One might wonder how such an essential part of the United States’ moral crusade, applied with such categorical success in Iraq, Libya, Syria and the Ukraine, could be counter-intuitive to U.S. interests. However, as Senator Kaine pointed out, it wouldn’t exactly be ideal if Venezuelans were to think “Oh look, we’re just having problems because the US is doing bad things”.

In spite of the significant and ever-present pressure from hardcore Republicans to slap Venezuela with sectoral sanctions and “go after its oil,”  Washington appears to be pinning its hopes for now on engineering a “favourable” outcome at this year’s upcoming legislative elections, using it’s tried and tested “democracy promotion” techniques as opposed to a visibly aggressive foreign policy.

“We think that if Venezuela is to stop this downward slide, it is basically through more democracy and the best way to express that is to uphold elections that are seen as credible,” explained Lee.

Given that the U.S. incursion into the Ukraine hasn’t gone entirely to plan, it would seem that replacing those 30 billion dollars worth of oil imports would present a problem that the White House isn’t quite ready to deal with just yet.

Ensuring a “credible” outcome in the upcoming parliamentary elections

While Lee didn’t give specific details as to what would constitute acceptable elections, he did admit that “credible elections results could reduce tensions in Venezuela,” and his department has “urged regional partners to encourage Venezuela to accept a robust international electoral observation mission, using accepted international standards”.

One can only assume then that credible election results translate to extensive U.S. presence during the electoral process, as well as a majority win for the opposition.

This puts Venezuelans in a tricky position that no doubt Nicaraguans over the age of 40 can empathise with – a choice between continued U.S. aggression or a lurch to the right, with a majority opposition in the National Assembly moving to block any progressive legislation.

Unfortunately, the current administration as well a number of senators consider these elections to be a “critical” opportunity to “gain seats in the National Assembly”  in order to have the “opposition put pressure on the Maduro government” (Senator Barbara Boxer).

If we combine this reality with current polls in Venezuela, which show a majority intention to vote for the ruling PSUV party, then we can see that U.S. “civil society and political actor” allies will probably require a little nudge in the right direction if the U.S. is to gain the desired results. Fortunately, the Obama administration approved an increase in funding for such groups earlier this year, and as such, U.S. democracy promotion agencies are free to nudge away without impediment.

If history is anything to go by, and it usually is, then the majority of these funds will end up in the pockets of opposition NGOs and youth groups (this has a dubious legal basis, given the fact that Venezuelan political parties are prohibited from receive funding from abroad), with the rest somehow finding its way into the hands of the violent armed groups which headed last year’s barricades and which just last week attempted to fire bomb one of the government’s state universities in Tachira.

Of course, the political opposition groups which receive U.S. funding wholeheartedly deny any connection to “anti-democratic” groups.

As such, the financing for the firearms, wages and sponsored Facebook pages being used by political saboteurs and fascists in Venezuela continues to be a total mystery. In much the same way as it is in the Ukraine.

The Elephant in the Room: “Are we talking to our friends in the region?”

Further on into the hearing, Senator Boxer astutely decided to point out the elephant in the room:  that U.S. actions towards Venezuela had been met with “widespread criticism” by regional actors. A reaction which she described as “very upsetting for a lot of us” and which is currently presenting a critical obstacle to Washington’s attempts to destabilise Venezuela.

“What steps are we taking to engage with Latin American nations about the recently announced sanctions. Have any countries in the region expressed support for our action?” Boxer asked.

Evidently, the reasons behind Washington’s extensive ostracism on the continent have suffered a considerable time delay in arriving to U.S. shores. Rather than acknowledging  a history of imperialism, bloody coups and neo-colonialism, (presumably the longstanding tradition of non-intervention that White House spokesperson, Jen Psaki, appears to be so proudly referring to here), Boxer seemed to have decided that the plebs to the South of the border just can’t seem to get that the White House is doing this for their own good! Diplomacy certainly can be frustrating. 

“What are we doing to make sure they understand that what we did was the right thing, the moral thing, the correct thing, for the people of Venezuela?” she implored with a desperation that was only assuaged when Alex Lee did in fact confirm that the U.S. was working with friends and allies in the region.

While discretion prevented Mr. Lee from detailing exactly what activities are currently taking place backstage in order to instill Latin American governments with levels of comprehension comparable to those of the U.S., he did confirm that the current administration had made this work a priority. The only snag is that, thanks to the region’s transformed political climate, it now has to be carried out by proxy. No longer recognised as a main political player in the region, Lee stated that the U.S. is now working “indirectly through other countries”. Where there’s a will, there’s a way!

Human Rights and Government “Accountability”

Putting to one side the truly galling levels of hypocrisy which characterize U.S. foreign policy, there is a reason why these targeted sanctions should worry those who are interested in defending the Bolivarian revolution.

These individual sanctions might not have the same implications for the Venezuelan people as sectoral sanctions, but they are certainly not pointless. The U.S. has a long term game plan aimed at creating the conditions for the removal of the Venezuelan government and intervention by proxy in the region. However, the White House is also conscious of the challenges to its own hegemony which have emerged from the construction of a growing alternative model in Latin America, which must be disarticulated at all costs. Which means it’s not as simple as overthrowing the Maduro administration.

It is this which partly explains why the U.S. is choosing to focus on building a discourse around human rights violations and the delegitimisation of democracy in Venezuela for consumption in the West, where a history of colonialism and imperialism presents few obstacles to the establishment of such a narrative. These “individual” sanctions, despite their disappointing lack of teeth for those at the hearing, are vital for constructing this international matrix of opinion and for manufacturing consent to justify any kind of present and future action against Venezuela.

They also have material repercussions: the global remit of human rights abuses provides an international legal framework which allows current Venezuelan government officials to be pursued at international courts in the event of the unconstitutional overthrow of the Maduro administration.

Senator Rubio spelled it out most clearly: defy the U.S. and expect to spend decades languishing in an international prison on the orders of the Hague.

“One day we’re gonna have freedom in Venezuela, there will be a functional government again… and these individuals responsible for the human rights abuses are going to have to be accountable for what they’re doing. That´s why it’s so critical that these human rights abuses be documented now, so in the future these individuals will be held to account for the crimes they are committing against the people of Venezuela”.

Rubio’s assertion was of course accompanied by a vehement denial that the U.S. is working to effect regime change in Venezuela. Rather, those on the heroic panel were simply “raising their voices” on behalf of the Venezuelan people.

We could of course just dismiss these voices as the ramblings of paranoid cold war relics, but these are the voices which the Obama administration has been listening to far more than those emerging from Latin America. It was, after all, rightwing hardliner and anti-Castro Senator par excellence Rubio who designated the latest 7 Venezuelan officials to be targeted for sanctions.

It’s not surprising given that Rubio’s stance coincides much more harmoniously with White House interests than those in Latin America. In Venezuela, for instance, 62% of citizens think that the U.S. shouldn´t even be able to pass judgment on Venezuelan affairs, while 92% reject any kind of intervention in the country.

Senator Boxer can bemoan the lack of regional support for US actions, but dialogue begins with respect for plurality of opinion, sovereignty and agency, which are impossible within the asymmetrical power relations perpetuated through imperialism and neo-colonialism. These are the qualities which have made the regional organisations spearheaded by Chavez so successful, and why they have managed to bring even rightwing governments in the region into the fold.

The U.S. quest for dominance is destined to further isolate it in the region as it continues to attempt to impose its worldview and geopolitical interests on Latin American countries, which have experienced a growing anti-imperialist movement over the past 15 years.

In order for the current U.S. strategy to bear fruit in Venezuela, it requires a sudden upsurge of support for the right, the disarticulation of a whole anti-imperialist and participative political discourse and practice in the region, as well as the erosion of regional institutional mechanisms such as the CELAC and UNASUR which now enjoy more legitimacy on the continent that the OAS, World Bank, and IMF combined.

When even Manuel Santos and Ernesto Samper are talking about sovereignty and “new eras” in Latin America, formulating this equation seems unlikely, although certainly not impossible. It is doubtful that Senator Boxer will be getting a more favourable reply to her questions any time soon.