Steve Shaw reports on the US Government’s announcement of charges against President Nicolas Maduro for drug trafficking and questions the timing of such a move during the Coronavirus pandemic.

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The arrival of the Coronavirus in Venezuela was the worst-case scenario for a nation which already has a health service on the brink of collapse, lacking even the most basic medications.

On state television, the country’s leader, President Nicolas Maduro, imposed a nationwide quarantine and told his people this was to be “the most dire situation we’ve ever faced”. 

As with most other countries around the world, it didn’t take long for the virus to begin to spread and, by the end of March, there were more than 100 cases and the crippled health service was scrambling to catch up. But, as the US Government watched the crisis unfold, it placed a $15 million bounty on Maduro’s head for drug trafficking.

The socialist leader is accused of conspiring with Colombian rebels and members of the military “to flood the United States with cocaine” and of using the drug trade as a “weapon against America”. US Attorney General William Barr said that Maduro has conspired with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, commonly known as FARC, to transport cocaine through Venezuela, explaining that “between 200 and 250 metric tons of cocaine are shipped out of Venezuela per year”. This, he said, equates to “30 million lethal doses”.

“For more than 20 years, Maduro and a number of high-ranking colleagues allegedly conspired with the FARC, causing tons of cocaine to enter and devastate American communities,” he added. “This announcement is focused on rooting out the extensive corruption within the Venezuelan Government – a system constructed and controlled to enrich those at the highest levels of the Government.”

The charges that were announced on 26 March raise a number of questions, specifically: why has the US chosen to single out Venezuela and why now? Earlier in the day, the Washington-based think tank, Washington Office in Latin America, published a report stating that “Venezuela is not a primary transit country for US-bound cocaine” and that US policy should be “predicated on a realistic understanding of the transnational drug trade”.

The report further found that that “210 metric tons of cocaine passed through Venezuela in 2018” while US State Department data shows that 1,400 metric tons – over six times as much – passed through Guatemala the same year. Colombia, which receives millions in security aid from the US as part of its war on drugs, also saw an average of nearly 2,400 tons of cocaine flow through it between 2016 and 2019.

Even more concerning is that, the last time the US levelled charges against a sitting President, it was done just 12 months before an invasion. In 1988, General Manuel Noriega was leader of Panama and he was formally charged by the US Government with racketeering, drug smuggling and money laundering. When he refused to give himself up or step down, then-President George H. W. Bush invaded the country and arrested him. The United Nations General Assembly called it a “flagrant violation of international law”.

Enter Juan Guaidó?

The NGO, the International Crisis Group, has said that the charges represent a “misguided bid to topple Maduro” and a “gamble on regime change”. 

“On announcing the indictments Attorney General Barr used the phrase ‘good timing’, suggesting that if the additional pressure led to the removal from power of the Maduro Government, that would result in an improved response to the COVID-19 emergency,” Phil Gunson, senior analyst for the Andes region, told Byline Times.

“In our view, to bet on the collapse of a Government in the middle of a health crisis on this scale is extremely ill-advised. Even in the best of circumstances, an opposition-led Government taking over without an intervening transition period would face administrative chaos and potential armed resistance. It would be in no shape to deal with a pandemic.”

The opposition leader most likely to take power if Maduro was removed would be Juan Guaidó. In January 2019, the little-known 35-year-old declared himself the interim president, arguing that the 2018 re-election of Maduro was not legitimate and therefore that the presidency was free for him to take. He denied it was an attempted coup, despite calling for foreign military intervention and urging Venezuela’s military to side with him – something it refused to do.

The administration of Donald Trump has also formally recognised Guaidó as the country’s leader, along with more than 50 other countries. He has claimed that he is the only person capable of leading the country out of an economic and humanitarian crisis which has seen skyrocketing hyperinflation, power cuts and shortages of food and medicine.

However, Phil Gunson believes that the timing of the US charges could now sabotage Guaidó’s recent attempts to form a National Emergency Government that would be comprised of representatives of all political parties.

“We cannot say whether the indictments were part of a deliberate attempt to sabotage any agreement or whether Washington sees the COVID-19 emergency as an opportunity but the consequences of the move are clearly negative,” he said.

Instead, the US has almost hijacked Guaidó’s proposals while also abandoning its support for him. On 31 March, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echoed the idea of a cross-party Government but on the condition that both party leaders stepped aside. In exchange, many of the crippling sanctions that have been imposed on the country by the US would be lifted.

It is now unlikely that there will be any political solution in the near future as Maduro has already accused the US President of being “a miserable human being” who manages international relations “like a New York mafia extortion artist”.

Crippling US Sanctions

Venezuela’s economic and political crises escalated towards the end of the presidency of Hugo Chavez and have rapidly deteriorated under Maduro due to the country’s heavy reliance on oil and the Government’s failure to properly manage the economy in line with the industry.

Inflation reached 800,000% last year and caused 4.8 million people to flee the country.

In July 2019, a report by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said: “Notwithstanding some general Government subsidies, people interviewed by OHCHR consistently stressed that their monthly family income was insufficient to meet their basic needs, covering approximately four days of food per month.”

It called the country’s health situation “dire”, with hospitals lacking staff, supplies, medicines and electricity to keep vital machinery running. Between November 2018 and February 2019, 1,557 people died because of a lack of supplies in hospitals. As with the majority of US-aligned Governments, the report placed the blame for this primarily on the shoulders of the Maduro Government, accusing it of “misallocation of resources”, “corruption” and “severe under-investment”.

But what is largely overlooked is the role that US sanctions have played. In January, UN human rights expert Idriss Jazairy said that US sanctions on the oil industry could “lead to starvation and medical shortages” and that “coercion whether military or economic, must never be used to seek a change in government in a sovereign state”.

“Economic sanctions are effectively compounding the grave crisis affecting the Venezuelan economy, adding to the damage caused by hyperinflation and the fall in oil prices,” he added. “This is a time when compassion should be expressed for the long-suffering people of Venezuela by promoting, not curtailing, access to food and medicine.”

Another report, published last year by the Centre for Economic and Policy Research, also highlighted the damaging impact, claiming that up to 40,000 people had died as a result of sanctions that made it harder for citizens to get food, medicine and medical equipment. It labelled the sanctions “illegal” under international law.

Now, with those sanctions still firmly in place and the country’s health system ranked as 176th out of 195 countries in the 2019 Global Health Security Index, Venezuela is poised to be hit with the worst health pandemic the world has seen in more than a generation and its citizens will bear the brunt.

“The motivation behind the indictments seems clear – at a time of growing economic and humanitarian distress in Venezuela, some in Washington and among the Venezuelan opposition see an opportunity to ratchet up pressure on Maduro and force his ouster,” added the International Crisis Group.

“There is nothing to be gained, and a great deal to be lost, from doubling down on the current approach as catastrophe looms.”


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