By Sir Ronald Sanders
Michelle Bachelet is a torture survivor. She was arrested in 1975 by the late dictator Augusto Pinochet’s political police and detained in the notorious Villa Grimaldi torture centre. So, she knows much about the suffering of people.
She is also an astute politician with a keen understanding of the social, economic and political challenges that face Latin American countries both locally and internationally. She served twice as an elected President of Chile from 2006 to 2010 and from 2014 to 2018. She is now the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner.
Therefore, serious attention should be paid to her August 8 statement that: “I am deeply worried about the potentially severe impact on the human rights of the people of Venezuela of the new set of unilateral sanctions imposed by the U.S. this week”. The new sanctions, imposed by executive order of President Donald Trump on August 5, froze all Venezuelan government assets in the United States and barred transactions with its authorities.
While the sanctions prohibit “the making of any contribution or provision of funds, goods, or services by, to, or for the benefit of any person whose property and interests in property are blocked”, as well as “the receipt of any contribution or provision of funds, goods, or services from any such person”, they have caused excessive caution across the globe by companies fearful of being caught in its net.
Ms Bachelet has noted that while the latest sanctions technically do not apply to “transactions related to the provision of articles such as food, clothing and medicine intended to be used to relieve human suffering, they are still likely to significantly exacerbate the crisis for millions of ordinary Venezuelans, especially as there will certainly be over-compliance by financial institutions around the world that have commercial relations with the governments of the U.S. and Venezuela”. “I fear”, she said, “that they will have far-reaching implications on the rights to health and to food in particular, in a country where there are already serious shortages of essential goods”.
The reality of the situation in Venezuela is that people are suffering as a result of a combination of circumstances that started with poor management of the economy, once among the richest in Latin America, and a political clash with the United States resulting from Hugo Chavez’s desire to create a regional block in Latin American and the Caribbean, based on government-arranged trade and independent of the U.S. and Canada.
Since then, the situation has worsened as forces within the U.S., motivated by political imperatives domestically, and the desire to re-enforce U.S. power internationally, have sought to remove Chavez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, from office. The U.S., backed by Canada and a handful of Latin American and Caribbean countries, anointed Juan Guaidó, the present President of the National Assembly, as “Interim President” of Venezuela, promoting a rivalry within Venezuela which occasioned violent clashes, injury and death but no progress in relieving the plight of the majority of Venezuelans.
Much of the international effort to declare Maduro illegitimate and to secure recognition of Guaidó has centred in the Organisation of American States (OAS) where the U.S. and its handful of Latin American and Caribbean supporters hold sway by virtue of an 18-member majority. Resolutions directed at the Maduro government have scraped through meetings of the Permanent Council and the General Assembly, rending the Organisation asunder and adversely affecting the bilateral relations of its member states, including within the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).
Another such resolution will be placed before the OAS Permanent Council in the coming days. But, while lofty statements will be made in the name of human rights of the Venezuelan people on the one hand, and respect for the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of a state on the other, the agony within Venezuela will continue.
The solution to the Venezuelan crisis does not reside in the manoeuvrings which have been indulged in the OAS. The Organization has been trapped in a struggle for power between the opposing political sides in Venezuela. Support for one or the other has been based on ideological positions, historic geographical enmities or pressure on small countries in thrall to powerful ones.
The right and proper place to discuss the Venezuelan debacle and to try to find a solution is the United Nations – more specifically, the Security Council. It is the right and proper place because it is there that the powerful players behind one faction or the other in Venezuela meet as equals – the U.S., Russia and China.
All the efforts at brokering a deal between the Maduro government and the opposition forces, now nominally headed by Guaidó, including the recent commendable effort by Norway, have failed because the two sides have each been given comfort and encouragement by one external power or another. Neither of the Venezuelan rivals will make the significant concessions necessary to end their conflict as long as they are convinced that a powerful external force is backing their ambitions for political control of Venezuela.
Should the day ever arise when the U.S., Russia and China collectively lock the representatives of the rival Venezuelan parties in a room and tell them not to emerge until they have devised a solution to whose implementation they are all irrevocably committed, nothing will change.
The likelihood of such a development is remote. Their own global rivalry, economically and militarily, as well as their peculiar interest in Venezuela and its oil and gas resources which, though they are not now being exploited, still exist, dictate that Venezuela will remain a pawn in a big game of global chess.
However, both President Trump and President Maduro have recently revealed that their two governments have been talking. That is a very helpful development and it could amount to something meaningful if President Trump involves Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It all depends on whether any of them is paying attention to Michelle Bachelet who made a plaintiff call to “those with influence in Venezuela and in the international community to work together constructively for a political solution to the protracted crisis in the country, by putting the interests and human rights of the long-suffering people of Venezuela above all else.”
(The writer is Ambassador of Antigua and Barbuda to the United States and the Organisation of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and at Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are entirely his own)