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Venezuela in Crisis: As U.S. Pushes Regime Change, Fear Grows of Civil War & Famine

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President Trump called for regime change in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua on Monday, in a major speech urging the Venezuelan military to abandon its support for President Nicolás Maduro and to support self-proclaimed Venezuelan president Juan Guaidó. During the speech, Trump said the U.S. seeks a peaceful transition of power in Venezuela, but that all options remain on the table. This comes as a new book out by former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe reveals Trump privately discussed going to war with Venezuela in 2017. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro responded to Trump’s speech in Miami by accusing him of engaging in Nazi-like discourse. We speak with Venezuelan economist Francisco Rodríguez, who headed the Venezuelan National Assembly’s Economic and Financial Advisory Office under Hugo Chávez. We also speak with Vijay Prashad, director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and chief editor of LeftWord Books. He is the author of several books, including “The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: President Trump traveled to Miami, Florida, Monday, where he gave a major speech calling for regime change in Venezuela, as well as in Cuba and Nicaragua. He urged the Venezuelan military to abandon its support for President Nicolás Maduro and to support self-proclaimed Venezuelan President Juan Guaidó.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Peace-loving nations are ready to help Venezuela reclaim its democracy, its dignity and its destiny. All the nations in our hemisphere have the shared interest in preventing the spread of socialist tyranny. Socialism, by its very nature, does not respect borders. It does not respect boundaries or the sovereign rights of its citizens or its neighbors. It’s always seeking to expand, to encroach and to subjugate others to its will. The twilight hour of socialism has arrived in our hemisphere and, frankly, in many, many places around the world. The days of socialism and communism are numbered, not only in Venezuela, but in Nicaragua and in Cuba, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: During his speech, Trump said the U.S. seeks a peaceful transition of power in Venezuela, but that all options remain on the table. Meanwhile, a new book out today by former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe reveals Trump privately discussed going to war with Venezuela in 2017. McCabe writes, quote, “Then the president talked about Venezuela. That’s the country we should be going to war with, he said. They have all that oil and they’re right on our back door,” unquote. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro responded to Trump’s speech in Miami by accusing him of engaging in Nazi-like discourse.

PRESIDENT NICOLÁS MADURO: [translated] Today Donald Trump was in Miami with a tired rhetoric, questioning the right of our country to adopt the ideas of human, Christian socialism, our socialism, just like a Nazi-style speech to prohibit ideologies. Donald Trump wants to ban ideologies, political diversity, and wants to impose the unique thinking of white supremacists of the White House.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: This all comes as a standoff intensifies on the Venezuelan border. The U.S. is continuing to deliver aid to the Colombian side of the border in defiance of Maduro. The United Nations, the Red Cross and other relief organizations have refused to work with the U.S. on delivering that aid to Venezuela, which they say is politically motivated. The border will be the site of dueling concerts in the coming days, one organized by the British billionaire Richard Branson, the other by the Venezuelan government. Meanwhile, Maduro says Russia is delivering 300 tons of humanitarian aid by air.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by two guests. Here in New York, Venezuelan economist Francisco Rodríguez. He headed the Venezuelan National Assembly’s Economic and Financial Advisory Office under President Hugo Chávez. He recently co-wrote, with Jeffrey Sachs, a New York Times opinion piece headlined “An Urgent Call for Compromise in Venezuela.” And in Hartford, Connecticut, we’re joined by Vijay Prashad, director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and chief editor of LeftWord Books. He’s the author of several books, including The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South.

Let’s begin with Francisco Rodríguez. Talk about the situation in Venezuela right now and what you are proposing.

FRANCISCO RODRÍGUEZ: OK, well, now there’s a standoff in Venezuela between the government of Maduro, which is deeply unpopular but still has the support of the military leadership, and the opposition, who has now regained the power to mobilize its supporters, to mobilize its base, that it had lost over the past year and a half. And nothing much seems to be changing in terms of the standoff. This, in fact, is a standoff that, in some variety or another, we’ve seen over the course of the past two decades.

Now, the new ingredient that we have right now is huge international pressure, and that takes different forms. On the one hand, you have Trump in the U.S. who is explicitly talking about the possibility of military action. On the other hand, you have the European Union, who has shied away from taking those steps but has recognized Juan Guaidó as interim president of Venezuela.

But, more importantly, I think, now you have U.S. economic sanctions. You have oil sanctions. And these sanctions are going to be crippling for an economy like Venezuela’s. More than 90 percent of Venezuelan exports come from oil. And what these sanctions have done is not only cut off the possibility of Venezuela selling oil to the U.S., but also made it very difficult for Venezuela to sell oil to other countries, because, for example, India is Venezuela’s second purchaser of oil, and Indian companies right now are concerned that they may be sanctioned for dealing with Venezuela.

So, the concern that I and other persons, such as my co-author, Jeffrey Sachs, in a recent New York Times piece, have posited is: Well, what’s the plan B here? What if this strategy doesn’t work in getting Maduro out of power? Then you have a country that’s already in a very fragile humanitarian situation, and you’re imposing crippling economic sanctions, and this risks creating a famine. And therefore we go through a number of alternatives there, from a political negotiation to create an interim government that could, effectively, envision a transition towards elections but also stabilize the economy, to an oil-for-food program, which is something basic that we should be discussing right now. How is Venezuela going to feed itself if it can’t sell oil to the rest of the world? Well, in the case of Iraq, in the case of Iran, there were exceptions to a sanctions regime. In the case of Venezuela, the Trump administration has imposed a sanctions regime without any type of exceptions. And for a country that essentially only produces oil—and, by the way, its second export, which is gold, is also sanctioned by the U.S.—this is very, very dangerous. This risks creating a famine in Venezuela.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Vijay Prashad, I’d like to get your perspective, first on President Trump’s speech and, of course, the administration still holding out the possibility of direct military intervention in Venezuela. Your take on what’s going on?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Juan, this is a very dangerous situation. We’re dealing with a government, the government of Donald Trump, that has for a very long time sought, you know, some kind of military action against Venezuela. As you said, they considered a war in 2017. The people around Trump—John Bolton, national security adviser, and now, resurrected out of the dirty wars of Central America, Elliott Abrams—these people are not actually committed to democracy or to the Venezuelan people. They want to do exactly what Trump falsely claimed socialism wants to do, which is to spread across its borders their agenda into places like Venezuela and to subjugate people elsewhere. I mean, the very fact that Trump has openly said—and Bolton has repeated this—that there is oil there, and American oil companies should get, you know, primary access to it—in other words, increase their ability to draw out profits from Venezuelan oil—the fact that they’ve openly said this should encourage people to see that this is not a credible attempt at helping the Venezuelan people. This is not a credible, you know, set of concerns about democracy or human rights. These people want to go to war. These are resource wars.

I think one should be very careful about taking their point of view seriously, even allowing them to define the so-called international community. I mean, India, I think, has made its own moves here. Large populations of the world—India, China, Russia—don’t accept what the United States is saying. India has said it’s going to do its very best, as it did against the U.S. sanctions on Iran, to find an end run around the U.S. sanctions on Venezuela. I don’t think most of the world is in agreement with the American strategy here, which is plainly to provoke a war on the north of South America. I think we need to be very cautious about how we proceed in discussing the situation. This is not being seen from Washington with the lens of humanitarianism. It’s being seen through the lens of war in order to secure resources.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me go to that Bolton SOT, John Bolton, the national security adviser, talking about the U.S. oil in Venezuela. This was a recent interview on Fox Business where he openly said U.S. oil companies could benefit from what’s happening in Venezuela.

JOHN BOLTON: We’re in conversation with major American companies now that are either in Venezuela or, in the case of Citgo, here in the United States. I think we’re trying to get to the same end result here. You know, Venezuela is one of the three countries I call the troika of tyranny. It will make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies really invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela. It’d be good for the people of Venezuela. It’d be good for the people of the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Francisco Rodríguez, can you respond to this? And has the U.S. exempted oil companies from the sanctions, and talking about U.S. oil company involvement in this attempted coup

FRANCISCO RODRÍGUEZ: It has not exempted them from the sanctions. It has declared a set of temporary wind-down provisions for some service companies that are involved in Venezuela. It has immediately stopped any shipments of NAFTA [inaudible], which Venezuela needs to produce about a third of its production, are dependent on imports of this material from the U.S. And that is immediately banned for any U.S. company. And for the rest of U.S. companies, for importing oil from Venezuela, there is a wind-down period, also until April 28th. However, any money paid for that oil has to go into a blocked account, which is going to be managed by the Guaidó administration, not by the Maduro administration. So, there is no—doesn’t make any sense for Maduro to sell oil into these accounts. I think that—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But let me ask you about—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: On this oil situation, because I’m not sure that the complexity of what’s going on here, in terms of oil, is understood. As you said, India is the second-largest importer of Venezuelan oil. China is the third largest. And the Soviet—Russia currently now owns 49 percent of Citgo in the United States, in exchange for a loan that Russia gave. So, Russia, China and India are all heavily invested in what happens to Venezuelan oil. They’re all recognizing the Maduro government. So it’s not a simple thing on this oil issue, as you just cut off the U.S. supply, right?

FRANCISCO RODRÍGUEZ: Oh, no, no, no, that’s perfectly right. That’s correct. However, what you will find is that when the U.S. imposes this type of sanctions, it creates significant costs for other countries to continue to trade with the sanctioned country. And, in fact, that’s what happened in Iran. In Iran, there were Chinese and—both China and India were concerned about continuing to deal with Iran in the wake of U.S. sanctions, and therefore the U.S. had to create—first the Obama administration, now Trump—the significant reduction exemptions clause, which allowed them to continue trading with Iran. So, and we had news over the weekend, still unreported, but Reuters and the Financial Times say that they have confirmed that Russian bank, state-owned bank, Gazprombank, has frozen the accounts of PDVSA precisely because they’re concerned with the possibility of being sanctioned for dealing with PDVSA. So there’s a reach—I mean, there’s a sense in which U.S. foreign policy goes beyond just the direct effect of trading with the U.S. It also affects using the dollar as an international reserve currency. And that can severely limit what other countries can do.

If on top of that you have the fact that—and here I want to stress something. Europe has not imposed economic sanctions, but there’s something that most European countries have done, which is to recognize Guaidó. And this is something very rare. This is something that, in the case of the U.S., the U.S., the last time that it recognized a government that did not have de facto control over at least part of its territory was in World War II with the Nazi-occupied countries of Europe. So, this is something that is not usually done. I mean, the U.S. recognized the government of Saddam Hussein even as it was invading Iraq. And the problem with that is that once you start going down that route, then you start falling into a problem where foreign policy decisions end up having economic implications. And now Venezuela cannot sell oil either through U.S. accounts, through the U.S. financial system, or through the European financial system. And this makes it very difficult for the country to actually obtain dollars or a reserve currency that it can use internationally, even if it manages to continue selling oil to some countries.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Vijay Prashad, what about that, this whole issue of the breakdown in terms of the international community? Because you’ve written about the Global South, and it does appear that most of the countries that are recognizing the Guaidó government, other than some Latin American countries that are being pressured by the United States, are from the Global North.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Yes, that’s exactly correct. I mean, this is the illusion of the phrase “international community.” It largely refers to the United States and its European allies, when, in fact, of course, you know, governments that represent the majority of the world haven’t actually recognized Mr. Guaidó and continue to recognize Mr. Maduro.

But I do have very great concerns about the lack of alternatives, both for holding and doing trade in oil, but also insurance for carriers and so on. I mean, you know, the Chinese, the BRICS countries had attempted to create some forms of alternatives to the European- and American-dominated financial system, the money transfer system and so on. And this has not really come to fruition. In the case of Iran, the Europeans have tried just now to create an alternative strategy for payments to Iran so that they can continue to buy oil from Iran. And as you may have seen at the Warsaw conference, the United States directly attacked the Europeans on this. I mean, there have been attempts by China, by India certainly, to create alternatives, outside the European- and American-dominated financial system, you know, to basically continue to trade with places like Iran and Venezuela. But each time they propose an alternative, these get attacked. And I think this is something for people to pay attention to—in other words, that there is a politicization of economic activity, of trade activity, a politicization that, you know, has the drumbeats of war behind it. Because if the United States is going to squeeze Venezuela to the extent that it’s doing now, and perhaps more, this is going to push that country into civil war. There’s going to most likely be ramped-up pressure for the United States to intervene militarily. And, you know, this would be terrible for South America, for Latin America.

I mean, I want to put on the table for us to consider that, you know, during the high point of high oil prices, the Venezuelan government made a choice: It didn’t build up its sovereign wealth fund, a rainy day fund; instead, it started to help countries, for instance, in the Caribbean, you know, through things like the Petrocaribe scheme. And, you know, you should recognize that the current uprising in Haiti is not merely about Haiti and the IMF presence from last year, but it’s also because the Petrocaribe scheme has basically run aground. There are three American-filled oil tankers sitting in Port-au-Prince. They are not unloading the oil until the government in Haiti pays in cash. And every day that they’re not unloading these ships, the government of Haiti is liable for $20,000. I mean, I want to put this on the table, because this is one form of behavior towards poor countries like Haiti—you know, the opposite of humanitarianism. And the other was, at its highest point, the Venezuelan government providing low-price oil at very reasonable rates to countries like Haiti—a genuine form of humanitarianism. When Venezuela went into crisis, you know, the world didn’t come to its defense to help Venezuela, instead, of course, using this opportunity to curry favor with Washington, as it basically bangs louder on the drumbeats of war.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, then come back to this discussion with Vijay Prashad and Francisco Rodríguez, Venezuelan economist. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: “Bolivariana,” from the album Chile: Songs for the Resistance. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, a standoff is intensifying on the Venezuelan border. The U.S. is continuing to deliver aid to the Colombian side of the border in defiance of Maduro. The United Nations and Red Cross and other relief organizations have refused to work with the U.S. on delivering aid to Venezuela, which they say is politically motivated. On Monday, President Trump criticized Maduro for not allowing humanitarian aid into the country.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Two days ago, the first U.S. Air Force C-17—that’s a big, beautiful plane—landed in Colombia, loaded with crucial assistance, including thousands of nutrition kits for little Venezuelan children. Unfortunately, dictator Maduro has blocked this life-saving aid from entering the country. He would rather see his people starve than give them aid.

AMY GOODMAN: Still with us, two guests. Here in New York, the Venezuelan economist Francisco Rodríguez, headed the Venezuela National Assembly’s Economic and Financial Advisory Office under President Hugo Chávez. He recently co-wrote, with professor Jeffrey Sachs, a New York Times opinion piece headlined “An Urgent Call for Compromise in Venezuela.” And in Hartford, Connecticut, Vijay Prashad, director of the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, chief editor of LeftWord Books.

So, Francisco Rodríguez, if you can talk about what’s happening on the border? It looks like the U.S. is pushing for this to be the flashpoint, but you have the U.N., the International Red Cross saying they won’t participate in this because they don’t see so-called humanitarian aid being pushed by one side as a real humanitarian aid.

FRANCISCO RODRÍGUEZ: Yeah. I mean, there’s a reality, which is that the humanitarian aid issue in Venezuela has become politicized. And this happens in a lot of countries. Now, I think that a lot of the fault here, quite frankly, is Maduro’s, because, from four years ago, when this started to be talked about in the Venezuelan political debate, Maduro and his government have denied that there’s a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, and refuse to accept any type of humanitarian aid. It was only in November of last year that they finally accepted some aid from the United Nations. However, during most of that period, they insisted that there was nothing. And you saw the country slide into hyperinflation. You saw the country enter into what is now the world’s largest economic contraction to happen outside of wartime in any country in world history, has happened in Venezuela.

And this is not just a—U.S. sanctions are very recent. I mean, this is driven by the huge mismanagement of the Maduro and Chávez administration. I mean, even—Vijay was talking about aiding other countries, but recognized that Chávez did not do—as a result partly of that policy, did not do what it should have done and what is recommended for oil-exporting countries, which is to build up a rainy day fund, to be able to save for when oil prices came down. So this country had committed a lot of policy mistakes. It went into a huge economic crisis as a result of mismanagement. Poverty shot up from 27 to 94 percent. The government has been very cynical about this, because the government doesn’t even publish statistics. It stopped publishing poverty statistics in 2015, inflation statistics for a country that’s in the midst of a hyperinflation, GDP data. So the government denies that the crisis is there, but doesn’t have any data to show, because it’s effectively banned the publication of this data.

So, in that context, the Venezuelan opposition has taken this issue as an issue of debate. It has effectively challenged the government to accept humanitarian aid. And now, as the Venezuelan political conflict, domestic political conflict, has become internationalized, then the U.S. and the opposition are effectively riding on this and trying to tell Maduro and the military, “You must accept the humanitarian aid into the country.” Now, it’s true—and I fully recognize that—that there’s a lot of concern among humanitarian aid agencies that you shouldn’t let humanitarian aid be politicized, because once it becomes politicized, then one of the two sides is going to try to stop it. And that’s a big problem right now in Venezuela. But I do think at the root of this politicization you have to find the Maduro government’s, in my view, cynical denial of the existence of a deep economic and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of this crisis, because no one denies that there are major, major problems within Venezuela, your perspective on how this opposition has operated? Because I think there was an expectation that once Guaidó was declared president and the United States rallied behind him, that the Maduro government would collapse.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And that hasn’t happened.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And would you agree that the longer this drags out, the more likelihood there is that the Maduro government will manage to persevere, except for a U.S. intervention?

FRANCISCO RODRÍGUEZ: Well, depends on what you mean by “persevere.” I mean, they may be able to retain their hold on power, but this country is going to go through a humanitarian catastrophe that—like what we have never seen in this hemisphere. Again, I’d like to come back to the issue that you already have a country where 30 percent of Venezuelans are eating less than three meals a day, as opposed to only 5 percent when Maduro came to power, a country that’s ravaged by hyperinflation, with poverty exceeding 90 percent. So, when you take this situation and you impose these crippling oil sanctions on the country, you’re risking creating a humanitarian catastrophe. And that’s our concern.

AMY GOODMAN: So, would you say the U.S. is intensifying this humanitarian catastrophe?

FRANCISCO RODRÍGUEZ: That’s our concern. Yes, the way that I would see it is the following. This policy of the United States of recognizing Guaidó and threatening the Venezuelan military, as Trump continued to do in his speech, so that it will decide to overthrow Maduro is a policy that, if it works, it can be very good, but if it doesn’t work, what’s plan B? What’s the other strategy? Are we simply going to stop Venezuela from selling oil to the rest of the world, and have millions of Venezuelans starve as a result? And that, in my view, not only doesn’t seem right. I mean, I think that that’s deeply unconscionable.

AMY GOODMAN: Vijay Prashad, your response?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, you know, the interesting thing is that this humanitarian aid that the United States is promising is going to be about $20 million, maybe $50 million, at most. Meanwhile, the United States and the Bank of England have plundered this country of billions of dollars, which it could have used in the open market to have bought the goods that it needs. I mean, imports into Venezuela have contracted deeply, and partly because of this plunder.

You know, we take our eyes off this ball quite a bit. People haven’t effectively reported what happened, for instance, to the Libyan sovereign fund, the investment agency. Billions of dollars in Libya were held in banks outside the country as part of Libya’s sovereign fund. After the invasion of that country, that money essentially just vanished. There’s been no audit of it. I mean, there’s been no conversation even about Libya’s sovereign fund.

And in the case of Venezuela, there’s a kind of open plunder happening. $1.2 billion of gold, Bank of England says you have no access to it. The money that the Venezuelan government has outside the country, the United States—you know, with Trump saying that it’s socialism that goes over the borders and subjugates people, here the United States government says what’s Venezuelan government money is now no longer its money, and we’re going to control it. Meanwhile, of course, you have a sanctions regime, which is costing the country billions of dollars.

I mean, the immediate issue has to be that Venezuela must be permitted to sell its oil. The Venezuelan government needs to be able to capitalize the oil fields. There’s been neglect of the infrastructure. Money needs to come into that sector. You know, you’re not going to be able to pivot this country within one or two years away from oil dependence. Oil was discovered in Venezuela in 1908. Until 1999, it was not the socialists who governed Venezuela. And all those 91 years, Venezuela continued to be a one-commodity export economy. You can’t put that on Chávez. You can’t put that on Maduro. That’s the history of the Global South, countries like Venezuela. It’s going to take a long time to pivot away from oil dependence. But until then, you’ve got to allow a country like Venezuela to sell its oil on the open market and import goods to help a population that is in the midst of a serious crisis. I think this has to be the principal question on the table. And, of course, the Trump administration and its European allies have gone in the exact opposite direction. They want to prevent Venezuela from selling oil, and therefore they want to starve the population further. This is hardly a humanitarian strategy.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Francisco, I’d like to ask you about the plan B issue that you raise, that the Trump administration doesn’t really have a plan B. Let’s assume a worst-case scenario, that the Trump administration does decide to send in troops. I don’t think anyone denies that while Maduro does not have a majority of the population, he still has a significant portion of the population that believes that the revolution launched by Chávez bettered their lives, and are willing to fight to defend that, and that there are also significant numbers of Cuban advisers that have been in Venezuela for years, and Cuba is not about to cross its hands if the United States decides to invade Venezuela, and not try to, somehow or other, act to support that Venezuelan resistance. So, you’re talking about the potential for a civil war that will create economic dislocation, not just in Venezuela, but around the world, because there’s a lot of money—there’s debt, there’s oil—that’s involved in Venezuela. It’s not a simple solution like removing Maduro.

FRANCISCO RODRÍGUEZ: No, I think that’s correct.

AMY GOODMAN: We have less than a minute.

FRANCISCO RODRÍGUEZ: I think a lot of people draw poor analogies with Panama. But Panama was a country with a very small army, that essentially came conveniently pre-invaded, because the U.S. had a military base in the Panama Canal. Here, we’re talking about the danger not only of the Venezuelan army being able to resist, but also what happens even if it doesn’t. This is a country where you have a significant amount of arms, of weapons, that are in the hands of the Venezuelan military. You have guerrillas, guerrilla movements in Colombia, that are still active, that are allied to the Venezuelan military. So I think that what we could see is that even if the U.S. invades and takes over power quickly in Venezuela, we will probably see a very prolonged civil war and very bloody times for Venezuela and for the region ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: Well we want to thank you both for being with us, Vijay Prashad, Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, and Francisco Rodríguez, Venezuelan economist. We will link to their pieces at

This is Democracy Now! We go from Venezuela to not the Amazon, but Amazon and what happened in New York. It’s pulling out. Stay with us.

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