The Americas Blog

El Blog de las Americas

The Americas Blog seeks to present a more accurate perspective on economic and political developments in the Western Hemisphere than is often presented in the United States. It will provide information that is often ignored, buried, and sometimes misreported in the major U.S. media.

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A recent report on Venezuela by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is a grim portrayal of a country in a severe crisis. Yet, given the extensive media coverage given to this report, it is important to contextualize what is going on in Venezuela in light of the situation in other countries in the region.

Comparing the rates of violent abuses of state security agents in Venezuela with those of state actors like Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, or Mexico, it becomes clear that Venezuela is far from being an outlier, but rather part of a disturbing pattern of abusive, tough-on-crime, “mano dura” (“iron fist”) security policies in Latin America. What is an outlier, however, is the disproportionate media attention directed at Venezuela’s human rights situation, in comparison to other Latin American nations.

Another outlier is the US approach to Venezuela, which is clearly driven by the political aims of President Donald Trump — not by any particular concern for human rights. To get a sense of Trump’s double standard when it comes to human rights, one need look no further than how his administration treats Venezuela’s neighbor, Brazil.

Trump and Venezuela

In January 2019, Juan Guaído, president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, declared himself the president of Venezuela. This declaration did not come out of nowhere, but, as was later reported, was coordinated with politicians and senior government officials in the United States. Guaído was recognized as the president of Venezuela, in short order, by President Trump — exercising his exclusive presidential power to recognize foreign governments. Around 50 countries, concentrated in Europe and the Americas, have followed the US’s lead in recognizing Guaído.

It’s worth noting that recognizing Guaído is a blatant violation of customary international law, which prohibits the recognition of non-de facto governments with the purpose of interfering in the internal affairs of another state. Article 3 of the Charter of the Organization of American States (OAS) — of which the United States is a founding member — specifically prohibits OAS member states from “intervening in the affairs of another State.”

Trump has also violated international law by insisting that “all options are on the table” for deposing Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro — thinly-veiled code for threatening military intervention. Article 2 of the United Nations Charter prohibits member states from employing “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”

Trump has used the recognition of Guaidó, and Maduro’s subsequent refusal to step down, as justification for further tightening sanctions against Venezuela’s elected government. This escalation will be disastrous, as US economic sanctions imposed since August 2017 have, according to a recent CEPR report, already led to the deaths of an estimated 40,000 Venezuelans through the end of 2018 by making it much harder for Venezuela to acquire the foreign exchange needed to import food and medicine.

The use of unilateral sanctions for the purpose of influencing another state’s behavior is, in itself, a breach of international law. Unilateral sanctions that generate a humanitarian crisis in the target state specifically violate international humanitarian law. Articles 11 and 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (to which the US is a signatory) require states to respect the rights of all to “adequate food” and to “physical and mental health.”

Trump and Brazil

The legality of recognizing Guaído rests on the argument (whether valid or not) that the mandate Maduro won in the 2018 election was illegitimate. However, if indeed the Trump administration believes that the Venezuelan elections were flawed, the administration appears to be applying a very different standard in the case of Brazil.

In the case of Venezuela, the US administration deplored the fact that various opposition politicians were excluded from running. However, in Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro won because of the incarceration of former president and leading presidential candidate Lula da Silva, in judicial proceedings which were severely marred by politically-motivated collusion between a judge, Sergío Moro — later appointed Justice Minister by Bolsonaro — and prosecutors involved in the case (a saga laid out in detail in social media messages leaked to The Intercept).

Yet, there has been no US-led effort to reject the legitimacy of Bolsonaro or recognize Lula as the president of Brazil. In fact, Trump’s approach to Venezuela — where he has used maximum pressure in an attempt to oust Maduro, violating international law every step of the way — could not be more different from his approach to Brazil.

Trump has unequivocally embraced Bolsonaro as he engages in an all-out assault on human rights in Brazil. In May 2019, Amnesty International identified eight separate areas of concerning policy changes under Bolsonaro, including undermining the ability of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to oversee abuses and infringing the rights of victims of the 1964-1985 military dictatorship. In March 2019, Human Rights Watch decried Bolsonaro’s planned state celebration of the 1964 coup d’etats.

This assault has fallen most disastrously upon the most vulnerable sectors of the population. Bolsonaro’s attacks on women, the LGBTQ community, indigenous communities, and Afro-Brazilians have already been decried in three separate letters from members of Congress to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Some defenders of the human rights of the marginalized have been driven into exile by constant death threats.

But opposition to human rights protections is part of Bolsonaro’s brand. On the campaign trail, Bolsonaro opined that “a good criminal is a dead criminal.” He has said that a criminal should not be thought of as a “normal human being” and that police who kill “criminals” should not be prosecuted, but rather given awards. He has worked to liberalize gun laws “to guarantee citizens their legitimate right to defense,” making it easier for civilians to pursue vigilante justice.

Predictably, the burden of increased state-sanctioned violence has fallen upon the racially marginalized. Police operations in Rio de Janeiro state — military-style invasions increasingly using helicopters — have disproportionately targeted Afro-Brazilian neighborhoods. Violent land grabs of indigenous territories are on the rise. In March and April of 2019, there were three massacres of indigenous people in the Amazon in 12 days.

In keeping with Trump’s pattern of praising leaders accused of human rights abuses, it perhaps comes as no surprise that upon Bolsonaro’s inauguration, he congratulated the new Brazilian president, proclaiming, “The U.S.A. is with you.” Bolsonaro did, after all, have ties to former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, and he ran a campaign, like Trump’s, that was fueled by disinformation (“fake news”).

It was still a shock to some, however, when Trump declared Brazil a “major non-NATO ally” (MNNA), a designation currently shared by only 16 other countries (plus Taiwan). With MNNA status, Bolsonaro will be granted greater access to advanced military technologies and military equipment. He will accrue the benefits of increased collaboration with the most powerful armed forces in the world as US military spending nears its post–World War II-era high reached during the Iraq War.

Comparing State Violence in Venezuela and Brazil

It is in light of Trump’s highly dissonant policies toward Brazil and Venezuela that one should read the recent report on abuses in Venezuela from the OHCHR.

The major finding of the OHCHR report, amplified by the media, was that 5,287 people had been killed in security operations in Venezuela in 2018. This 5,287 figure does not come from opposition activists or Florida Republicans. It is based on the Venezuelan government’s own accounting (see: paragraph 50 of the report).

Upon the release of the OHCHR report, The New York Times summarized it as “detailing wide-ranging government abuses targeting political opponents.” José Miguel Vivanco, Executive Director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch (which has long had a revolving door with the US State Department), compared Maduro to notorious Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Steve Levitsky, Harvard Professor and author of 2018’s How Democracies Die (which repeatedly refers to Hugo Chávez as an authoritarian, without presenting strong evidence to back this claim), went so far as to say that Maduro was “worse than Pinochet.”

Yet, as few in the media have acknowledged, the OHCHR does not allege that many of these security-related killings were political in nature. In fact, as Gabriel Hetland has pointed out in The Nation, the OHCHR only attributes political motivations to six killings by the Fuerza de Acción Especial (FAES) — the branch of the Bolivarian National Police which features most prominently in the report (see: paragraph 52).

The nongovernmental organization Observatorio Venezolano de la Violencia (Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, or OVV by its initials in Spanish) puts the number of killings by security forces at a higher figure: 7,523. Of course, the exact number of killings in Venezuela may well lie somewhere between the estimate of the government of Venezuela and the approximately 50 percent higher figure estimated by OVV.

Using this high-end figure of 7,523 killings, this means that, for 2018, there were over 20 killings by security forces per day in Venezuela. OVV also reports killings for January through May 19th, 2019, at 2,124 — or about 15 per day. This would mean state violence is down by almost 26 percent since last year. This decrease is despite the fact that Venezuela ranked as the “most worsened” country in the world on the Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index for 2019 — and despite the attempted coup by Guaído and his supporters on April 30th.

By contrast, state violence has been increasing in the Brazilian State of Rio de Janeiro. In 2018, police killings of civilians in the State numbered at 1,534 — the highest annual figure since 2007. In 2019, police killings numbered at 731 for January through May — the highest figure, over that time period, since 2003. These figures break down to about 4.2 police killings per day in 2018 and 4.8 per day in 2019, an increase of 15 percent — and this is only one state in Brazil.

In the spirit of Bolsonaro’s rhetorical demand for “dead criminals,” Wilson Witzel — a hardline tough-on-crime ally of Bolsonaro who has been governor of the State of Rio de Janeiro since January — has responded to these disturbing figures by declaring the increase in police killings “normal.”

“Nobody wants to kill bandits,” Witzel said. “We want to arrest them. But they need to know we are going to act with rigour. When we arrive, they either surrender, or die.” “Bandit” is, in Portugese, “bandido”— the same word Bolsonaro uses which English-language media translates as “criminal.”

It is important to consider factors which make a direct comparison of the two rates of state killings very difficult. Crucially, Venezuela was almost 76 percent more populous than the State of Rio de Janeiro in 2017, the last year for which reliable statistics are available for both (29.4 million vs. 16.7 million residents).

Moreover, the 2018 homicide rate in Venezuela was nearly 109 percent higher than that of Rio de Janeiro state — 81.4/100,000 vs. 39/100,000. As Venezuela is far more dangerous, it is not unreasonable to expect that police there would be under greater threat and thus respond with greater force.

Andres Antillano, Chair of Criminology at the Central University of Venezuela, has explained that Maduro’s presidency has seen a return to the same ineffective, hardline criminal justice policies which were rejected during the presidency of Hugo Chávez. He argues that increasing police killings paradoxically increase violent crime, thus encouraging even more violence from the police — which he describes as a “circle of violence.”

Bruno Paes Manso of the University of São Paulo has pointed to a similar process in the State of Rio de Janeiro, where the government increasingly sees state violence as the only way to contain crime — and yet increased brutality by the state only increases criminal violence. “If you treat [the people who live in the favelas] like enemies,” he argues, “they will organize against the state, they will see the state as their enemy.”

Upon closer examination, therefore, the patterns of violence perpetrated by state agents in Brazil and Venezuela are not so different. US policy toward these two countries, however, could not be more different.

Taking State Violence Seriously

The direct responsibility of Bolsonaro and Maduro for killings by security forces which occur during their tenures is difficult to accurately assign. In both countries, as in the United States, police are employed at all levels of government — federal, state, and municipal. However, as it is unfair to blame all state killings of civilians on the head of government, it is likewise unreasonable to absolve them completely.

In 2018, police killed 992 Americans — a rate of more than 2.7 people per day. In 2016, the last year of President Barack Obama’s second term, police killed 962 civilians — 2.6 per day. In light of the firing of Officer Daniel Pantaleo, five years too late following his murder of Eric Garner with an illegal chokehold in New York City, advocates for human rights must reiterate that police killings of civilians should always be a cause of concern and condemnation — whether in Brazil, Venezuela, or the United States.

A president motivated by concern for human rights would be right to criticize any government with a high rate of security-related killings. However, Trump clearly does not care about human rights. He has embraced Bolsonaro because they share a right-wing, nationalist ideology, and he has attacked Venezuela as a gambit for votes in Florida.

If Trump cared about Venezuelan human rights, he would not be deporting hundreds of Venezuelan migrants, and he would not be causing the deaths of thousands of Venezuelans by imposing crippling sanctions. If Trump cared about the rights of people around the world who are abused by their governments, he would not be giving Bolsonaro preferential access to advanced weaponry.

All those who wish to further the cause of human rights in Latin America will have to reckon with the United Nations report on human rights abuses in Venezuela — but they should do so with an attention to the current context, which includes an American president hellbent on weaponizing the language of human rights for his own political advantage.

A recent report on Venezuela by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is a grim portrayal of a country in a severe crisis. Yet, given the extensive media coverage given to this report, it is important to contextualize what is going on in Venezuela in light of the situation in other countries in the region.

Comparing the rates of violent abuses of state security agents in Venezuela with those of state actors like Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, or Mexico, it becomes clear that Venezuela is far from being an outlier, but rather part of a disturbing pattern of abusive, tough-on-crime, “mano dura” (“iron fist”) security policies in Latin America. What is an outlier, however, is the disproportionate media attention directed at Venezuela’s human rights situation, in comparison to other Latin American nations.

Another outlier is the US approach to Venezuela, which is clearly driven by the political aims of President Donald Trump — not by any particular concern for human rights. To get a sense of Trump’s double standard when it comes to human rights, one need look no further than how his administration treats Venezuela’s neighbor, Brazil.

Trump and Venezuela

In January 2019, Juan Guaído, president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, declared himself the president of Venezuela. This declaration did not come out of nowhere, but, as was later reported, was coordinated with politicians and senior government officials in the United States. Guaído was recognized as the president of Venezuela, in short order, by President Trump — exercising his exclusive presidential power to recognize foreign governments. Around 50 countries, concentrated in Europe and the Americas, have followed the US’s lead in recognizing Guaído.

It’s worth noting that recognizing Guaído is a blatant violation of customary international law, which prohibits the recognition of non-de facto governments with the purpose of interfering in the internal affairs of another state. Article 3 of the Charter of the Organization of American States (OAS) — of which the United States is a founding member — specifically prohibits OAS member states from “intervening in the affairs of another State.”

Trump has also violated international law by insisting that “all options are on the table” for deposing Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro — thinly-veiled code for threatening military intervention. Article 2 of the United Nations Charter prohibits member states from employing “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”

Trump has used the recognition of Guaidó, and Maduro’s subsequent refusal to step down, as justification for further tightening sanctions against Venezuela’s elected government. This escalation will be disastrous, as US economic sanctions imposed since August 2017 have, according to a recent CEPR report, already led to the deaths of an estimated 40,000 Venezuelans through the end of 2018 by making it much harder for Venezuela to acquire the foreign exchange needed to import food and medicine.

The use of unilateral sanctions for the purpose of influencing another state’s behavior is, in itself, a breach of international law. Unilateral sanctions that generate a humanitarian crisis in the target state specifically violate international humanitarian law. Articles 11 and 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (to which the US is a signatory) require states to respect the rights of all to “adequate food” and to “physical and mental health.”

Trump and Brazil

The legality of recognizing Guaído rests on the argument (whether valid or not) that the mandate Maduro won in the 2018 election was illegitimate. However, if indeed the Trump administration believes that the Venezuelan elections were flawed, the administration appears to be applying a very different standard in the case of Brazil.

In the case of Venezuela, the US administration deplored the fact that various opposition politicians were excluded from running. However, in Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro won because of the incarceration of former president and leading presidential candidate Lula da Silva, in judicial proceedings which were severely marred by politically-motivated collusion between a judge, Sergío Moro — later appointed Justice Minister by Bolsonaro — and prosecutors involved in the case (a saga laid out in detail in social media messages leaked to The Intercept).

Yet, there has been no US-led effort to reject the legitimacy of Bolsonaro or recognize Lula as the president of Brazil. In fact, Trump’s approach to Venezuela — where he has used maximum pressure in an attempt to oust Maduro, violating international law every step of the way — could not be more different from his approach to Brazil.

Trump has unequivocally embraced Bolsonaro as he engages in an all-out assault on human rights in Brazil. In May 2019, Amnesty International identified eight separate areas of concerning policy changes under Bolsonaro, including undermining the ability of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to oversee abuses and infringing the rights of victims of the 1964-1985 military dictatorship. In March 2019, Human Rights Watch decried Bolsonaro’s planned state celebration of the 1964 coup d’etats.

This assault has fallen most disastrously upon the most vulnerable sectors of the population. Bolsonaro’s attacks on women, the LGBTQ community, indigenous communities, and Afro-Brazilians have already been decried in three separate letters from members of Congress to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Some defenders of the human rights of the marginalized have been driven into exile by constant death threats.

But opposition to human rights protections is part of Bolsonaro’s brand. On the campaign trail, Bolsonaro opined that “a good criminal is a dead criminal.” He has said that a criminal should not be thought of as a “normal human being” and that police who kill “criminals” should not be prosecuted, but rather given awards. He has worked to liberalize gun laws “to guarantee citizens their legitimate right to defense,” making it easier for civilians to pursue vigilante justice.

Predictably, the burden of increased state-sanctioned violence has fallen upon the racially marginalized. Police operations in Rio de Janeiro state — military-style invasions increasingly using helicopters — have disproportionately targeted Afro-Brazilian neighborhoods. Violent land grabs of indigenous territories are on the rise. In March and April of 2019, there were three massacres of indigenous people in the Amazon in 12 days.

In keeping with Trump’s pattern of praising leaders accused of human rights abuses, it perhaps comes as no surprise that upon Bolsonaro’s inauguration, he congratulated the new Brazilian president, proclaiming, “The U.S.A. is with you.” Bolsonaro did, after all, have ties to former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, and he ran a campaign, like Trump’s, that was fueled by disinformation (“fake news”).

It was still a shock to some, however, when Trump declared Brazil a “major non-NATO ally” (MNNA), a designation currently shared by only 16 other countries (plus Taiwan). With MNNA status, Bolsonaro will be granted greater access to advanced military technologies and military equipment. He will accrue the benefits of increased collaboration with the most powerful armed forces in the world as US military spending nears its post–World War II-era high reached during the Iraq War.

Comparing State Violence in Venezuela and Brazil

It is in light of Trump’s highly dissonant policies toward Brazil and Venezuela that one should read the recent report on abuses in Venezuela from the OHCHR.

The major finding of the OHCHR report, amplified by the media, was that 5,287 people had been killed in security operations in Venezuela in 2018. This 5,287 figure does not come from opposition activists or Florida Republicans. It is based on the Venezuelan government’s own accounting (see: paragraph 50 of the report).

Upon the release of the OHCHR report, The New York Times summarized it as “detailing wide-ranging government abuses targeting political opponents.” José Miguel Vivanco, Executive Director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch (which has long had a revolving door with the US State Department), compared Maduro to notorious Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Steve Levitsky, Harvard Professor and author of 2018’s How Democracies Die (which repeatedly refers to Hugo Chávez as an authoritarian, without presenting strong evidence to back this claim), went so far as to say that Maduro was “worse than Pinochet.”

Yet, as few in the media have acknowledged, the OHCHR does not allege that many of these security-related killings were political in nature. In fact, as Gabriel Hetland has pointed out in The Nation, the OHCHR only attributes political motivations to six killings by the Fuerza de Acción Especial (FAES) — the branch of the Bolivarian National Police which features most prominently in the report (see: paragraph 52).

The nongovernmental organization Observatorio Venezolano de la Violencia (Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, or OVV by its initials in Spanish) puts the number of killings by security forces at a higher figure: 7,523. Of course, the exact number of killings in Venezuela may well lie somewhere between the estimate of the government of Venezuela and the approximately 50 percent higher figure estimated by OVV.

Using this high-end figure of 7,523 killings, this means that, for 2018, there were over 20 killings by security forces per day in Venezuela. OVV also reports killings for January through May 19th, 2019, at 2,124 — or about 15 per day. This would mean state violence is down by almost 26 percent since last year. This decrease is despite the fact that Venezuela ranked as the “most worsened” country in the world on the Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index for 2019 — and despite the attempted coup by Guaído and his supporters on April 30th.

By contrast, state violence has been increasing in the Brazilian State of Rio de Janeiro. In 2018, police killings of civilians in the State numbered at 1,534 — the highest annual figure since 2007. In 2019, police killings numbered at 731 for January through May — the highest figure, over that time period, since 2003. These figures break down to about 4.2 police killings per day in 2018 and 4.8 per day in 2019, an increase of 15 percent — and this is only one state in Brazil.

In the spirit of Bolsonaro’s rhetorical demand for “dead criminals,” Wilson Witzel — a hardline tough-on-crime ally of Bolsonaro who has been governor of the State of Rio de Janeiro since January — has responded to these disturbing figures by declaring the increase in police killings “normal.”

“Nobody wants to kill bandits,” Witzel said. “We want to arrest them. But they need to know we are going to act with rigour. When we arrive, they either surrender, or die.” “Bandit” is, in Portugese, “bandido”— the same word Bolsonaro uses which English-language media translates as “criminal.”

It is important to consider factors which make a direct comparison of the two rates of state killings very difficult. Crucially, Venezuela was almost 76 percent more populous than the State of Rio de Janeiro in 2017, the last year for which reliable statistics are available for both (29.4 million vs. 16.7 million residents).

Moreover, the 2018 homicide rate in Venezuela was nearly 109 percent higher than that of Rio de Janeiro state — 81.4/100,000 vs. 39/100,000. As Venezuela is far more dangerous, it is not unreasonable to expect that police there would be under greater threat and thus respond with greater force.

Andres Antillano, Chair of Criminology at the Central University of Venezuela, has explained that Maduro’s presidency has seen a return to the same ineffective, hardline criminal justice policies which were rejected during the presidency of Hugo Chávez. He argues that increasing police killings paradoxically increase violent crime, thus encouraging even more violence from the police — which he describes as a “circle of violence.”

Bruno Paes Manso of the University of São Paulo has pointed to a similar process in the State of Rio de Janeiro, where the government increasingly sees state violence as the only way to contain crime — and yet increased brutality by the state only increases criminal violence. “If you treat [the people who live in the favelas] like enemies,” he argues, “they will organize against the state, they will see the state as their enemy.”

Upon closer examination, therefore, the patterns of violence perpetrated by state agents in Brazil and Venezuela are not so different. US policy toward these two countries, however, could not be more different.

Taking State Violence Seriously

The direct responsibility of Bolsonaro and Maduro for killings by security forces which occur during their tenures is difficult to accurately assign. In both countries, as in the United States, police are employed at all levels of government — federal, state, and municipal. However, as it is unfair to blame all state killings of civilians on the head of government, it is likewise unreasonable to absolve them completely.

In 2018, police killed 992 Americans — a rate of more than 2.7 people per day. In 2016, the last year of President Barack Obama’s second term, police killed 962 civilians — 2.6 per day. In light of the firing of Officer Daniel Pantaleo, five years too late following his murder of Eric Garner with an illegal chokehold in New York City, advocates for human rights must reiterate that police killings of civilians should always be a cause of concern and condemnation — whether in Brazil, Venezuela, or the United States.

A president motivated by concern for human rights would be right to criticize any government with a high rate of security-related killings. However, Trump clearly does not care about human rights. He has embraced Bolsonaro because they share a right-wing, nationalist ideology, and he has attacked Venezuela as a gambit for votes in Florida.

If Trump cared about Venezuelan human rights, he would not be deporting hundreds of Venezuelan migrants, and he would not be causing the deaths of thousands of Venezuelans by imposing crippling sanctions. If Trump cared about the rights of people around the world who are abused by their governments, he would not be giving Bolsonaro preferential access to advanced weaponry.

All those who wish to further the cause of human rights in Latin America will have to reckon with the United Nations report on human rights abuses in Venezuela — but they should do so with an attention to the current context, which includes an American president hellbent on weaponizing the language of human rights for his own political advantage.

The first two Democratic Party presidential primary debates in Miami covered a lot of foreign policy ground — but it is a stretch to say the candidates’ statements rose to the level of a real “debate.” They tended to agree with one another and merely emphasize different priorities.

There were two exceptions to this consensus:

  1. Four candidates (former congressman of Maryland John Delaney, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, former HUD secretary Julián Castro, and Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio) called China one of the US’s greatest geopolitical threats, while two candidates (former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper and entrepreneur Andrew Yang) argued for a new relationship with China built on cooperation.

  2. Ryan argued for maintaining US engagement in Afghanistan, while Hawai’i Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and former vice president Joe Biden called, without reservations, for withdrawal.

Very little in these debates shed light on the differences among these candidates in how they would approach foreign policy if elected. However, given the great range of foreign policy issues raised, one can hope that the candidates will engage in a more robust conversation on foreign policy as the field winnows—including talking about many issues that have thus far been left out.

Here were some of the foreign policy issues the candidates discussed:

Climate

These debates marked a major shift in the extent to which presidential candidates have addressed climate change, with two candidates (California Senator Kamala Harris and Washington Governor Jay Inslee) referring to a “climate crisis.”

In fact, the 15 minutes of discussion dedicated to climate change, across the two debates, were greater than all the time spent on climate change during the nine Democratic primary debates in 2016.

Four candidates (Castro, Harris, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Biden) mentioned rejoining the Paris Agreement — and Castro said his first act as president would be to recommit to it. (According to The Washington Posts issues tracker, all 20 qualifying candidates have committed to rejoining the Paris Agreement.)

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts argued that federally funded research in green technologies should be made available to any companies that use it to manufacture products in the United States. Warren, Ryan, and Biden suggested that exporting green products should be a major part of US trade strategy going forward.

Four candidates called climate change either the single greatest “geopolitical threat” to the US, or among the greatest threats: former congressman Beto O’Rourke of Texas, Warren, Inslee, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Castro. Inslee made it clear that combating the climate crisis would be his first priority as president.

Iran

In the first debate, when candidates were asked to raise their hands if they would support reentering the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA or “Iran deal”), only Booker did not raise his hand. Although he acknowledged it was a “mistake to pull out of that deal,” he insisted he would try to “leverage a better deal.” (He did not elaborate.)

Klobuchar insisted that any military action against Iran should go before the Congress for approval. She also blamed Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA for “giv[ing] unlimited leverage to China and Russia.”

Gabbard, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand made clear their total opposition to a war in Iran, with Gabbard and Sanders insisting such a war would be far worse than the war in Iraq, leading to a regional disaster with much greater loss of life.

Gabbard, Sanders, Klobuchar, and O’Rourke all blamed Trump’s policies for making a war with Iran more likely, with Gabbard criticizing Trump’s “chickenhawk cabinet” — and specifically calling out Mike Pompeo and John Bolton.

When asked what she considered the greatest geopolitical threat to the United States, Klobuchar’s answer included “what’s going [on] in the Mideast with Iran.” When Gillibrand was asked which country she would most like to “reset” the US relationship with, she said it should be Iran, in order “to stabilize the Middle East and make sure we do not start an unwanted, never-ending war.”

Mexico and Central America

Both Ryan and Warren mentioned the flight of American jobs to Mexico and the need for an “industrial policy” focused on domestic manufacturing.

Castro was the only candidate to explicitly call for an end to Trump’s “remain in Mexico” policy, which requires asylum-seekers whose port of entry is on the US-Mexico border to remain in Mexico as their asylum claims are processed.

Given the humanitarian crisis at the border, engineered in part by Trump’s own actions, numerous candidates discussed factors pushing people to leave Central American countries. Four candidates (Castro, Booker, O’Rourke, and Biden) called for investing in the Central American countries most asylum-seekers come from. Castro called for a “Marshall Plan for Honduras and Guatemala and El Salvador,” and Biden called for a “surge immediately [of] billions of dollars’ worth of help to the region.” Both Booker and Castro criticized Trump’s decision to cut aid to Central American countries.

Only author Marianne Williamson talked about “American foreign policy in Latin America and how we might have in the last few decades contributed” to the situation — although she ran out of time before she could elaborate.

China

Ryan, Warren, Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, Yang, Buttigieg, and Hickenlooper mentioned China in connection to the outsourcing of jobs and the need to reform US trade policies. Yang cited Chinese “pirating” of US intellectual property as a major problem. Hickenlooper likewise criticized China’s “cheating and stealing.” Buttigieg and Yang both critiqued Trump’s tariffs against China as counterproductive.

Delaney, Klobuchar, Castro, and Ryan cited China as either the greatest, or one of the greatest, geopolitical threats the US faces. Hickenlooper and Yang said the US relationship with China was the most important to reset, so that the US and China can cooperate on global challenges like climate change, artificial intelligence, pandemics, and curbing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Russia

ORourke accused Vladimir Putin of “attack[ing] and invad[ing] our democracy.” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said that Russia was the US’s top geopolitical threat, for the same reason. Bennet called Russia “the biggest threat to our national security…because of what they’ve done with our election.” Klobuchar also mentioned Russian electoral interference, as did Yang and Harris. California Congressman Eric Swalwell insisted the US must “brea[k] up with Russia and mak[e] up with NATO.”

North Korea

O’Rourke, Harris, and Bennet all criticized Trump’s haphazard negotiations with North Korea, with Harris criticizing Trump for “embrac[ing] Kim Jong Un, a dictator, for the sake of a photo op.” Bennet called out Trump for failing to criticize North Korea and Russia while picking fights with US allies.

Yang called for cooperation with China to improve the situation with North Korea, the closest any Democratic candidate came to putting forward a strategy for peace and denuclearization in the Korean peninsula.

Afghanistan

Two candidates called for pulling US troops out of Afghanistan: Gabbard and Biden. Gabbard and Ryan got in a heated exchange over this issue when Ryan insisted that the US should “have some presence” in Afghanistan in order to prevent “bigger, bolder terrorist acts.” Gabbard argued that there was no reason to think the US would ever be able to “squash” the Taliban, and so the only responsible thing to do — given the financial and human costs of the war — was to pull out. She took Ryan to task for his suggestion that the Taliban was responsible for the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, reminding him that al-Qaeda, not the Taliban, was responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

Saudi Arabia and Yemen

Two candidates mentioned Saudi Arabia: Gabbard, in connection with their alleged “protect[ion]” of al-Qaeda, and Sanders, in connection with his opposition to US support for “the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, which is the most horrific humanitarian disaster on Earth.” Sanders was the only candidate to mention Yemen.

Europe, NATO, and Other Allies

When asked which relationship, as president, they would prioritize for a reset, Biden, Harris, and Swalwell all named NATO. Williamson said she most wanted a reset with “European leaders.” Bennet said he would prioritize a reset with “our European allies” — as well as Latin American countries, so that the US can work with them to alleviate the refugee crisis. Buttigieg argued that “our relationship with the entire world needs to change,” but specifically called for a reset with “our most important allies.”

Bennet argued that we must “restore the relationships that [Trump]’s destroyed with our allies, [and] not just in Europe” — specifically mentioning Germany and Japan. Klobuchar criticized Trump’s departure from the JCPOA as not “stand[ing] with our allies.” O’Rourke argued that any intervention to curb crimes against humanity should be “undertaken with allies and partners and friends.” Biden argued that we should never conduct an antiterrorism campaign “alone,” but in cooperation with “our alliances.”

War Powers Act

De Blasio and Sanders were the only candidates to mention the War Powers Act. De Blasio argued that, even in cases of crimes against humanity, the US military should not intervene in the absence of congressional authorization under the War Powers Act. Sanders mentioned that he “helped lead the effort for the first time to utilize the War Powers Act,” in order to end US backing for Saudi atrocities in Yemen.

Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF)

Biden said he would eliminate “the AUMF,” but also said he would “make sure that it could only be used for what its intent was, and that is to go after terrorists.” Since both the 2001 AUMF authorizing the “War on Terror” and the 2002 AUMF authorizing the invasion of Iraq remain operative, he may be implying that we should repeal only the Iraq AUMF and leave the War on Terror AUMF in place, while curtailing its overuse. However, his meaning was not clear. It is also surprising that, as the only person on stage who voted for both authorizations, he would also be the only one to propose repeal (of at least one).

United Nations

When asked what was the most important global relationship for the US to reset, Sanders said it was the US relationship with the United Nations, so that “we can solve conflicts without war, but with diplomacy.” He was the only candidate to mention any intergovernmental organization besides NATO.

Terrorism

Terrorism was hardly mentioned in the debates — a far cry from the degree of emphasis on this issue in the last two decades of US politics. Ryan mentioned the threat of terrorism during his exchange with Gabbard on Afghanistan, with Gabbard mentioning Saudi Arabia’s alleged support for al-Qaeda. Gillibrand argued that Trump’s funding for private detention centers had diverted funds from fighting “cross-border terrorism,” and Biden insisted his experience best prepared him for building the kind of cooperation that the United States needs to combat international terrorism.

What Was Left Out

Economic sanctions were not mentioned in the debates, nor was there mention of Cuba, where Trump has rolled back the Obama administration’s easing of restrictions. Brazil was not discussed, where Trump has embraced the far-right President Bolsonaro; nor Venezuela, where Trump has backed regime change by recognizing a parallel government and imposing sanctions that have led to the deaths of up to 40,000 people.

There was no mention of Egypt, where Trump has praised the extraordinarily brutal Sisi dictatorship; nor Libya, where Trump has supported the warlord Khalifa Haftar in that country’s ongoing civil war; nor Syria, where Trump has engaged in an illegal bombing campaign; nor Israel/Palestine, where Trump has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, cut off humanitarian aid to Palestinians, supported the annexation of the Golan Heights, and proposed a “peace deal” that seems to dial back the US’s longstanding commitment to a two-state solution.

Although there was a question on “crimes against humanity” and whether the US has a “responsibility to protect” (as it is known in foreign policy circles), the debate sidestepped mention of most countries ? including various US allies such as Colombia and the Philippines ? where such atrocities are happening, not in some hypothetical future, but in the present.

Despite a strong focus on immigration, no candidate mentioned the threatened tariffs against Mexico — designed, in an unprecedented fashion, as retaliation for Mexico’s (supposed) failure to stop asylum-seekers from reaching the US-Mexico border. Similarly, despite Trump’s heavy emphasis on trade in his 2016 campaign, no candidate said whether they would support the new NAFTA (the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA).

Conclusion

Jen Kirby at Vox argues that foreign policy was the “loser” of the Democratic debates. Kirby is right to say that many candidates’ answers “lacked substance.” However, it appears that the Trump administration’s unconventional approach to international relations means that foreign policy is very much up for discussion in 2020.

Given that foreign policy is an area where US presidents have great, unencumbered executive power, it is important that presidential candidates address a much wider range of foreign policy issues facing the country — and that they are pressed for specifics — so that voters can better understand where the real differences among them lie.

If voters are to make an informed choice for their next commander in chief, they need a real foreign policy debate.  

The first two Democratic Party presidential primary debates in Miami covered a lot of foreign policy ground — but it is a stretch to say the candidates’ statements rose to the level of a real “debate.” They tended to agree with one another and merely emphasize different priorities.

There were two exceptions to this consensus:

  1. Four candidates (former congressman of Maryland John Delaney, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, former HUD secretary Julián Castro, and Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio) called China one of the US’s greatest geopolitical threats, while two candidates (former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper and entrepreneur Andrew Yang) argued for a new relationship with China built on cooperation.

  2. Ryan argued for maintaining US engagement in Afghanistan, while Hawai’i Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and former vice president Joe Biden called, without reservations, for withdrawal.

Very little in these debates shed light on the differences among these candidates in how they would approach foreign policy if elected. However, given the great range of foreign policy issues raised, one can hope that the candidates will engage in a more robust conversation on foreign policy as the field winnows—including talking about many issues that have thus far been left out.

Here were some of the foreign policy issues the candidates discussed:

Climate

These debates marked a major shift in the extent to which presidential candidates have addressed climate change, with two candidates (California Senator Kamala Harris and Washington Governor Jay Inslee) referring to a “climate crisis.”

In fact, the 15 minutes of discussion dedicated to climate change, across the two debates, were greater than all the time spent on climate change during the nine Democratic primary debates in 2016.

Four candidates (Castro, Harris, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Biden) mentioned rejoining the Paris Agreement — and Castro said his first act as president would be to recommit to it. (According to The Washington Posts issues tracker, all 20 qualifying candidates have committed to rejoining the Paris Agreement.)

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts argued that federally funded research in green technologies should be made available to any companies that use it to manufacture products in the United States. Warren, Ryan, and Biden suggested that exporting green products should be a major part of US trade strategy going forward.

Four candidates called climate change either the single greatest “geopolitical threat” to the US, or among the greatest threats: former congressman Beto O’Rourke of Texas, Warren, Inslee, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Castro. Inslee made it clear that combating the climate crisis would be his first priority as president.

Iran

In the first debate, when candidates were asked to raise their hands if they would support reentering the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA or “Iran deal”), only Booker did not raise his hand. Although he acknowledged it was a “mistake to pull out of that deal,” he insisted he would try to “leverage a better deal.” (He did not elaborate.)

Klobuchar insisted that any military action against Iran should go before the Congress for approval. She also blamed Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA for “giv[ing] unlimited leverage to China and Russia.”

Gabbard, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand made clear their total opposition to a war in Iran, with Gabbard and Sanders insisting such a war would be far worse than the war in Iraq, leading to a regional disaster with much greater loss of life.

Gabbard, Sanders, Klobuchar, and O’Rourke all blamed Trump’s policies for making a war with Iran more likely, with Gabbard criticizing Trump’s “chickenhawk cabinet” — and specifically calling out Mike Pompeo and John Bolton.

When asked what she considered the greatest geopolitical threat to the United States, Klobuchar’s answer included “what’s going [on] in the Mideast with Iran.” When Gillibrand was asked which country she would most like to “reset” the US relationship with, she said it should be Iran, in order “to stabilize the Middle East and make sure we do not start an unwanted, never-ending war.”

Mexico and Central America

Both Ryan and Warren mentioned the flight of American jobs to Mexico and the need for an “industrial policy” focused on domestic manufacturing.

Castro was the only candidate to explicitly call for an end to Trump’s “remain in Mexico” policy, which requires asylum-seekers whose port of entry is on the US-Mexico border to remain in Mexico as their asylum claims are processed.

Given the humanitarian crisis at the border, engineered in part by Trump’s own actions, numerous candidates discussed factors pushing people to leave Central American countries. Four candidates (Castro, Booker, O’Rourke, and Biden) called for investing in the Central American countries most asylum-seekers come from. Castro called for a “Marshall Plan for Honduras and Guatemala and El Salvador,” and Biden called for a “surge immediately [of] billions of dollars’ worth of help to the region.” Both Booker and Castro criticized Trump’s decision to cut aid to Central American countries.

Only author Marianne Williamson talked about “American foreign policy in Latin America and how we might have in the last few decades contributed” to the situation — although she ran out of time before she could elaborate.

China

Ryan, Warren, Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, Yang, Buttigieg, and Hickenlooper mentioned China in connection to the outsourcing of jobs and the need to reform US trade policies. Yang cited Chinese “pirating” of US intellectual property as a major problem. Hickenlooper likewise criticized China’s “cheating and stealing.” Buttigieg and Yang both critiqued Trump’s tariffs against China as counterproductive.

Delaney, Klobuchar, Castro, and Ryan cited China as either the greatest, or one of the greatest, geopolitical threats the US faces. Hickenlooper and Yang said the US relationship with China was the most important to reset, so that the US and China can cooperate on global challenges like climate change, artificial intelligence, pandemics, and curbing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Russia

ORourke accused Vladimir Putin of “attack[ing] and invad[ing] our democracy.” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said that Russia was the US’s top geopolitical threat, for the same reason. Bennet called Russia “the biggest threat to our national security…because of what they’ve done with our election.” Klobuchar also mentioned Russian electoral interference, as did Yang and Harris. California Congressman Eric Swalwell insisted the US must “brea[k] up with Russia and mak[e] up with NATO.”

North Korea

O’Rourke, Harris, and Bennet all criticized Trump’s haphazard negotiations with North Korea, with Harris criticizing Trump for “embrac[ing] Kim Jong Un, a dictator, for the sake of a photo op.” Bennet called out Trump for failing to criticize North Korea and Russia while picking fights with US allies.

Yang called for cooperation with China to improve the situation with North Korea, the closest any Democratic candidate came to putting forward a strategy for peace and denuclearization in the Korean peninsula.

Afghanistan

Two candidates called for pulling US troops out of Afghanistan: Gabbard and Biden. Gabbard and Ryan got in a heated exchange over this issue when Ryan insisted that the US should “have some presence” in Afghanistan in order to prevent “bigger, bolder terrorist acts.” Gabbard argued that there was no reason to think the US would ever be able to “squash” the Taliban, and so the only responsible thing to do — given the financial and human costs of the war — was to pull out. She took Ryan to task for his suggestion that the Taliban was responsible for the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, reminding him that al-Qaeda, not the Taliban, was responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

Saudi Arabia and Yemen

Two candidates mentioned Saudi Arabia: Gabbard, in connection with their alleged “protect[ion]” of al-Qaeda, and Sanders, in connection with his opposition to US support for “the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, which is the most horrific humanitarian disaster on Earth.” Sanders was the only candidate to mention Yemen.

Europe, NATO, and Other Allies

When asked which relationship, as president, they would prioritize for a reset, Biden, Harris, and Swalwell all named NATO. Williamson said she most wanted a reset with “European leaders.” Bennet said he would prioritize a reset with “our European allies” — as well as Latin American countries, so that the US can work with them to alleviate the refugee crisis. Buttigieg argued that “our relationship with the entire world needs to change,” but specifically called for a reset with “our most important allies.”

Bennet argued that we must “restore the relationships that [Trump]’s destroyed with our allies, [and] not just in Europe” — specifically mentioning Germany and Japan. Klobuchar criticized Trump’s departure from the JCPOA as not “stand[ing] with our allies.” O’Rourke argued that any intervention to curb crimes against humanity should be “undertaken with allies and partners and friends.” Biden argued that we should never conduct an antiterrorism campaign “alone,” but in cooperation with “our alliances.”

War Powers Act

De Blasio and Sanders were the only candidates to mention the War Powers Act. De Blasio argued that, even in cases of crimes against humanity, the US military should not intervene in the absence of congressional authorization under the War Powers Act. Sanders mentioned that he “helped lead the effort for the first time to utilize the War Powers Act,” in order to end US backing for Saudi atrocities in Yemen.

Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF)

Biden said he would eliminate “the AUMF,” but also said he would “make sure that it could only be used for what its intent was, and that is to go after terrorists.” Since both the 2001 AUMF authorizing the “War on Terror” and the 2002 AUMF authorizing the invasion of Iraq remain operative, he may be implying that we should repeal only the Iraq AUMF and leave the War on Terror AUMF in place, while curtailing its overuse. However, his meaning was not clear. It is also surprising that, as the only person on stage who voted for both authorizations, he would also be the only one to propose repeal (of at least one).

United Nations

When asked what was the most important global relationship for the US to reset, Sanders said it was the US relationship with the United Nations, so that “we can solve conflicts without war, but with diplomacy.” He was the only candidate to mention any intergovernmental organization besides NATO.

Terrorism

Terrorism was hardly mentioned in the debates — a far cry from the degree of emphasis on this issue in the last two decades of US politics. Ryan mentioned the threat of terrorism during his exchange with Gabbard on Afghanistan, with Gabbard mentioning Saudi Arabia’s alleged support for al-Qaeda. Gillibrand argued that Trump’s funding for private detention centers had diverted funds from fighting “cross-border terrorism,” and Biden insisted his experience best prepared him for building the kind of cooperation that the United States needs to combat international terrorism.

What Was Left Out

Economic sanctions were not mentioned in the debates, nor was there mention of Cuba, where Trump has rolled back the Obama administration’s easing of restrictions. Brazil was not discussed, where Trump has embraced the far-right President Bolsonaro; nor Venezuela, where Trump has backed regime change by recognizing a parallel government and imposing sanctions that have led to the deaths of up to 40,000 people.

There was no mention of Egypt, where Trump has praised the extraordinarily brutal Sisi dictatorship; nor Libya, where Trump has supported the warlord Khalifa Haftar in that country’s ongoing civil war; nor Syria, where Trump has engaged in an illegal bombing campaign; nor Israel/Palestine, where Trump has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, cut off humanitarian aid to Palestinians, supported the annexation of the Golan Heights, and proposed a “peace deal” that seems to dial back the US’s longstanding commitment to a two-state solution.

Although there was a question on “crimes against humanity” and whether the US has a “responsibility to protect” (as it is known in foreign policy circles), the debate sidestepped mention of most countries ? including various US allies such as Colombia and the Philippines ? where such atrocities are happening, not in some hypothetical future, but in the present.

Despite a strong focus on immigration, no candidate mentioned the threatened tariffs against Mexico — designed, in an unprecedented fashion, as retaliation for Mexico’s (supposed) failure to stop asylum-seekers from reaching the US-Mexico border. Similarly, despite Trump’s heavy emphasis on trade in his 2016 campaign, no candidate said whether they would support the new NAFTA (the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA).

Conclusion

Jen Kirby at Vox argues that foreign policy was the “loser” of the Democratic debates. Kirby is right to say that many candidates’ answers “lacked substance.” However, it appears that the Trump administration’s unconventional approach to international relations means that foreign policy is very much up for discussion in 2020.

Given that foreign policy is an area where US presidents have great, unencumbered executive power, it is important that presidential candidates address a much wider range of foreign policy issues facing the country — and that they are pressed for specifics — so that voters can better understand where the real differences among them lie.

If voters are to make an informed choice for their next commander in chief, they need a real foreign policy debate.  

In our paper, “Sanctions as Collective Punishment: The Case of Venezuela,” we looked at some of the ways in which the sanctions on Venezuela imposed by the US government curtail access to essential and life-saving imports, and some of the data on impacts such as mortality. We concluded that US economic sanctions since August 2017 have likely caused a dire rise in mortality and a grave aggravation of Venezuela’s economic crisis. We concluded that the sanctions imposed since January will be much more devastating in terms of increased hunger and mortality, and of economic losses, than have the prior US executive orders and other economic sanctions.

The fact that these sanctions cause extreme suffering and deaths should not be a matter of dispute. If you cut off access to medicines, medical equipment, imports needed to maintain water and sanitation infrastructure, and for spare parts, and you prevent an economy that is in a deep depression from recovering, a lot of people are going to suffer diseases and premature mortality.

Economists Miguel Angel Santos and Ricardo Hausmann have challenged our claim that the sanctions dramatically worsened Venezuela’s crisis of oil production and exports, and therefore of the ability to finance food and medical imports.

In what follows, we look at their arguments, which are based on easily identified errors. 

Read the rest of the post below:

Economists Use “Fuzzy Graphs” to Challenge Data on the Human Cost of Trump Sanctions on Venezuela
How much suffering should the Venezuelan people incur, how much disease, hunger, and deaths, in order to achieve the Trump administration’s political goals in Venezuela? And why would they not consider a negotiated political solution instead of this mass suffering of civilians? These are questions that everyone who supports these cruel and illegal sanctions should answer.

Enter

keywords

In our paper, “Sanctions as Collective Punishment: The Case of Venezuela,” we looked at some of the ways in which the sanctions on Venezuela imposed by the US government curtail access to essential and life-saving imports, and some of the data on impacts such as mortality. We concluded that US economic sanctions since August 2017 have likely caused a dire rise in mortality and a grave aggravation of Venezuela’s economic crisis. We concluded that the sanctions imposed since January will be much more devastating in terms of increased hunger and mortality, and of economic losses, than have the prior US executive orders and other economic sanctions.

The fact that these sanctions cause extreme suffering and deaths should not be a matter of dispute. If you cut off access to medicines, medical equipment, imports needed to maintain water and sanitation infrastructure, and for spare parts, and you prevent an economy that is in a deep depression from recovering, a lot of people are going to suffer diseases and premature mortality.

Economists Miguel Angel Santos and Ricardo Hausmann have challenged our claim that the sanctions dramatically worsened Venezuela’s crisis of oil production and exports, and therefore of the ability to finance food and medical imports.

In what follows, we look at their arguments, which are based on easily identified errors. 

Read the rest of the post below:

Economists Use “Fuzzy Graphs” to Challenge Data on the Human Cost of Trump Sanctions on Venezuela
How much suffering should the Venezuelan people incur, how much disease, hunger, and deaths, in order to achieve the Trump administration’s political goals in Venezuela? And why would they not consider a negotiated political solution instead of this mass suffering of civilians? These are questions that everyone who supports these cruel and illegal sanctions should answer.

Enter

keywords

On January 23, the United States recognized Juan Guaidó as president of Venezuela. As CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot has pointed out in The Nation, this is not a merely diplomatic maneuver:

On January 23, the Trump administration announced that it was recognizing Juan Guaidó, currently head of the Venezuelan National Assembly, as “interim president” of the country. By doing so (together with politically allied countries), Washington basically imposed a trade embargo against Venezuela. This is because any revenue from oil sales to about three-quarters of Venezuela’s export markets?the United States and its allies?would no longer go to the government but to the “interim president.”

On Tuesday, the International Crisis Group’s Ivan Briscoe wrote in Foreign Affairs that around 90 percent of the Venezuelan population receives food aid from Maduro’s government, a crucial lifeline currently endangered by US policy:

The state now provides citizens with monthly boxes of subsidized rations that offer high-carb sustenance—pasta, rice, and flour—along with a few tins of tuna. According to a recent independent social survey, these boxes are now provided to more than seven million households, or around 90 percent of the population; a high-level government source estimates the cost at more than $400 million a month.

But the state’s food supply is now in peril. At the end of January, the United States sanctioned Venezuela’s state-run oil firm, PDVSA, which until then had been the Maduro government’s single largest source of hard currency. By freezing the proceeds on its purchases of Venezuelan oil, the United States hoped to starve the regime and convince factions within the government to abandon Maduro, making way for Guaidó and free elections.

In the Financial Times, noted Venezuelan economist Francisco Rodríguez wrote that humanitarian aid was inadequate to make up the shortfall resulting from Venezuela’s economic collapse:

While several governments have made commitments of humanitarian aid to Venezuela, the magnitude of that type of aid is far from what is needed to feed a nation of 30m people. Humanitarian aid is not normally intended as a substitute for an economy’s productive capacity, but rather to deliver medical and nutritional supplies to treat life-threatening malnutrition. The total of all the commitments made by the international community to date amount to $126m. This amount of aid would be the equivalent of just two weeks of what the country imported in food and medicines last year (when there was already substantial scarcity).

When discussing the foreign aid going into Venezuela, media coverage has often focused on that coming from Russia and China. But “The European Commission (EC) was the largest donor to organisations working inside Venezuela in 2018, according to the [UN’s Financial Tracking Service],” BBC’s Reality Check reported Thursday. “It has been sending humanitarian aid to Venezuela since 2016. The EC focuses on projects to improve access to food and nutrition, water, hygiene and sanitation for people in Venezuela.”

At a hearing of a subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week, Congressman Andy Levin (D-MI) pointedly questioned expert panelists about the Trump administration’s strategy and its impacts on the Venezuelan people:

Levin: The New York Times ran a story earlier this month on this very question and I think the headline said it all: “US Sanctions Are Aimed at Venezuela’s Oil. Its Citizens May Suffer First.” So my question is: could these particular sanctions worsen the humanitarian crisis that has already gotten so bad in Venezuela?

Marcela Escobari, Brookings Institution: I think the strategy is that one, of being able to starve Maduro of his ability to maintain himself in power….

Moises Rendon, Center for Strategic and International Studies: In a way, it’s going to limit Maduro [from] importing food and other products. It’s the only way the Venezuelan people are getting fed, by imports, so Maduro’s no longer gonna be able to import as much as before…

Levin: So we’re sort of playing a game of chicken with him, where at the risk of the people starving…

Rendon: I think the key part here, again, to the point of Guaidó’s government, is to make sure that he has the power to keep, and the national assembly, to import now. If we’re now recognizing Guaidó as the only legitimate president, we need to give him that power. And I think providing humanitarian aid is a first step.

Notwithstanding diplomatic recognition, there is no disputing that Maduro’s government overwhelmingly controls the country’s armed forces, ports, and borders. While the US insists that legitimate aid to Venezuela be channeled through Guaidó, it also must understand that he has no capacity to distribute it.

Venezuela’s opposition understands that its inability to effectively distribute aid does not diminish its effectiveness as a geopolitical strategy. CNN recently reported:

Guaido has thrown all his weight behind a “humanitarian channel” that would bring tons of much-needed aid from foreign countries into Venezuela. But the plan isn’t just benevolent — it’s also a direct jab at Maduro, who for years has denied that a humanitarian crisis was happening in Venezuela.

“The impact of the humanitarian aid is highly political,” admits Juan Miguel Matheus, an MP for the opposition. “Our first and primary goal is to provide relief for the Venezuelan population, but after that, with this move we want to checkmate Maduro.

“If the aid gets in, Maduro is shown to have lost control of the situation; if it doesn’t get in, we show that Maduro doesn’t care for the suffering of the people,” he says.

Meanwhile, major international aid groups with ongoing operations in Venezuela, including the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and Catholic Church-affiliated Caritas have not participated in US aid efforts and have expressed concerns about the politicization of aid.

On January 23, the United States recognized Juan Guaidó as president of Venezuela. As CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot has pointed out in The Nation, this is not a merely diplomatic maneuver:

On January 23, the Trump administration announced that it was recognizing Juan Guaidó, currently head of the Venezuelan National Assembly, as “interim president” of the country. By doing so (together with politically allied countries), Washington basically imposed a trade embargo against Venezuela. This is because any revenue from oil sales to about three-quarters of Venezuela’s export markets?the United States and its allies?would no longer go to the government but to the “interim president.”

On Tuesday, the International Crisis Group’s Ivan Briscoe wrote in Foreign Affairs that around 90 percent of the Venezuelan population receives food aid from Maduro’s government, a crucial lifeline currently endangered by US policy:

The state now provides citizens with monthly boxes of subsidized rations that offer high-carb sustenance—pasta, rice, and flour—along with a few tins of tuna. According to a recent independent social survey, these boxes are now provided to more than seven million households, or around 90 percent of the population; a high-level government source estimates the cost at more than $400 million a month.

But the state’s food supply is now in peril. At the end of January, the United States sanctioned Venezuela’s state-run oil firm, PDVSA, which until then had been the Maduro government’s single largest source of hard currency. By freezing the proceeds on its purchases of Venezuelan oil, the United States hoped to starve the regime and convince factions within the government to abandon Maduro, making way for Guaidó and free elections.

In the Financial Times, noted Venezuelan economist Francisco Rodríguez wrote that humanitarian aid was inadequate to make up the shortfall resulting from Venezuela’s economic collapse:

While several governments have made commitments of humanitarian aid to Venezuela, the magnitude of that type of aid is far from what is needed to feed a nation of 30m people. Humanitarian aid is not normally intended as a substitute for an economy’s productive capacity, but rather to deliver medical and nutritional supplies to treat life-threatening malnutrition. The total of all the commitments made by the international community to date amount to $126m. This amount of aid would be the equivalent of just two weeks of what the country imported in food and medicines last year (when there was already substantial scarcity).

When discussing the foreign aid going into Venezuela, media coverage has often focused on that coming from Russia and China. But “The European Commission (EC) was the largest donor to organisations working inside Venezuela in 2018, according to the [UN’s Financial Tracking Service],” BBC’s Reality Check reported Thursday. “It has been sending humanitarian aid to Venezuela since 2016. The EC focuses on projects to improve access to food and nutrition, water, hygiene and sanitation for people in Venezuela.”

At a hearing of a subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week, Congressman Andy Levin (D-MI) pointedly questioned expert panelists about the Trump administration’s strategy and its impacts on the Venezuelan people:

Levin: The New York Times ran a story earlier this month on this very question and I think the headline said it all: “US Sanctions Are Aimed at Venezuela’s Oil. Its Citizens May Suffer First.” So my question is: could these particular sanctions worsen the humanitarian crisis that has already gotten so bad in Venezuela?

Marcela Escobari, Brookings Institution: I think the strategy is that one, of being able to starve Maduro of his ability to maintain himself in power….

Moises Rendon, Center for Strategic and International Studies: In a way, it’s going to limit Maduro [from] importing food and other products. It’s the only way the Venezuelan people are getting fed, by imports, so Maduro’s no longer gonna be able to import as much as before…

Levin: So we’re sort of playing a game of chicken with him, where at the risk of the people starving…

Rendon: I think the key part here, again, to the point of Guaidó’s government, is to make sure that he has the power to keep, and the national assembly, to import now. If we’re now recognizing Guaidó as the only legitimate president, we need to give him that power. And I think providing humanitarian aid is a first step.

Notwithstanding diplomatic recognition, there is no disputing that Maduro’s government overwhelmingly controls the country’s armed forces, ports, and borders. While the US insists that legitimate aid to Venezuela be channeled through Guaidó, it also must understand that he has no capacity to distribute it.

Venezuela’s opposition understands that its inability to effectively distribute aid does not diminish its effectiveness as a geopolitical strategy. CNN recently reported:

Guaido has thrown all his weight behind a “humanitarian channel” that would bring tons of much-needed aid from foreign countries into Venezuela. But the plan isn’t just benevolent — it’s also a direct jab at Maduro, who for years has denied that a humanitarian crisis was happening in Venezuela.

“The impact of the humanitarian aid is highly political,” admits Juan Miguel Matheus, an MP for the opposition. “Our first and primary goal is to provide relief for the Venezuelan population, but after that, with this move we want to checkmate Maduro.

“If the aid gets in, Maduro is shown to have lost control of the situation; if it doesn’t get in, we show that Maduro doesn’t care for the suffering of the people,” he says.

Meanwhile, major international aid groups with ongoing operations in Venezuela, including the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and Catholic Church-affiliated Caritas have not participated in US aid efforts and have expressed concerns about the politicization of aid.

Last week, humanitarian aid was at the center of discussion of the Venezuela crisis in the US, and evidently at the center of Juan Guaidó’s plans to challenge the Maduro government’s hold on power in the country. The New York Times noted that:

The battle over the legitimate leadership of Venezuela — which has included rallies of thousands, international diplomacy and oil sanctions — is now focused on a single heavily guarded shipment of humanitarian aid.

Venezuela’s opposition, which has relished a month of victories in its effort to challenge President Nicolás Maduro and take over as the country’s legitimate government, brought the donated supplies of food and medical kits to the country’s border with Colombia.

Its goal was to bring the supplies into Venezuela, forcing a confrontation with Mr. Maduro, who has refused the help. This would cast Mr. Maduro in a bad light, opposition leaders said, and display their ability to set up a government-like relief system in a nation where the crumbling economy has left many starving, sick and without access to medicine.

Meanwhile, the Red Cross and the United Nations have criticized the US approach as politicizing crucial aid and potentially undermining their ongoing work in the country. From the Associated Press:

Alexandra Boivin, ICRC delegation head for the United States and Canada, said Friday that the ICRC had told U.S. officials that whatever plans “they have to help the people of Venezuela, it has to be shielded from this political conversation.”

“It is obviously a very difficult conversation to have with the U.S.,” she said. “We are there also to make clear the risks of the path being taken, the limits of our ability to operate in such an environment.”

And Reuters reported:

“Humanitarian action needs to be independent of political, military or other objectives,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters in New York.

“When we see the present stand-off it becomes even more clear that serious political negotiations between the parties are necessary to find a solution leading to lasting peace for the people of Venezuela,” he said.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation explained, following investigation by Justin Emery and FAIR.org, that while the CBC and many other outlets shared photos and reports of a bridge allegedly blocked by Maduro’s government to prevent the distribution of aid, the bridge had in fact never been opened:

Over the past week or so, the image of a blockaded bridge between Colombia and Venezuela has been all over news sites around the world. It’s been featured in stories describing how the president of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, is keeping international food aid from his desperate citizens.

Trouble is, the photo doesn’t tell the full story…

The bridge, which spans between Cucuta, Colombia, and the town of Pedro Maria Urena in Venezuela, hadn’t been open for years. In fact, it’s never been open.

As the CBC points out, the image came from a tweet by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

On Wednesday, Congressman David Cicilline (D-RI) questioned USAID Acting Assistant Administrator Steve Olive about the politicization of aid in a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Venezuela:

Cicilline: …would you say that in order to provide life-saving assistance in war-zones and dangerous areas humanitarians need to be able to operate in a neutral and apolitical way?

Olive: Correct.

Cicilline: Is it true that the US through USAID is prepositioning humanitarian aid at the border with Venezuela?

Olive: Yes, we are.

Cicilline: Do you have any concerns that tying humanitarian assistance to a particular political outcome could have unintended consequences or harm our ability to deliver assistance in Venezuela or to other countries and what steps is the administration taking to ensure aid does not become a flashpoint?

Olive: Administrator Green has said we will always, as the US Government, be ready to help those in need. There are people in need in our hemisphere right now as a result of this crisis and we already are supporting them in these border areas and doing what we can to build the capacity in country to receive and distribute aid securely and efficiently and be able to monitor those distributions and that is our focus.

Researchers Tim Gill and Rebecca Hanson wrote at The Nation last week that USAID had in fact been deeply involved in fomenting and supporting the student opposition movements that developed Guaidó as a leader:

A former USAID/OTI member who helped devise US efforts in Venezuela said the “objective was that you had thousands of youth, high school, and college kids…that were horrified of this Indian-looking guy in power. They were idealistic. We wanted to help them to build a civic organization, so that they could mobilize and organize. This is different than protesting.” In other words, USAID/OTI sought to take advantage of racialized fear of Chávez to organize middle-class youth around a long-term strategy to defeat him.

How exactly did the United States help these students? One USAID/OTI contractor who worked directly with them on a routine basis revealed to Gill that Washington provided funding and training to the student groups that developed at the same time Guaidó was part of them.

The Venezuelan government alleged that a US company is shipping weapons to its opposition as a Canadian analyst spotted what he considered to be unusual cargo plane movements. McClatchy reported:

An Ottawa-based analyst of unusual ship and plane movements, Steffan Watkins, drew attention to the frequent flights of the 21 Air cargo plane in a series of tweets Thursday.

“All year, they were flying between Philadelphia and Miami and all over the place, but all continental U.S.,” Watkins said in a telephone interview. “Then all of a sudden in January, things changed.”

That’s when the cargo plane began flying to destinations in Colombia and Venezuela on a daily basis, and sometimes multiple times a day, Watkins said. The plane has made close to 40 round-trip flights from Miami International Airport to Caracas and Valencia in Venezuela, and Bogota and Medellin in Colombia since Jan. 11.

The air cargo company involved and its client denied the allegations, but 21 Air is itself linked to a company alleged by Amnesty International to have been involved in a CIA rendition program.

It’s worth noting that Elliott Abrams, the Trump administration’s special envoy to Venezuela, is notorious in part for his role in covering up the US-sponsored smuggling of arms shipments into Nicaragua under the guise of humanitarian aid. As the Los Angeles Times reported in 1987:

Oliver L. North and other Reagan Administration aides deliberately used a 1986 program of “humanitarian aid” for Nicaraguan rebels to help support the secret effort to deliver military aid to the contras , U.S. officials said Monday…

The aid was administered by the State Department’s Nicaraguan Humanitarian Assistance Office, but officials said that all significant decisions were made by a “Restricted Inter-Agency Group,” consisting of North, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams and Alan D. Fiers, chief of the CIA’s Central America Task Force.

Underlying all this discussion over humanitarian aid is the devastating impact of US sanctions on Venezuela, which were intensified last month but have been in place for years. As CEPR co-Director Mark Weisbrot wrote at The Intercept:

Though the government’s economic policies have played a role in Venezuela’s woes, the Trump sanctions have made things considerably worse since August 2017, decimating the oil industry and worsening shortages of medicine that have killed many Venezuelans. The Trump sanctions also make it nearly impossible for the government to take the necessary measures to exit from hyperinflation and depression.

Though the U.S. media is quiet on the matter, it’s important to note that the Trump sanctions are both violently immoral — again, they kill people — and illegal. They are prohibited under the Organization of American States Charter, the United Nations Charter, and other international conventions that the U.S. is party to. The sanctions also violate U.S. law, since the U.S. president must state, absurdly, that Venezuela presents “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security” of the United States in order to impose these measures.

Last week, humanitarian aid was at the center of discussion of the Venezuela crisis in the US, and evidently at the center of Juan Guaidó’s plans to challenge the Maduro government’s hold on power in the country. The New York Times noted that:

The battle over the legitimate leadership of Venezuela — which has included rallies of thousands, international diplomacy and oil sanctions — is now focused on a single heavily guarded shipment of humanitarian aid.

Venezuela’s opposition, which has relished a month of victories in its effort to challenge President Nicolás Maduro and take over as the country’s legitimate government, brought the donated supplies of food and medical kits to the country’s border with Colombia.

Its goal was to bring the supplies into Venezuela, forcing a confrontation with Mr. Maduro, who has refused the help. This would cast Mr. Maduro in a bad light, opposition leaders said, and display their ability to set up a government-like relief system in a nation where the crumbling economy has left many starving, sick and without access to medicine.

Meanwhile, the Red Cross and the United Nations have criticized the US approach as politicizing crucial aid and potentially undermining their ongoing work in the country. From the Associated Press:

Alexandra Boivin, ICRC delegation head for the United States and Canada, said Friday that the ICRC had told U.S. officials that whatever plans “they have to help the people of Venezuela, it has to be shielded from this political conversation.”

“It is obviously a very difficult conversation to have with the U.S.,” she said. “We are there also to make clear the risks of the path being taken, the limits of our ability to operate in such an environment.”

And Reuters reported:

“Humanitarian action needs to be independent of political, military or other objectives,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters in New York.

“When we see the present stand-off it becomes even more clear that serious political negotiations between the parties are necessary to find a solution leading to lasting peace for the people of Venezuela,” he said.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation explained, following investigation by Justin Emery and FAIR.org, that while the CBC and many other outlets shared photos and reports of a bridge allegedly blocked by Maduro’s government to prevent the distribution of aid, the bridge had in fact never been opened:

Over the past week or so, the image of a blockaded bridge between Colombia and Venezuela has been all over news sites around the world. It’s been featured in stories describing how the president of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, is keeping international food aid from his desperate citizens.

Trouble is, the photo doesn’t tell the full story…

The bridge, which spans between Cucuta, Colombia, and the town of Pedro Maria Urena in Venezuela, hadn’t been open for years. In fact, it’s never been open.

As the CBC points out, the image came from a tweet by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

On Wednesday, Congressman David Cicilline (D-RI) questioned USAID Acting Assistant Administrator Steve Olive about the politicization of aid in a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Venezuela:

Cicilline: …would you say that in order to provide life-saving assistance in war-zones and dangerous areas humanitarians need to be able to operate in a neutral and apolitical way?

Olive: Correct.

Cicilline: Is it true that the US through USAID is prepositioning humanitarian aid at the border with Venezuela?

Olive: Yes, we are.

Cicilline: Do you have any concerns that tying humanitarian assistance to a particular political outcome could have unintended consequences or harm our ability to deliver assistance in Venezuela or to other countries and what steps is the administration taking to ensure aid does not become a flashpoint?

Olive: Administrator Green has said we will always, as the US Government, be ready to help those in need. There are people in need in our hemisphere right now as a result of this crisis and we already are supporting them in these border areas and doing what we can to build the capacity in country to receive and distribute aid securely and efficiently and be able to monitor those distributions and that is our focus.

Researchers Tim Gill and Rebecca Hanson wrote at The Nation last week that USAID had in fact been deeply involved in fomenting and supporting the student opposition movements that developed Guaidó as a leader:

A former USAID/OTI member who helped devise US efforts in Venezuela said the “objective was that you had thousands of youth, high school, and college kids…that were horrified of this Indian-looking guy in power. They were idealistic. We wanted to help them to build a civic organization, so that they could mobilize and organize. This is different than protesting.” In other words, USAID/OTI sought to take advantage of racialized fear of Chávez to organize middle-class youth around a long-term strategy to defeat him.

How exactly did the United States help these students? One USAID/OTI contractor who worked directly with them on a routine basis revealed to Gill that Washington provided funding and training to the student groups that developed at the same time Guaidó was part of them.

The Venezuelan government alleged that a US company is shipping weapons to its opposition as a Canadian analyst spotted what he considered to be unusual cargo plane movements. McClatchy reported:

An Ottawa-based analyst of unusual ship and plane movements, Steffan Watkins, drew attention to the frequent flights of the 21 Air cargo plane in a series of tweets Thursday.

“All year, they were flying between Philadelphia and Miami and all over the place, but all continental U.S.,” Watkins said in a telephone interview. “Then all of a sudden in January, things changed.”

That’s when the cargo plane began flying to destinations in Colombia and Venezuela on a daily basis, and sometimes multiple times a day, Watkins said. The plane has made close to 40 round-trip flights from Miami International Airport to Caracas and Valencia in Venezuela, and Bogota and Medellin in Colombia since Jan. 11.

The air cargo company involved and its client denied the allegations, but 21 Air is itself linked to a company alleged by Amnesty International to have been involved in a CIA rendition program.

It’s worth noting that Elliott Abrams, the Trump administration’s special envoy to Venezuela, is notorious in part for his role in covering up the US-sponsored smuggling of arms shipments into Nicaragua under the guise of humanitarian aid. As the Los Angeles Times reported in 1987:

Oliver L. North and other Reagan Administration aides deliberately used a 1986 program of “humanitarian aid” for Nicaraguan rebels to help support the secret effort to deliver military aid to the contras , U.S. officials said Monday…

The aid was administered by the State Department’s Nicaraguan Humanitarian Assistance Office, but officials said that all significant decisions were made by a “Restricted Inter-Agency Group,” consisting of North, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams and Alan D. Fiers, chief of the CIA’s Central America Task Force.

Underlying all this discussion over humanitarian aid is the devastating impact of US sanctions on Venezuela, which were intensified last month but have been in place for years. As CEPR co-Director Mark Weisbrot wrote at The Intercept:

Though the government’s economic policies have played a role in Venezuela’s woes, the Trump sanctions have made things considerably worse since August 2017, decimating the oil industry and worsening shortages of medicine that have killed many Venezuelans. The Trump sanctions also make it nearly impossible for the government to take the necessary measures to exit from hyperinflation and depression.

Though the U.S. media is quiet on the matter, it’s important to note that the Trump sanctions are both violently immoral — again, they kill people — and illegal. They are prohibited under the Organization of American States Charter, the United Nations Charter, and other international conventions that the U.S. is party to. The sanctions also violate U.S. law, since the U.S. president must state, absurdly, that Venezuela presents “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security” of the United States in order to impose these measures.

Last week, the US formally adopted sanctions on Venezuelan national oil company PDVSA, as well as on CITGO, its US-based distribution arm, as part of its press for regime change in Caracas. National Security Advisor John Bolton estimated the actions would affect some $7 billion in assets and would block $11 billion in revenue to the Venezuelan government over the next year. The State Department was quick to add, “These new sanctions do not target the innocent people of Venezuela…”

But of course they do. The Wall Street Journal reported:

The sanctions could create deeper gasoline shortages in Venezuela. The country’s refineries are already operating at a fraction of their capacity, crippled by a lack of spare parts and crude. Venezuela only produced a third of the 190,000 barrels of gasoline it consumed a day as of November, according to Ivan Freites, a leader of the country’s oil union.

“Immediately, it’s going to hurt the average Venezuelan,” Mr. Freites said.

Meanwhile, The New York Times noted:

But just across the street, a group of senior citizens waiting in line to collect their pensions worried that the Trump administration’s actions would further bankrupt their country and deepen the humanitarian crisis that has left so many starving, sick and without basic services.

“The United States has no business meddling in this,” said Aura Ramos, 59, a retiree who can barely afford blood pressure medicine. “It’s the regular people who will be affected.”

The Washington Office on Latin America released a statement criticizing the announced sanctions, writing:

However, we are deeply concerned at the potential for the recently announced U.S. sanctions to intensify the severe hardships and suffering that millions of Venezuelans are enduring. Venezuelans are already facing widespread scarcities of essential medicines and basic goods. Venezuela’s oil exports represent the main source of hard currency used to pay for imports. Without this revenue, it is clear that the importation of food and medicine could be put at risk. In turn, this will further accelerate a migration and refugee crisis that has strained neighboring countries and put many of the over 3 million Venezuelan migrants and refugees at risk.

It appears as though there is increasing acceptance of the basic fact that the US sanctions on Venezuela will have a negative impact on the people of Venezuela, but all this analysis misses two important points. First, the Trump administration had already imposed broad economic sanctions in 2017, though apparently both The Wall Street Journal and New York Times were unaware of this development.

From the same WSJ article:

…this week’s sanctions mark the first targeting of Venezuela’s lifeblood industry, which accounts for nearly all of the country’s hard currency income. Until now, U.S. sanctions were largely limited to individuals in Venezuela’s regime.

Another example from a NYT article a few days earlier:

The oil sanctions amount to the first punitive action taken by the United States against Mr. Maduro since the power struggle in Caracas erupted last week, and it is intended to starve the government of Mr. Maduro of cash and foreign currency. Oil production in Venezuela has already plummeted because of mismanagement and poor policies, and the country’s economy is in shambles.

These examples are certainly not alone in their misunderstanding of the sanctions ? and their impact on the oil industry. But it’s not terribly difficult to find information on the impact of the 2017 sanctions. Venezuelan economist Francisco Rodríguez provided a useful analysis last year explaining just this ? and it is even in English.

Rodríguez’s basic story: the oil industry is critical to the Venezuelan government; underinvestment and the rapid decline in oil prices caused a significant drop in revenue; then, as oil prices began increasing, Trump imposed sanctions making any international financial transaction extremely difficult and potentially “toxic.” Rodríguez explains, using this graph of oil production in Venezuela and Colombia, how Venezuelan and Colombian oil production both declined at the same rate, until the Trump financial embargo was implemented in August 2017. Then, Venezuela’s oil production collapsed:

campbell americas blog 2019 01 fig 1

It is striking that the second change in trend in Venezuela’s production numbers occurs at the time at which the United States decided to impose financial sanctions on Venezuela. Executive Order 13.808, issued on August 25 of 2017, barred U.S. persons from providing new financing to the Venezuelan government or PDVSA. Although the order carved out allowances for commercial credit of less than 90 days, it stopped the country from issuing new debt or selling previously issued debt currently in its possession.

The Executive Order is part of a broader process of what one could term the “toxification” of financial dealings with Venezuela. During 2017, it became increasingly clear that institutions who decided to enter into financial arrangements with Venezuela would have to be willing to pay high reputational and regulatory costs. This was partly the result of a strategic decision by the Venezuelan opposition, in itself a response to the growing authoritarianism of the Maduro government.

It’s not just the the media’s apparent amnesia with regard to those 2017 sanctions and their impact on the oil industry that is the problem here. In fact, the impact of those sanctions was even larger. As my colleague, Mark Weisbrot has previously explained, and as Rodríguez notes in the same article linked above, the sanctions made it virtually impossible for the Venezuela government to take the measures necessary to eliminate hyperinflation or recover from a deep depression. Such measures would include debt restructuring, and creating a new exchange rate system (Exchange Rate Bases Stabilization), in which the currency would normally be pegged to the dollar.

But it actually gets worse. When the US first announced its recognition of Juan Guaidó as president of Venezuela on January 23, the decision was met largely with applause within the foreign policy establishment. It seemed like nobody bothered to think about what, practically and economically, the decision would mean. Since Trump’s election, and his increasingly threatening rhetoric in relation to Venezuela, there has been wide agreement that a full-scale oil embargo would be terrible, both for Venezuela and the US. Yet somehow hardly anyone realized that by recognizing Guaidó, the US was de facto putting an oil embargo in place. Once again we turn to Rodríguez who, for what it’s worth, has been publicly supportive of the decision to recognize Guaidó and wrote the following on January 28,[1] a day before the most recently announced sanctions:

By giving it the legal authority to invoice Venezuelan oil, the decision to recognize the Guaidó administration, therefore, would have the same implications for bilateral trade of an oil embargo. Applied by the countries that provide for nearly three-fourths of Venezuela’s imports, the decisions can be expected to have a significant effect on the country’s capacity both to produce oil and import goods. As a result, we expect Venezuela’s oil production to decline by 640tbd to 508tbd in 2019 (a fall of 55.7%), as opposed to our prior forecast of 1,070tbd. Exports will fall to USD 13.5bn (USD 12.3bn from oil), nearly half our previous estimate of USD 23.8bn. Imports of goods will decline to USD 7.0bn, a 40.3% decline (we expect the entrance of some humanitarian aid as well as the default on payments of all debt to cushion the fall). Venezuela’s economy is highly import dependent, as illustrated by the strong empirical correlation between import and GDP growth. As a result of the additional import crunch, we expect Venezuela’s economy to contract by 26.4%, as opposed to our previous forecast of 11.7%.

The impact is clear. The decision to formally recognize Guaidó will have a massive economic impact on the people of Venezuela ? irrespective of sanctions, oil embargos or whatever else is announced. The Trump administration succeeded in de facto implementing an oil embargo, without taking any of the heat they would have if it were done explicitly. And then this week, the Trump administration announced broader trade sanctions that appeared to make explicit by the recognition of a parallel government, with some specific carve outs for American oil companies already in Venezuela, like Chevron and Halliburton.

Of course, there are plenty of people who will argue that this pain and suffering is worth it in order to force Maduro from power. That’s their right, but the media should force them to make that argument openly, and honestly confront the pain and suffering these policies will inflict.

Finally, if asking for the media to get the sanctions story right is too much, maybe they can give some coverage to the fact that National Security Advisor John Bolton went on national TV and openly said the following:

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 would be good for the people of Venezuela. It would be good for the people of the United States. We both have a lot at stake here making this come out the right way.

A decimated oil industry in the nation with the largest proven oil reserves in the world would appear to serve some alternative interests beyond “democracy” and “human rights.”


[1] Francisco Rodríguez, “Ecuador & Venezuela This Week,” Torino Economics and Torino Capital Group Company, January 28, 2019.

Last week, the US formally adopted sanctions on Venezuelan national oil company PDVSA, as well as on CITGO, its US-based distribution arm, as part of its press for regime change in Caracas. National Security Advisor John Bolton estimated the actions would affect some $7 billion in assets and would block $11 billion in revenue to the Venezuelan government over the next year. The State Department was quick to add, “These new sanctions do not target the innocent people of Venezuela…”

But of course they do. The Wall Street Journal reported:

The sanctions could create deeper gasoline shortages in Venezuela. The country’s refineries are already operating at a fraction of their capacity, crippled by a lack of spare parts and crude. Venezuela only produced a third of the 190,000 barrels of gasoline it consumed a day as of November, according to Ivan Freites, a leader of the country’s oil union.

“Immediately, it’s going to hurt the average Venezuelan,” Mr. Freites said.

Meanwhile, The New York Times noted:

But just across the street, a group of senior citizens waiting in line to collect their pensions worried that the Trump administration’s actions would further bankrupt their country and deepen the humanitarian crisis that has left so many starving, sick and without basic services.

“The United States has no business meddling in this,” said Aura Ramos, 59, a retiree who can barely afford blood pressure medicine. “It’s the regular people who will be affected.”

The Washington Office on Latin America released a statement criticizing the announced sanctions, writing:

However, we are deeply concerned at the potential for the recently announced U.S. sanctions to intensify the severe hardships and suffering that millions of Venezuelans are enduring. Venezuelans are already facing widespread scarcities of essential medicines and basic goods. Venezuela’s oil exports represent the main source of hard currency used to pay for imports. Without this revenue, it is clear that the importation of food and medicine could be put at risk. In turn, this will further accelerate a migration and refugee crisis that has strained neighboring countries and put many of the over 3 million Venezuelan migrants and refugees at risk.

It appears as though there is increasing acceptance of the basic fact that the US sanctions on Venezuela will have a negative impact on the people of Venezuela, but all this analysis misses two important points. First, the Trump administration had already imposed broad economic sanctions in 2017, though apparently both The Wall Street Journal and New York Times were unaware of this development.

From the same WSJ article:

…this week’s sanctions mark the first targeting of Venezuela’s lifeblood industry, which accounts for nearly all of the country’s hard currency income. Until now, U.S. sanctions were largely limited to individuals in Venezuela’s regime.

Another example from a NYT article a few days earlier:

The oil sanctions amount to the first punitive action taken by the United States against Mr. Maduro since the power struggle in Caracas erupted last week, and it is intended to starve the government of Mr. Maduro of cash and foreign currency. Oil production in Venezuela has already plummeted because of mismanagement and poor policies, and the country’s economy is in shambles.

These examples are certainly not alone in their misunderstanding of the sanctions ? and their impact on the oil industry. But it’s not terribly difficult to find information on the impact of the 2017 sanctions. Venezuelan economist Francisco Rodríguez provided a useful analysis last year explaining just this ? and it is even in English.

Rodríguez’s basic story: the oil industry is critical to the Venezuelan government; underinvestment and the rapid decline in oil prices caused a significant drop in revenue; then, as oil prices began increasing, Trump imposed sanctions making any international financial transaction extremely difficult and potentially “toxic.” Rodríguez explains, using this graph of oil production in Venezuela and Colombia, how Venezuelan and Colombian oil production both declined at the same rate, until the Trump financial embargo was implemented in August 2017. Then, Venezuela’s oil production collapsed:

campbell americas blog 2019 01 fig 1

It is striking that the second change in trend in Venezuela’s production numbers occurs at the time at which the United States decided to impose financial sanctions on Venezuela. Executive Order 13.808, issued on August 25 of 2017, barred U.S. persons from providing new financing to the Venezuelan government or PDVSA. Although the order carved out allowances for commercial credit of less than 90 days, it stopped the country from issuing new debt or selling previously issued debt currently in its possession.

The Executive Order is part of a broader process of what one could term the “toxification” of financial dealings with Venezuela. During 2017, it became increasingly clear that institutions who decided to enter into financial arrangements with Venezuela would have to be willing to pay high reputational and regulatory costs. This was partly the result of a strategic decision by the Venezuelan opposition, in itself a response to the growing authoritarianism of the Maduro government.

It’s not just the the media’s apparent amnesia with regard to those 2017 sanctions and their impact on the oil industry that is the problem here. In fact, the impact of those sanctions was even larger. As my colleague, Mark Weisbrot has previously explained, and as Rodríguez notes in the same article linked above, the sanctions made it virtually impossible for the Venezuela government to take the measures necessary to eliminate hyperinflation or recover from a deep depression. Such measures would include debt restructuring, and creating a new exchange rate system (Exchange Rate Bases Stabilization), in which the currency would normally be pegged to the dollar.

But it actually gets worse. When the US first announced its recognition of Juan Guaidó as president of Venezuela on January 23, the decision was met largely with applause within the foreign policy establishment. It seemed like nobody bothered to think about what, practically and economically, the decision would mean. Since Trump’s election, and his increasingly threatening rhetoric in relation to Venezuela, there has been wide agreement that a full-scale oil embargo would be terrible, both for Venezuela and the US. Yet somehow hardly anyone realized that by recognizing Guaidó, the US was de facto putting an oil embargo in place. Once again we turn to Rodríguez who, for what it’s worth, has been publicly supportive of the decision to recognize Guaidó and wrote the following on January 28,[1] a day before the most recently announced sanctions:

By giving it the legal authority to invoice Venezuelan oil, the decision to recognize the Guaidó administration, therefore, would have the same implications for bilateral trade of an oil embargo. Applied by the countries that provide for nearly three-fourths of Venezuela’s imports, the decisions can be expected to have a significant effect on the country’s capacity both to produce oil and import goods. As a result, we expect Venezuela’s oil production to decline by 640tbd to 508tbd in 2019 (a fall of 55.7%), as opposed to our prior forecast of 1,070tbd. Exports will fall to USD 13.5bn (USD 12.3bn from oil), nearly half our previous estimate of USD 23.8bn. Imports of goods will decline to USD 7.0bn, a 40.3% decline (we expect the entrance of some humanitarian aid as well as the default on payments of all debt to cushion the fall). Venezuela’s economy is highly import dependent, as illustrated by the strong empirical correlation between import and GDP growth. As a result of the additional import crunch, we expect Venezuela’s economy to contract by 26.4%, as opposed to our previous forecast of 11.7%.

The impact is clear. The decision to formally recognize Guaidó will have a massive economic impact on the people of Venezuela ? irrespective of sanctions, oil embargos or whatever else is announced. The Trump administration succeeded in de facto implementing an oil embargo, without taking any of the heat they would have if it were done explicitly. And then this week, the Trump administration announced broader trade sanctions that appeared to make explicit by the recognition of a parallel government, with some specific carve outs for American oil companies already in Venezuela, like Chevron and Halliburton.

Of course, there are plenty of people who will argue that this pain and suffering is worth it in order to force Maduro from power. That’s their right, but the media should force them to make that argument openly, and honestly confront the pain and suffering these policies will inflict.

Finally, if asking for the media to get the sanctions story right is too much, maybe they can give some coverage to the fact that National Security Advisor John Bolton went on national TV and openly said the following:

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 would be good for the people of Venezuela. It would be good for the people of the United States. We both have a lot at stake here making this come out the right way.

A decimated oil industry in the nation with the largest proven oil reserves in the world would appear to serve some alternative interests beyond “democracy” and “human rights.”


[1] Francisco Rodríguez, “Ecuador & Venezuela This Week,” Torino Economics and Torino Capital Group Company, January 28, 2019.

Puerto Rico’s economy has had considerable problems over the last decade, and Hurricane Maria, which struck the island just over one year ago and was the worst natural disaster on record in Puerto Rican history, greatly exacerbated them.

Despite nearly unanimous recognition of the island’s ongoing economic woes, Governor Ricardo Rosselló touted employment growth last month as the economy gained 100 jobs in July (this was revised down to a loss of 400 jobs). Rosselló was looking at the household survey, which surveys people, rather than the establishment survey, which surveys businesses — and is the standard for reporting month-to-month employment numbers. (The household survey, which Rosselló used, might be better at including the informal sector, but it’s worse at reliably tracking jobs created and lost.) Employment fell in August as well, with another 1,000 jobs lost. Rosselló has claimed the island is seeing an “economic recovery.”

Based on the establishment survey, there is little to celebrate. From January 2013 to August 2017 (right before the storm), the economy was losing about 1,100 jobs per month (or around 400 private sector jobs per month). In January 2017, the government enacted labor reforms that were supposed to boost the economy and stem these losses. Those policies limited bonuses and paid leave, loosened hours requirements for employers, and reduced overtime benefits among other changes. These reforms were unpopular, and they also failed to curb job loss. From the enactment of the reforms until the hurricane, employment decreased by 14,700 (5,600 private sector), and the rate of loss actually increased to 1,800 jobs per month (700 private sector). Including the time since the hurricane, employment is down by 40,500, or 23,700 private sector jobs.

Hurricane Maria explains much of the decline over the last year. In addition to the lives lost and the catastrophic damage, the storm significantly impacted Puerto Rico’s labor market. In the month after, the island of around 3.3 million people lost almost 40,000 jobs, with total employment plummeting to 836,200 (the lowest level since the early 1990s). Since the hurricane, the economy has gained back just 14,000 jobs, or around 1,300 per month (although much of the gains were directly following the storm). Still, employment is down by about 26,000 over the last year (nearly 3.0 percent of total employment). Although Puerto Rico was losing jobs prior to the storm, the current level of employment is below what had been the trend from 2013 until the hurricane. If the economy had followed this trend, there would be over 12,000 more jobs on the island.

The story changes depending on the sector. Some sectors follow the overall trend, although there are notable exceptions that were hard hit. Manufacturing fell by 1,700 jobs (2.4 percent) over the last year to 70,000 jobs, with all of the loss in nondurable goods (which has not rebounded since the hurricane). Education and health services have lost 5,800 jobs over the past year (4.7 percent), with most concentrated in health and social assistance (4,800) — a sector vital to relief efforts. The overall education and health services sector has gained just 400 jobs since its post-hurricane low of 116,000 jobs. Government employment continues to slide, down 7,700 jobs over the past year as the state government sheds workers as part of austerity packages (state government has lost 6,600 jobs, or 4.4 percent). On the bright side, leisure and hospitality has mostly recovered after losing 13,400 jobs following Maria. The sector is now down just 900 jobs for the year, with total employment at 80,300.

Overall, the labor market in Puerto Rico has improved somewhat since the hurricane, but is still depressed. As the economy recovers from the hurricane, the better-case scenario seems to be returning to the pre-hurricane level of jobs, with a trend of still steady, but slower, job loss. A worse scenario is if the economy does not reach the level of jobs associated with the prior trend, either overall or for specific sectors, and the hurricane shifts the number of jobs on the island downward in the short- and medium-term.

Puerto Rico’s economy has had considerable problems over the last decade, and Hurricane Maria, which struck the island just over one year ago and was the worst natural disaster on record in Puerto Rican history, greatly exacerbated them.

Despite nearly unanimous recognition of the island’s ongoing economic woes, Governor Ricardo Rosselló touted employment growth last month as the economy gained 100 jobs in July (this was revised down to a loss of 400 jobs). Rosselló was looking at the household survey, which surveys people, rather than the establishment survey, which surveys businesses — and is the standard for reporting month-to-month employment numbers. (The household survey, which Rosselló used, might be better at including the informal sector, but it’s worse at reliably tracking jobs created and lost.) Employment fell in August as well, with another 1,000 jobs lost. Rosselló has claimed the island is seeing an “economic recovery.”

Based on the establishment survey, there is little to celebrate. From January 2013 to August 2017 (right before the storm), the economy was losing about 1,100 jobs per month (or around 400 private sector jobs per month). In January 2017, the government enacted labor reforms that were supposed to boost the economy and stem these losses. Those policies limited bonuses and paid leave, loosened hours requirements for employers, and reduced overtime benefits among other changes. These reforms were unpopular, and they also failed to curb job loss. From the enactment of the reforms until the hurricane, employment decreased by 14,700 (5,600 private sector), and the rate of loss actually increased to 1,800 jobs per month (700 private sector). Including the time since the hurricane, employment is down by 40,500, or 23,700 private sector jobs.

Hurricane Maria explains much of the decline over the last year. In addition to the lives lost and the catastrophic damage, the storm significantly impacted Puerto Rico’s labor market. In the month after, the island of around 3.3 million people lost almost 40,000 jobs, with total employment plummeting to 836,200 (the lowest level since the early 1990s). Since the hurricane, the economy has gained back just 14,000 jobs, or around 1,300 per month (although much of the gains were directly following the storm). Still, employment is down by about 26,000 over the last year (nearly 3.0 percent of total employment). Although Puerto Rico was losing jobs prior to the storm, the current level of employment is below what had been the trend from 2013 until the hurricane. If the economy had followed this trend, there would be over 12,000 more jobs on the island.

The story changes depending on the sector. Some sectors follow the overall trend, although there are notable exceptions that were hard hit. Manufacturing fell by 1,700 jobs (2.4 percent) over the last year to 70,000 jobs, with all of the loss in nondurable goods (which has not rebounded since the hurricane). Education and health services have lost 5,800 jobs over the past year (4.7 percent), with most concentrated in health and social assistance (4,800) — a sector vital to relief efforts. The overall education and health services sector has gained just 400 jobs since its post-hurricane low of 116,000 jobs. Government employment continues to slide, down 7,700 jobs over the past year as the state government sheds workers as part of austerity packages (state government has lost 6,600 jobs, or 4.4 percent). On the bright side, leisure and hospitality has mostly recovered after losing 13,400 jobs following Maria. The sector is now down just 900 jobs for the year, with total employment at 80,300.

Overall, the labor market in Puerto Rico has improved somewhat since the hurricane, but is still depressed. As the economy recovers from the hurricane, the better-case scenario seems to be returning to the pre-hurricane level of jobs, with a trend of still steady, but slower, job loss. A worse scenario is if the economy does not reach the level of jobs associated with the prior trend, either overall or for specific sectors, and the hurricane shifts the number of jobs on the island downward in the short- and medium-term.

As the fortunes of South America’s “pink tide” have turned and right-wing movements have recaptured power, conservative judiciaries and legislatures, egged on by elite-controlled media cartels, have engaged in dubious judicial procedures against various left-wing figures. In 2015, Argentina elected a right-wing neoliberal president, Mauricio Macri, and former left-leaning president Cristina Kirchner was charged with treason and other crimes. In Brazil, the Senate impeached sitting president Dilma Rousseff ? though her alleged crimes were dismissed by federal prosecutors ? and replaced her with the conservative Michel Temer. More recently, Lula, who polls suggest would easily win reelection, has been convicted of corruption and jailed, despite the absence of material evidence backing the charges against him. This decade has effectively become one of politico-judicial persecution ? lawfare ? against pink tide political figures, as right-wing movements try to ensure that their left-wing rivals won’t return to power.

Ecuador’s former president Rafael Correa appears to be the latest victim of lawfare against left-wing politicians. On July 3, 2018, a court in Ecuador ordered Correa’s arrest and extradition following his failure to serve a subpoena to appear in court. Judge Daniella Camacho of the National Court of Justice alerted Interpol to detain Correa if he tries to leave Belgium, where now resides with his Belgian wife. His offer to depose testimony at the Ecuadorian diplomatic mission in Brussels was rejected.

Originally subpoenaed to appear in court in mid-June, Correa was included in an investigation concerning the attempted kidnapping of lawmaker Fernando Balda in 2012. A former member of Correa’s Alianza PAIS party, and Correa’s supporter in his 2006 presidential campaign, Balda quickly became a political adversary of Correa after criticizing him over what Balda claims was “arbitrary and exclusionary management” of Alianza PAIS’ national board, as well as later accusing Correa of wiretapping his political adversaries and seeking campaign financing from Colombia’s FARC insurgent guerrilla force. By 2009, Balda had left Alianza PAIS and joined the Patriotic Society Party ? led by former army colonel and ex-president Lucio Gutiérrez, a leading figure in the 2000 Ecuadorian coup who oversaw neoliberal reforms as president from 2003 to 2005 until he was removed by Congress for the alleged abandonment of his constitutional duties.

Balda fled to Bogotá, Colombia in 2009 only to return briefly in 2010 (some have claimed he is responsible for the attempted coup against Correa in September of that year), and remained in Colombia until after the attempted kidnapping. At the time, Balda was facing charges for libel against President Correa. His extradition was being processed, and he would later be brought back to Ecuador and sentenced to a year in jail for threatening national security. Balda has since been released.

All this follows the presidential election victory of Correa’s former vice president, Lenín Moreno. Although his presidential candidacy received decisive support from Correa, the new president has dramatically distanced himself from Correa and worked to reverse many of Correa’s policies. Shortly after his election, he suspended the duties of his vice president ? Jorge Glas, a Correa ally ? and Glas was subsequently sentenced to a six-year sentence for alleged corruption in connection with the Odebrecht scandal. Moreno followed this with a push for a referendum on seven questions over term limits, the barring of officials convicted of corruption from office, the nature of the Council of Citizen Participation and Social Control (CPCCS, by its Spanish acronym), and more. The referendum was put to a vote, despite the absence of a response from the Constitutional Court ? which many have claimed was unconstitutional. Moreno prevailed on all seven questions, with more than 60 percent “Yes” votes. After this victory, Moreno moved to have new members appointed to the CPCCS for a transition period. This Transition Council is responsible for interim appointments of the attorney general and members of the Judicial Council, and later removed many Judicial Council members and then voted to remove all nine judges of the nation’s Constitutional Court. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights opposed the referendum question on the CPCCS and the appointment of new members to the body, arguing that it jeopardized the principles of separation of powers and judicial independence.

               

After the National Assembly rejected a request to prosecute Correa on June 18, 2018, the National Court of Justice included Correa in the investigation concerning Balda’s attempted kidnapping, with newly appointed attorney general Paul Perez claiming new evidence had emerged in the case. The National Assembly returned the decision to Judge Camacho on the grounds that “it is not for parliament to authorize the prosecution of an ex-president,” asserting that the provision of the Ecuadorian Constitution requiring authorization from two-thirds of the National Assembly for “the criminal impeachment of the President…when the competent authority so requests it on substantive grounds” does not apply to Correa’s case. While there is no clear legal consensus as to whether the National Assembly must give approval for a former president to be criminally prosecuted for actions committed during a presidential term, according to high-level and former high-level Ecuadorian officials the precedent has been for the Court to request the Assembly’s go-ahead, as in the cases against former presidents Jamil Mahuad and Abdalá Bucaram. Correa is being investigated for actions he took in his official capacity as president, implying that the National Assembly should approve such prosecutions ? rather than return them to the court unresolved and “enabling the trial to happen,” as Correa’s former foreign minister Guillaume Long has described it.

The evidence linking Correa to the attempted kidnapping of Balda is shaky. Much of it relies on the testimony of a retired National Police sergeant, Luis Raúl Chicaiza Fuentes, and on letters that Fuentes supposedly sent to president Correa in 2012. Chicaiza claims that Correa called him several times using the alias “Carlitos,” saying he was giving Chicaiza and other alleged plotters “political, economic and institutional support” for their operation in Colombia. Strangely enough, Chicaiza also admits he never heard “Carlitos” mention Balda, and is unable to identify the call’s origin or what phone received it, due to the use of disposable phones for intelligence and counterintelligence purposes (burners, essentially). The prosecutors have used this weak evidence to make wild, unsubstantiated claims, including that these conversations implicate Correa in an assassination plot against Balda ? although they have yet to formalize these charges.

The prosecution also alleges that Correa authored the kidnapping attempt through the then head of the National Intelligence Secretariat (SENAIN), Pablo Humberto Romero Quezada. Sergeant Chicaiza indicates that Pablo Romero was corresponding with Correa, updating him on intelligence concerning Operation Wilson ? the alleged SENAIN operation to return Balda to Ecuador. Chicaiza claims to have met Romero at his office routinely over the matter, as well as in Portugal. Romero’s warning to Chicaiza and Jorge Espinoza (also involved in the attempted kidnapping) to “be careful not to be taken prisoner” by Balda and his associates is taken as evidence that Romero was telling them to conduct an illegal kidnapping, although Chicaiza says this was because of fear of Balda’s network and their own possible criminality. Romero has not returned to Ecuador for trial, and is instead residing in Spain, requesting political asylum.

Overall, the prosecution’s evidence is largely unsubstantiated and relies on the testimony of a former police sergeant. Evidence of the phone calls has not been provided since there is no record of them having occurred, and no proof has been presented showing that Chicaiza’s letters ever made it to Correa. Furthermore, Romero has yet to testify, so information on his purported actions comes from Chicaiza. Others involved in the case also have not testified. Whether Correa will be forced to return to Ecuador is uncertain. Many see the trial as an attempt to neutralize him politically while his reforms are rolled back.

The Lenín Moreno administration’s recent actions seem to fit this narrative. Relations between Moreno and Correa have soured considerably as the former continues to seek to marginalize the latter and his supporters. This fits a pattern seen across Latin America, as former pink tide heads of state and left politicians face political persecution. Whether these changes in Ecuador will effectively end the progressive reforms implemented by Correa and his supporters and usher in a new era of neoliberalism remains to be seen, although recent talks with the IMF indicate such a change may be coming. This also would follow a trend, as countries like Argentina sign new agreements with the IMF. As the pink tide recedes amid right-wing lawfare throughout the continent, Ecuador may be the latest to succumb to the recent neoliberal reaction rippling through Latin America.

Note: This post was corrected on September 25, 2018 to refer to the article of the Ecuadorian constitution pertaining to criminal prosecution of former presidents, not to Article 129 as previously mentioned. A previous statement referring to President Correa’s reported “appeal” to the IACHR has also been removed, as there is no available evidence that such an appeal or petition was ever made.

As the fortunes of South America’s “pink tide” have turned and right-wing movements have recaptured power, conservative judiciaries and legislatures, egged on by elite-controlled media cartels, have engaged in dubious judicial procedures against various left-wing figures. In 2015, Argentina elected a right-wing neoliberal president, Mauricio Macri, and former left-leaning president Cristina Kirchner was charged with treason and other crimes. In Brazil, the Senate impeached sitting president Dilma Rousseff ? though her alleged crimes were dismissed by federal prosecutors ? and replaced her with the conservative Michel Temer. More recently, Lula, who polls suggest would easily win reelection, has been convicted of corruption and jailed, despite the absence of material evidence backing the charges against him. This decade has effectively become one of politico-judicial persecution ? lawfare ? against pink tide political figures, as right-wing movements try to ensure that their left-wing rivals won’t return to power.

Ecuador’s former president Rafael Correa appears to be the latest victim of lawfare against left-wing politicians. On July 3, 2018, a court in Ecuador ordered Correa’s arrest and extradition following his failure to serve a subpoena to appear in court. Judge Daniella Camacho of the National Court of Justice alerted Interpol to detain Correa if he tries to leave Belgium, where now resides with his Belgian wife. His offer to depose testimony at the Ecuadorian diplomatic mission in Brussels was rejected.

Originally subpoenaed to appear in court in mid-June, Correa was included in an investigation concerning the attempted kidnapping of lawmaker Fernando Balda in 2012. A former member of Correa’s Alianza PAIS party, and Correa’s supporter in his 2006 presidential campaign, Balda quickly became a political adversary of Correa after criticizing him over what Balda claims was “arbitrary and exclusionary management” of Alianza PAIS’ national board, as well as later accusing Correa of wiretapping his political adversaries and seeking campaign financing from Colombia’s FARC insurgent guerrilla force. By 2009, Balda had left Alianza PAIS and joined the Patriotic Society Party ? led by former army colonel and ex-president Lucio Gutiérrez, a leading figure in the 2000 Ecuadorian coup who oversaw neoliberal reforms as president from 2003 to 2005 until he was removed by Congress for the alleged abandonment of his constitutional duties.

Balda fled to Bogotá, Colombia in 2009 only to return briefly in 2010 (some have claimed he is responsible for the attempted coup against Correa in September of that year), and remained in Colombia until after the attempted kidnapping. At the time, Balda was facing charges for libel against President Correa. His extradition was being processed, and he would later be brought back to Ecuador and sentenced to a year in jail for threatening national security. Balda has since been released.

All this follows the presidential election victory of Correa’s former vice president, Lenín Moreno. Although his presidential candidacy received decisive support from Correa, the new president has dramatically distanced himself from Correa and worked to reverse many of Correa’s policies. Shortly after his election, he suspended the duties of his vice president ? Jorge Glas, a Correa ally ? and Glas was subsequently sentenced to a six-year sentence for alleged corruption in connection with the Odebrecht scandal. Moreno followed this with a push for a referendum on seven questions over term limits, the barring of officials convicted of corruption from office, the nature of the Council of Citizen Participation and Social Control (CPCCS, by its Spanish acronym), and more. The referendum was put to a vote, despite the absence of a response from the Constitutional Court ? which many have claimed was unconstitutional. Moreno prevailed on all seven questions, with more than 60 percent “Yes” votes. After this victory, Moreno moved to have new members appointed to the CPCCS for a transition period. This Transition Council is responsible for interim appointments of the attorney general and members of the Judicial Council, and later removed many Judicial Council members and then voted to remove all nine judges of the nation’s Constitutional Court. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights opposed the referendum question on the CPCCS and the appointment of new members to the body, arguing that it jeopardized the principles of separation of powers and judicial independence.

               

After the National Assembly rejected a request to prosecute Correa on June 18, 2018, the National Court of Justice included Correa in the investigation concerning Balda’s attempted kidnapping, with newly appointed attorney general Paul Perez claiming new evidence had emerged in the case. The National Assembly returned the decision to Judge Camacho on the grounds that “it is not for parliament to authorize the prosecution of an ex-president,” asserting that the provision of the Ecuadorian Constitution requiring authorization from two-thirds of the National Assembly for “the criminal impeachment of the President…when the competent authority so requests it on substantive grounds” does not apply to Correa’s case. While there is no clear legal consensus as to whether the National Assembly must give approval for a former president to be criminally prosecuted for actions committed during a presidential term, according to high-level and former high-level Ecuadorian officials the precedent has been for the Court to request the Assembly’s go-ahead, as in the cases against former presidents Jamil Mahuad and Abdalá Bucaram. Correa is being investigated for actions he took in his official capacity as president, implying that the National Assembly should approve such prosecutions ? rather than return them to the court unresolved and “enabling the trial to happen,” as Correa’s former foreign minister Guillaume Long has described it.

The evidence linking Correa to the attempted kidnapping of Balda is shaky. Much of it relies on the testimony of a retired National Police sergeant, Luis Raúl Chicaiza Fuentes, and on letters that Fuentes supposedly sent to president Correa in 2012. Chicaiza claims that Correa called him several times using the alias “Carlitos,” saying he was giving Chicaiza and other alleged plotters “political, economic and institutional support” for their operation in Colombia. Strangely enough, Chicaiza also admits he never heard “Carlitos” mention Balda, and is unable to identify the call’s origin or what phone received it, due to the use of disposable phones for intelligence and counterintelligence purposes (burners, essentially). The prosecutors have used this weak evidence to make wild, unsubstantiated claims, including that these conversations implicate Correa in an assassination plot against Balda ? although they have yet to formalize these charges.

The prosecution also alleges that Correa authored the kidnapping attempt through the then head of the National Intelligence Secretariat (SENAIN), Pablo Humberto Romero Quezada. Sergeant Chicaiza indicates that Pablo Romero was corresponding with Correa, updating him on intelligence concerning Operation Wilson ? the alleged SENAIN operation to return Balda to Ecuador. Chicaiza claims to have met Romero at his office routinely over the matter, as well as in Portugal. Romero’s warning to Chicaiza and Jorge Espinoza (also involved in the attempted kidnapping) to “be careful not to be taken prisoner” by Balda and his associates is taken as evidence that Romero was telling them to conduct an illegal kidnapping, although Chicaiza says this was because of fear of Balda’s network and their own possible criminality. Romero has not returned to Ecuador for trial, and is instead residing in Spain, requesting political asylum.

Overall, the prosecution’s evidence is largely unsubstantiated and relies on the testimony of a former police sergeant. Evidence of the phone calls has not been provided since there is no record of them having occurred, and no proof has been presented showing that Chicaiza’s letters ever made it to Correa. Furthermore, Romero has yet to testify, so information on his purported actions comes from Chicaiza. Others involved in the case also have not testified. Whether Correa will be forced to return to Ecuador is uncertain. Many see the trial as an attempt to neutralize him politically while his reforms are rolled back.

The Lenín Moreno administration’s recent actions seem to fit this narrative. Relations between Moreno and Correa have soured considerably as the former continues to seek to marginalize the latter and his supporters. This fits a pattern seen across Latin America, as former pink tide heads of state and left politicians face political persecution. Whether these changes in Ecuador will effectively end the progressive reforms implemented by Correa and his supporters and usher in a new era of neoliberalism remains to be seen, although recent talks with the IMF indicate such a change may be coming. This also would follow a trend, as countries like Argentina sign new agreements with the IMF. As the pink tide recedes amid right-wing lawfare throughout the continent, Ecuador may be the latest to succumb to the recent neoliberal reaction rippling through Latin America.

Note: This post was corrected on September 25, 2018 to refer to the article of the Ecuadorian constitution pertaining to criminal prosecution of former presidents, not to Article 129 as previously mentioned. A previous statement referring to President Correa’s reported “appeal” to the IACHR has also been removed, as there is no available evidence that such an appeal or petition was ever made.

En español

I have rarely responded to trolls because ? well, what’s the point? It’s not like they care about facts or logic.

For example, Francisco Toro, a blogger who fulminates about Venezuela and appears in the Washington Post, has been trolling me for years and I have almost always ignored him. Dany Bahar, an economist at the Brookings Institution, actually trolled me on a TV show, excitedly holding up to the camera a Guardian article that I wrote nearly five years ago, to castigate me. Cathy Newman, a news presenter for Channel 4 ? one of the top three most-watched TV stations in the UK ? did the same thing in the middle of a newscast in which she was supposedly interviewing me. And now Brian Ellsworth, a journalist  for Reuters who reports from Venezuela, has joined the latest avalanche of trolls, bots, and blowhards who swarmed me because I dared to mention on BBC World TV, on Friday night, that Trump’s financial embargo against Venezuela makes it more difficult for any government to stabilize the economy ? a fact that no economist would dispute. Indeed that is the purpose of the embargo.

Let’s start with what all of these trolls ? including the more educated ones noted above ? have in common.  They all rely on one article (out of dozens) that I wrote about Venezuela. Not one of them challenges a single fact in that article. That tells you a lot right there about the weakness of their “argument.”

Their glorious “gotcha” is not about any facts but rather a prediction. I wrote that Venezuela was not facing any serious threat of hyperinflation. That was certainly true in November 2013, the date of the article. Economists most often define hyperinflation as a rate of inflation that exceeds 50 percent per month. Although we don’t have official statistics for inflation in Venezuela since 2015, available estimates (from the opposition-controlled National Assembly) do not show Venezuelan inflation at that level until November of 2017, four years later.

The trolls imply that I should have known in November 2013 that Venezuela would eventually reach hyperinflation. At the time, as I noted in the Guardian article, Venezuela was facing a dynamic in which there was a significant parallel market for the dollar, and the price of the dollar in that market was rising.  This increased inflation (by increasing the price of imports). The inflation, in turn, drove more people to buy dollars, which pushed the black market price of the dollar up further. If such a spiral is allowed to continue it will eventually lead to hyperinflation.

However, I assumed that the government would at some point break this cycle by unifying the exchange rate, thereby getting rid of (or reducing to irrelevance) the parallel market.  That assumption turned out to be wrong, but it was a reasonable assumption at the time. In fact, economist Francisco Rodríguez, then at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, made the same assumption at that time. Rodríguez knows more than probably anyone in the world about the Venezuelan economy; and he has repeatedly been proven right about the Venezuelan economy while almost all of the sources that the media quotes on this subject ? especially on government finances ? were repeatedly proven wrong.

But most economists would have made the same assumption at that time. Hyperinflations are not that common; there were only about six episodes in Latin America in the twentieth century. And as I noted at the time, Venezuela had more than $36 billion in international reserves, a sizeable current account surplus of $11 billion (2.9 percent of GDP) and was not facing any imminent balance of payments crisis. There wasn’t any reason for thinking that the government would ride its overvalued fixed exchange rate all the way to hyperinflation.

On the contrary, there were other reasons to assume, in November 2013, that the government would take the necessary measures before reaching hyperinflation. In 2002, for example, despite serious political turmoil (including a military coup and devastating opposition oil strike), then president Hugo Chávez floated the currency. Central Bank reserves actually increased during this period. And in 2014, the government announced that it was going to unify the exchange rate, although it did not follow through. In May 2016, as Toro noted, a team of economists from the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), went to Venezuela and proposed a plan, which included unification of the exchange rate and other measures that could reasonably be expected to stop the acceleration of inflation. I was part of that team. It was not at all clear at that time whether the government would adopt the plan or not.

The trolls would say that they predicted disaster, and indeed they did: they predicted it every year ? ever since Chávez was elected in 1998, even when the economy was booming and inflation was falling. But that is the accuracy of a stopped clock, as the saying goes, that is right twice a day.

Unlikely events happen every day: if you flip a coin eight times, the chance of getting all heads is less than 1 in 250. But it can happen, and when it does, that does not mean that before the event, observers had reason to consider it likely. The trolls are trying to argue that, simply because it eventually happened, observers in 2013 should have seen hyperinflation as a likely outcome. This is not a logical argument.

If I had, like 90+ percent of the economics profession, completely missed the two biggest asset bubbles in world history (the US stock market bubble of the late 1990s, and the $8 trillion dollar housing bubble of the 2000s), the trolls would have a case against me. These bubbles were clearly identifiable and were in fact identified at that time. Their bursting was basically inevitable, as were the recessions that resulted. Venezuela’s hyperinflation had no such inevitability in 2013, or even much later.

The trolls are also taking advantage of the headline, which, as most journalists know, is not written by the author.  The headline stated, out of context, that “this economy is not the Greece of Latin America.” While I did make the comparison to Greece, people who read past the headline would see that it was only to explain that because Venezuela had its own central bank and currency (unlike Greece) it could change its macroeconomic policy and resolve its worst economic problems ? which was also true, even after oil prices crashed in 2014.

The trolls also benefit from the profound and systematic bias on Venezuela in the major media over the past 20 years ? for a nice recent academic study, see here.

Part of the way this one-sided and often misleading public discourse is maintained is through the trolling, harassment, and punishment of anyone who presents a view ? or even inconvenient facts ? that fall outside the dominant narrative. This narrative happens to coincide with a more than 16-year effort by the US government to bring about regime change in Venezuela.

That is why the trolls piled on like a swarm of army ants in response to my simply stating the publicly available facts about the Trump administration’s financial embargo on Venezuela, in a discussion of hyperinflation there. None of the other major media reports over the weekend bothered to mention this highly relevant information, and the trolls don’t want it to happen again.

That’s why I am responding to the trolls this time. It is important to show that they cannot intimidate everyone. As FDR famously said, “I welcome their hatred.”

Of course, if any of the trolls who have some knowledge of Venezuela would like to have a public debate on any of this, they are invited.  I’m sure it would get a large internet audience because there is so little public debate about Venezuela, or US policy in Latin America generally. My invitation extends to any of the non-troll journalists, academics, or others who write about the subject matter. I don’t expect any of the trolls ? or those who share their beliefs ? to have the courage to defend their views in a debate. But if you do, bring it on.

En español

I have rarely responded to trolls because ? well, what’s the point? It’s not like they care about facts or logic.

For example, Francisco Toro, a blogger who fulminates about Venezuela and appears in the Washington Post, has been trolling me for years and I have almost always ignored him. Dany Bahar, an economist at the Brookings Institution, actually trolled me on a TV show, excitedly holding up to the camera a Guardian article that I wrote nearly five years ago, to castigate me. Cathy Newman, a news presenter for Channel 4 ? one of the top three most-watched TV stations in the UK ? did the same thing in the middle of a newscast in which she was supposedly interviewing me. And now Brian Ellsworth, a journalist  for Reuters who reports from Venezuela, has joined the latest avalanche of trolls, bots, and blowhards who swarmed me because I dared to mention on BBC World TV, on Friday night, that Trump’s financial embargo against Venezuela makes it more difficult for any government to stabilize the economy ? a fact that no economist would dispute. Indeed that is the purpose of the embargo.

Let’s start with what all of these trolls ? including the more educated ones noted above ? have in common.  They all rely on one article (out of dozens) that I wrote about Venezuela. Not one of them challenges a single fact in that article. That tells you a lot right there about the weakness of their “argument.”

Their glorious “gotcha” is not about any facts but rather a prediction. I wrote that Venezuela was not facing any serious threat of hyperinflation. That was certainly true in November 2013, the date of the article. Economists most often define hyperinflation as a rate of inflation that exceeds 50 percent per month. Although we don’t have official statistics for inflation in Venezuela since 2015, available estimates (from the opposition-controlled National Assembly) do not show Venezuelan inflation at that level until November of 2017, four years later.

The trolls imply that I should have known in November 2013 that Venezuela would eventually reach hyperinflation. At the time, as I noted in the Guardian article, Venezuela was facing a dynamic in which there was a significant parallel market for the dollar, and the price of the dollar in that market was rising.  This increased inflation (by increasing the price of imports). The inflation, in turn, drove more people to buy dollars, which pushed the black market price of the dollar up further. If such a spiral is allowed to continue it will eventually lead to hyperinflation.

However, I assumed that the government would at some point break this cycle by unifying the exchange rate, thereby getting rid of (or reducing to irrelevance) the parallel market.  That assumption turned out to be wrong, but it was a reasonable assumption at the time. In fact, economist Francisco Rodríguez, then at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, made the same assumption at that time. Rodríguez knows more than probably anyone in the world about the Venezuelan economy; and he has repeatedly been proven right about the Venezuelan economy while almost all of the sources that the media quotes on this subject ? especially on government finances ? were repeatedly proven wrong.

But most economists would have made the same assumption at that time. Hyperinflations are not that common; there were only about six episodes in Latin America in the twentieth century. And as I noted at the time, Venezuela had more than $36 billion in international reserves, a sizeable current account surplus of $11 billion (2.9 percent of GDP) and was not facing any imminent balance of payments crisis. There wasn’t any reason for thinking that the government would ride its overvalued fixed exchange rate all the way to hyperinflation.

On the contrary, there were other reasons to assume, in November 2013, that the government would take the necessary measures before reaching hyperinflation. In 2002, for example, despite serious political turmoil (including a military coup and devastating opposition oil strike), then president Hugo Chávez floated the currency. Central Bank reserves actually increased during this period. And in 2014, the government announced that it was going to unify the exchange rate, although it did not follow through. In May 2016, as Toro noted, a team of economists from the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), went to Venezuela and proposed a plan, which included unification of the exchange rate and other measures that could reasonably be expected to stop the acceleration of inflation. I was part of that team. It was not at all clear at that time whether the government would adopt the plan or not.

The trolls would say that they predicted disaster, and indeed they did: they predicted it every year ? ever since Chávez was elected in 1998, even when the economy was booming and inflation was falling. But that is the accuracy of a stopped clock, as the saying goes, that is right twice a day.

Unlikely events happen every day: if you flip a coin eight times, the chance of getting all heads is less than 1 in 250. But it can happen, and when it does, that does not mean that before the event, observers had reason to consider it likely. The trolls are trying to argue that, simply because it eventually happened, observers in 2013 should have seen hyperinflation as a likely outcome. This is not a logical argument.

If I had, like 90+ percent of the economics profession, completely missed the two biggest asset bubbles in world history (the US stock market bubble of the late 1990s, and the $8 trillion dollar housing bubble of the 2000s), the trolls would have a case against me. These bubbles were clearly identifiable and were in fact identified at that time. Their bursting was basically inevitable, as were the recessions that resulted. Venezuela’s hyperinflation had no such inevitability in 2013, or even much later.

The trolls are also taking advantage of the headline, which, as most journalists know, is not written by the author.  The headline stated, out of context, that “this economy is not the Greece of Latin America.” While I did make the comparison to Greece, people who read past the headline would see that it was only to explain that because Venezuela had its own central bank and currency (unlike Greece) it could change its macroeconomic policy and resolve its worst economic problems ? which was also true, even after oil prices crashed in 2014.

The trolls also benefit from the profound and systematic bias on Venezuela in the major media over the past 20 years ? for a nice recent academic study, see here.

Part of the way this one-sided and often misleading public discourse is maintained is through the trolling, harassment, and punishment of anyone who presents a view ? or even inconvenient facts ? that fall outside the dominant narrative. This narrative happens to coincide with a more than 16-year effort by the US government to bring about regime change in Venezuela.

That is why the trolls piled on like a swarm of army ants in response to my simply stating the publicly available facts about the Trump administration’s financial embargo on Venezuela, in a discussion of hyperinflation there. None of the other major media reports over the weekend bothered to mention this highly relevant information, and the trolls don’t want it to happen again.

That’s why I am responding to the trolls this time. It is important to show that they cannot intimidate everyone. As FDR famously said, “I welcome their hatred.”

Of course, if any of the trolls who have some knowledge of Venezuela would like to have a public debate on any of this, they are invited.  I’m sure it would get a large internet audience because there is so little public debate about Venezuela, or US policy in Latin America generally. My invitation extends to any of the non-troll journalists, academics, or others who write about the subject matter. I don’t expect any of the trolls ? or those who share their beliefs ? to have the courage to defend their views in a debate. But if you do, bring it on.

With its authority recently upheld by the courts, Puerto Rico’s Federal Management and Oversight Board (known simply as “the Board”) continues to impose harsh austerity measures on the people of Puerto Rico. But while residents face pension cuts, school closures, massive layoffs, and a continued recession, the same austerity does not apply to the Board itself, which is spending hundreds of millions on its own expenses and a myriad of consultants, advisers, and lawyers. Nor does the austerity appear to apply to some of Puerto Rico’s bondholders either.

Last week, the Board, along with the government of Puerto Rico, announced they reached a deal with owners of bonds in Puerto Rico’s Sales Tax Financing Corporation (COFINA), proudly claiming it would save the commonwealth $17.5 billion in debt service. While technically true, the claim obscures the fact that the deal will still see Puerto Rico use its scarce resources to pay these creditors some $33 billion over the next 40 years on what was initially $17 billion in principal. Overall, the bondholders will recover nearly 75 percent of the initial value of their investment, a fairly generous settlement from a bankrupt entity still trying to recover from a lost decade — without economic growth — followed by  the devastation of Hurricane Maria.

In fact, judging from the Board’s most recent fiscal plan, Puerto Rico won’t even have the money to pay for the bonds that would be issued as part of the settlement. The board projects the island to have about a $4 billion surplus over the next 40 years, leaving authorities at least $28 billion short of satisfying this deal with creditors. The settlement is actually based on revenue projections from an earlier version of the Board’s fiscal plan, which were revised down in June when the newest version of the plan was certified. This mistake, rather than the overall generosity of the offer, now puts in question the future of this deal. Will the Board revise its fiscal plan yet again to demand even greater austerity in order to satisfy these creditors’ claims?

To make matters worse, a close look at who the current COFINA bondholders are reveals a series of vulture funds that bought the bonds at steep discounts after the initial default, and immediately after Hurricane Maria. Investors now stand to make huge profits from that move, while most Puerto Ricans suffer through continued austerity. One of the largest investors in COFINA bonds, GoldenTree Asset Management, more than doubled its holdings in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Court filings show that as of August 1, 2018, GoldenTree owned $1.5 billion in COFINA bonds, up from $587 million in August 2017. The bonds in question traded as low as 20 cents on the dollar during this time period, which means a 75 percent recovery rate could amount to an enormous profit.

GoldenTree is far from the only vulture fund that stands to benefit though. Initially, one of the loudest voices against reaching a deal with COFINA bondholders was the group representing General Obligation (GO) bondholders, who claimed that they had priority over other creditors for repayment. However, two of the biggest GO bondholders, Aurelius Capital Management, and Monarch Alternative Capital have recently started buying up COFINA bonds, and now stand to benefit from this agreement themselves. Since the storm, court filings show how the two funds have increased their holdings of COFINA securities to $488 million from $39 million.

Given that even its own projections show the island cannot afford such a deal, it seems reasonable to wonder why the Board would approve this generous offering to the vulture funds. Some Board’s members’ connections to those who profited from the initial bond offerings, and now stand to profit from this agreement, might provide some clues.

Board chairman José B. Carrión has family ties to the leadership of Banco Popular, one of the island’s largest banks and an underwriter on much of the debt in question. Carlos M. García, another board member, was president of the Government Development Bank when billions in COFINA debt was issued. At the time, he had just finished a stint at Santander Securities, another of the debt’s underwriters that had previously been led by José Ramón González, another Board member. The revolving door can be hard to keep up with. Though financial disclosures indicate that those board members who held Puerto Rican bonds sold their assets upon joining the Board, the network of banks, lawyers, and officials who pushed Puerto Rico into its current state are the same ones now benefiting from the proposed resolution.

The new bonds will be issued by Citi, another underwriter of the initial offerings. And here is where the web gets even more tangled. Citi has been brought on by the Board as an advisor and has itself hired lobbyist Manny Ortiz, “Puerto Rico’s go-to guy in Washington,” who has close ties to Governor Rossello and active contracts with Puerto Rican government institutions. Until last year, Ortiz was also a registered lobbyist for Ambac, one of the largest insurers of COFINA bonds, with an exposure of $7.3 billion. Ambac’s stock immediately shot up when the deal was announced. Everyone seems to be making money off Puerto Rico’s crisis.

Perhaps worst of all, the same players seem to be making the same mistakes, pushing Puerto Rico into unsustainable debt obligations and continuing the use of a complex financial instrument designed by Goldman Sachs, that has proven devastating to the island. The new bonds will include a type of security called a “Capital Appreciation Bond,” which rather than paying out the interest over the life of the bond, accrues the interest over the years, generating huge returns for investors — and a massive payout down the road for Puerto Rico. On an initial principal of just $2.7 billion, the CAB bonds’ total value is over $15.4 billion.

The timing of the deal also raises questions, since the legality of the bonds in question is being reviewed by the courts, who have yet to issue their ruling. Further, the Board’s investigation into the accumulation of debt in Puerto Rico has also yet to be released (it is scheduled for August 20). Given the involvement of so many of the same players in the original issuances, there could be good reason to reach a deal before the messy details of how these bonds came to be are made public.

Those who initially profited from issuing unsustainable amounts of debt through underwriting and advising fees are now profiting from the restructuring of the same debt. While the actors who pushed Puerto Rico into its current crisis avoid accountability, the island’s residents are left to suffer the consequences, enduring harsh austerity measures imposed upon them for the benefit of those who created the island’s economic ? not natural ? disaster.

With its authority recently upheld by the courts, Puerto Rico’s Federal Management and Oversight Board (known simply as “the Board”) continues to impose harsh austerity measures on the people of Puerto Rico. But while residents face pension cuts, school closures, massive layoffs, and a continued recession, the same austerity does not apply to the Board itself, which is spending hundreds of millions on its own expenses and a myriad of consultants, advisers, and lawyers. Nor does the austerity appear to apply to some of Puerto Rico’s bondholders either.

Last week, the Board, along with the government of Puerto Rico, announced they reached a deal with owners of bonds in Puerto Rico’s Sales Tax Financing Corporation (COFINA), proudly claiming it would save the commonwealth $17.5 billion in debt service. While technically true, the claim obscures the fact that the deal will still see Puerto Rico use its scarce resources to pay these creditors some $33 billion over the next 40 years on what was initially $17 billion in principal. Overall, the bondholders will recover nearly 75 percent of the initial value of their investment, a fairly generous settlement from a bankrupt entity still trying to recover from a lost decade — without economic growth — followed by  the devastation of Hurricane Maria.

In fact, judging from the Board’s most recent fiscal plan, Puerto Rico won’t even have the money to pay for the bonds that would be issued as part of the settlement. The board projects the island to have about a $4 billion surplus over the next 40 years, leaving authorities at least $28 billion short of satisfying this deal with creditors. The settlement is actually based on revenue projections from an earlier version of the Board’s fiscal plan, which were revised down in June when the newest version of the plan was certified. This mistake, rather than the overall generosity of the offer, now puts in question the future of this deal. Will the Board revise its fiscal plan yet again to demand even greater austerity in order to satisfy these creditors’ claims?

To make matters worse, a close look at who the current COFINA bondholders are reveals a series of vulture funds that bought the bonds at steep discounts after the initial default, and immediately after Hurricane Maria. Investors now stand to make huge profits from that move, while most Puerto Ricans suffer through continued austerity. One of the largest investors in COFINA bonds, GoldenTree Asset Management, more than doubled its holdings in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Court filings show that as of August 1, 2018, GoldenTree owned $1.5 billion in COFINA bonds, up from $587 million in August 2017. The bonds in question traded as low as 20 cents on the dollar during this time period, which means a 75 percent recovery rate could amount to an enormous profit.

GoldenTree is far from the only vulture fund that stands to benefit though. Initially, one of the loudest voices against reaching a deal with COFINA bondholders was the group representing General Obligation (GO) bondholders, who claimed that they had priority over other creditors for repayment. However, two of the biggest GO bondholders, Aurelius Capital Management, and Monarch Alternative Capital have recently started buying up COFINA bonds, and now stand to benefit from this agreement themselves. Since the storm, court filings show how the two funds have increased their holdings of COFINA securities to $488 million from $39 million.

Given that even its own projections show the island cannot afford such a deal, it seems reasonable to wonder why the Board would approve this generous offering to the vulture funds. Some Board’s members’ connections to those who profited from the initial bond offerings, and now stand to profit from this agreement, might provide some clues.

Board chairman José B. Carrión has family ties to the leadership of Banco Popular, one of the island’s largest banks and an underwriter on much of the debt in question. Carlos M. García, another board member, was president of the Government Development Bank when billions in COFINA debt was issued. At the time, he had just finished a stint at Santander Securities, another of the debt’s underwriters that had previously been led by José Ramón González, another Board member. The revolving door can be hard to keep up with. Though financial disclosures indicate that those board members who held Puerto Rican bonds sold their assets upon joining the Board, the network of banks, lawyers, and officials who pushed Puerto Rico into its current state are the same ones now benefiting from the proposed resolution.

The new bonds will be issued by Citi, another underwriter of the initial offerings. And here is where the web gets even more tangled. Citi has been brought on by the Board as an advisor and has itself hired lobbyist Manny Ortiz, “Puerto Rico’s go-to guy in Washington,” who has close ties to Governor Rossello and active contracts with Puerto Rican government institutions. Until last year, Ortiz was also a registered lobbyist for Ambac, one of the largest insurers of COFINA bonds, with an exposure of $7.3 billion. Ambac’s stock immediately shot up when the deal was announced. Everyone seems to be making money off Puerto Rico’s crisis.

Perhaps worst of all, the same players seem to be making the same mistakes, pushing Puerto Rico into unsustainable debt obligations and continuing the use of a complex financial instrument designed by Goldman Sachs, that has proven devastating to the island. The new bonds will include a type of security called a “Capital Appreciation Bond,” which rather than paying out the interest over the life of the bond, accrues the interest over the years, generating huge returns for investors — and a massive payout down the road for Puerto Rico. On an initial principal of just $2.7 billion, the CAB bonds’ total value is over $15.4 billion.

The timing of the deal also raises questions, since the legality of the bonds in question is being reviewed by the courts, who have yet to issue their ruling. Further, the Board’s investigation into the accumulation of debt in Puerto Rico has also yet to be released (it is scheduled for August 20). Given the involvement of so many of the same players in the original issuances, there could be good reason to reach a deal before the messy details of how these bonds came to be are made public.

Those who initially profited from issuing unsustainable amounts of debt through underwriting and advising fees are now profiting from the restructuring of the same debt. While the actors who pushed Puerto Rico into its current crisis avoid accountability, the island’s residents are left to suffer the consequences, enduring harsh austerity measures imposed upon them for the benefit of those who created the island’s economic ? not natural ? disaster.

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