Vacations in Florida have been coveted perks for privileged government officials occupying top posts in socialist Venezuela. How ironic: While trading in crude anti-Americanism, they have nevertheless made a beeline to the U.S. when needing a break from oil-rich yet impoverished and crime-ridden Venezuela. Florida, in particular, has traditionally been the hottest destination for well-off Venezuelans where they own apartments and houses and, above all, enjoy the ornaments of American capitalism: Disney World, Universal Studios, Walmart, and other attractions.
Now, those Venezuelan elites – rich anti-American socialists – are ruefully saying goodbye to their U.S. perks. The Trump administration is hitting them where it hurts – freezing financial assets subject to U.S. jurisdiction and making it illegal for U.S. citizens to transact business with them. In other words, these rich socialists no longer have access to their U.S. bank accounts; and the U.S. dollars they obtain in Venezuela – despite draconian currency exchange controls that deny U.S. currency to ordinary people – will be of no use to them in the U.S.
Will they now head to Cuba? Not likely.
The sanctions, recently announced by the U.S. Treasury Departments, targeted 13 current or former senior officials of Venezuela’s government. The aim was to punish officials for President Nicolás Maduro’s sham referendum establishing a Constituent Assembly that will allow him to rewrite the constitution. Maduro, a bus driver-turned politician, must have made his Cuban handlers proud with this power grab. Plans to rewrite the constitution have drawn wide condemnation from the international community and rights groups.
Maduro, for his part, reacted to the sanctions with his usual anti-American bluster. “They don’t intimidate me,” he declared. “The threats and sanctions of the empire don’t intimidate me for a moment. “I don’t listen to orders from the empire, not now or ever.”
“Bring on more sanctions.”
By far the most colorful reaction to the sanctions came from Maria Iris Varela Rangel, a member of Venezuela’s Presidential Commission for the National Constituent Assembly and the former Minister of the Penitentiary Service. On her twitter page, she posted a picture of herself grinning broadly and flipping President Trump her middle finger.
She wrote: “My answer to the gringos: like Hugo Chavez said “Go f–k yourselves, yankees of shit.” Ironically, Varela Rangel’s twitter page shows her and her family at Universal Studio’s in Florida and shopping at Walmart.
Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin said: “As President Trump has made clear, the United States will not ignore the Maduro regime’s ongoing efforts to undermine democracy, freedom, and the rule of law. As our sanctions demonstrate, the United States is standing by the Venezuelan people in their quest to restore their country to a full and prosperous democracy. Anyone elected to the National Constituent Assembly should know that their role in undermining democratic processes and institutions in Venezuela could expose them to potential U.S. sanctions.”
The sanctions come amid ongoing protests in the South American nation which is suffering severe shortages of food, medicine, and other basic goods – a product of command-and-control economic policies, widespread nationalizations, and low oil prices that can no longer pay the bills for the oil-dependent economy. The Venezuelan opposition estimates that some 15,000 civilians have been wounded in recent protests, and that more than 3,000 have been arrested. Some 431 political prisoners have been detained without due process, and rampant arbitrary arrests have occurred involving instances of torture and other violations and abuses of human rights.
Most recently, Venezuela’s security forces dragged opposition leaders Leopoldo Lopez and Antonio Ledezma from their homes and sent them to prison again.
“The United States condemns the actions of the Maduro dictatorship,” the White House said in a statement. “Mr. Lopez and Mr. Ledezma are political prisoners being held illegally by the regime. The United States holds Maduro – who publicly announced just hours earlier that he would move against his political opposition – personally responsible for the health and safety of Mr. Lopez, Mr. Ledezma, and any others seized. We reiterate our call for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners.”
At least 122 people have been killed during four months of anti-government protests. The death toll, however, pales when compared to the the week-long “price riots” that engulfed Venezuela on February 27, 1989. Hundreds of protesters – up to 2,000 by some estimates – were killed by security forces. Venezuelans were rebelling against President Carlos Andrés Pérez implementation of free-market reforms that raised dirt-cheap gasoline prices and bus prices.
Pérez, a leftist, had come to the realization that Venezuela’s future prosperity depended on eliminating the bread-and-circuses populism that Venezuelans regarded as a birthright. Hugo Chávez, then an Army lieutenant colonel, eventually lead a coup against Pérez. He would go onto win a landslide presidential victory, having convinced Venezuelans he had traded the bullet for the ballot and, as a political outsider, would eliminate Venezuela’s endemic corruption and reverse its declining prosperity.
But under socialism Venezuela is poorer then ever, and corruption has risen to unprecedented levels. All of which raises the question of what Venezuelans would want from a new government – a government that cannot afford paternalistic policies as long as oil prices are low.
Venezuela in the 1970s was one of Latin America’s richest countries – but that was due only to soaring oil prices. Years of left-leaning policies subsequently put it on a slippery slope toward socialism – and failed-state status. The ongoing crisis is unlikely to abate anytime soon as long as there is a culture of entitlement in Venezuela, and as President Maduro consolidates his power to the pleasure of his friends in Havana.
David Paulin, an Austin, TX-based freelance journalist, covered Hugo Chavez’s rise to power while based in Caracas as a foreign correspondent. He also reported from the Caribbean while based in Kingston, Jamaica.