Sanctions on Venezuela: A Known History

Posted on June 3, 2011


Sanctions on Venezuela: A known history

Wednesday, 01 June 2011 14:45
By Jesús Arboleya Cervera

Assistant Secretary of State James Steinberg recently announced Hillary Clinton’s decision to impose sanctions on seven foreign companies, including Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), for “cooperating with Iran’s energy industry,” which, according to what the Secretary stated, violates the Iran Sanctions Act, enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1996.

Originally this law included Libya, but in 2006 it was exonerated thanks to the certification of good conduct issued by President George W. Bush, during his honeymoon period with Muammar Gaddafi.

Until now it had not been used due to the international problems generated by its extraterritorial nature. Its adoption coincided with the Helms-Burton law, which provides similar penalties for foreign companies investing in Cuba, so that both laws were challenged by most of the world and even the European Union filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization in 1997, forcing the U.S. to promise a complete moratorium on Iran and Libya, and a partial one on Cuba.

While the 1996 measures were forced to acknowledge a sense of limit, in part by U.S. business interests then existing in Iran, including some as powerful as Halliburton and General Electric, in 2010, President Obama passed amendments further hardening what was stipulated by the sanctions. One of the violations included the sale of gasoline to the Persian country.

Not even the George W. Bush administration dared to approve these amendments when members of Congress initially presented them in 2006. And even after their ratification the Obama administration evaded their application. Just a couple of months ago, responding to pressure from the right, the Secretary of State herself was quick to declare that, despite the diplomatic and commercial relations between Venezuela and Iran, there was no evidence that the country was committing violations to justify the application of the law.

It is therefore a valid question to ask what has prompted this change from a president whose campaign speeches advocated negotiation and multilateralism for the resolution of international conflicts.

I think that one factor to consider is that after the NATO invasion of Libya, Europe is not in a position to oppose any unilateral U.S. action, or not even a president like Obama can resist the imperial temptation to exploit the moment to mark his territory.

Another element is that, in his effort for reelection, Obama is doing everything possible to leave his Republican opponents out of bullets by using them himself. Never mind that he forgoes the vaunted soft power that supposedly characterizes his mandate and which earned him a Nobel Prize in advance – of which there is no longer even a memory. At this point what counts is to put on that cowboy outfit which is so well liked by the American electorate.

The reality is that any U.S. president, regardless of skin color, class origin or his reformist dreams, is nothing but the `manager’ of a system that implies he act according to a hegemonic logic that is repeated until fatigued. American politicians need not be imaginative to be effective. Ultimately they rely on the complicity or the impotence of the rest of the world.

Wherever a regime is found that does not submit to the will of the United States, it is demonized and conditions are then created for armed intervention. Meanwhile, by way of these unilateral laws, they prevent the competition from taking advantage, over U.S. firms, of the situation. As a result, Congress, encouraged by the trans-nationals’ lobby efforts, happily votes in favor of these measures, no matter the international reaction.

Iran’s case continues to be paradigmatic to explain this logic, though we can prove that the Cubans are an even better example. Even as an petroleum-rich country, the Iranian industry needs modernization, and above all, is unable to produce the refined kind of material required by the economy, which explains their interest in developing the country’s nuclear production, now used as an excuse to attack it.

Inclusive with the announcement of these measures the escalation against Venezuela is advanced. The sanctions were announced to prohibit PDVSA from competing for U.S. government contracts, accessing government funding through the Export-Import Bank or obtaining licenses to export from the United States, which mean little in practical terms, because for years the Venezuelan company has not enjoyed these benefits.

Moreover, the U.S. government was quick to clarify that such penalties do not apply to subsidiaries of PDVSA, which specifically referred to CITGO, which owns refineries and a fuel distribution chain in the United States. It also did not affect Venezuela’s oil exports to the U.S. It couldn’t be otherwise, since the U.S. economy requires the 1.4 million barrels per day supplied by Venezuela, and no president can afford to allow Americans to stand in line to buy gasoline. If you doubt my word, ask Jimmy Carter.

However, the government of Venezuela know that dog has a long history, and this explains his reaction to the move. Rightfully, Venezuelans have interpreted the decision as a violation of their sovereignty to establish political and commercial relations with whomever they deem relevant. They have used the occasion to mobilize the population, especially PDVSA workers, to reject U.S. interference, forcing the opposition to demonstrate, once again, its anti-nationalistic nature.

Therefore, Rafael Ramírez, Minister of Energy and Petroleum, while clearly stating that the country was ready for any eventuality, also reaffirmed that they would respond with caution and intelligence, focusing the problem on what he called a U.S. offensive against OPEC countries, an element seldom taken into account when analyzing the current international situation, although so evident.

President Hugo Chávez – always so loquacious and willing to confront the United States whenever provoked – has also behaved with the same moderation. So far, to this point, and although probably not for much longer, he has allowed his Foreign Minister, Nicolas Maduro, and Ramírez himself, to assume the protagonists’ role in this dispute and, perhaps calculating that Obama is a fan of the medium, his statements have been limited to a brief comment on Twitter, where he says, referring to the measures, “Welcome Obama, never forget that we are children of Bolivar.”