The stated goal of U.S. policy is combatting the corruption of the Venezuelan government. The unstated reality is that the Trump administration is doing exactly what it accuses the Maduro government of doing: weaponizing access to food.
The emergency food program—known by its Spanish initials, CLAP—is the main food source for an estimated 15% of Venezuelans and a critical supplement for a far larger percentage of the population. Officials in the Maduro government, including top military brass, “are using the CLAP program to steal from it, launder money, and for political control,” the senior Treasury official said. “Corrupt Maduro continue to seek illicit revenue streams, even as the Venezuelan people and economy sink deeper into despair,” said another senior Treasury official, Sigal Mandelker, the undersecretary for sanctions.
The government’s defenders blame U.S. sanctions, not corruption or incompetence, as the cause of the social collapse. They depict CLAP as a program for the people of modest means. A reporter from the socialist news site Liberation visited Caracas and found food was available but expensive. CLAP, he said, is a support program, like food stamps in the United States.
One neighbor in a major housing community, Carmen Requena, showed me the latest CLAP monthly box she received. An architect, she lives alone. Her box contained six pounds of rice, six pounds of black beans, two pounds of lentils, two liter bottles of oil, two bags of milk, 2.2 pounds of sugar, 10 pounds of corn flour, the essential ingredients of arepas, mayonnaise, catsup, two cans of tuna fish.
That’s not a lot to live on. By sanctioning CLAP officials, the new U.S. policy will, by design, deny food to Venezuelans like Carmen Requena. With Venezuelans already suffering record-levels of malnutrition, famine is a looming possibility.
The United States has countenanced starvation as a weapon of war in Yemen. After the U.S-backed, Saudi-led coalitionbombed all of the fishing ports and food production facilities, famine spread across the country. Hunger was not a byproduct of the war. It was the goal of war: to starve the Houthi rebels into submission.
In Venezuela, the failure of the inept April 30 uprising has generated a search for new ways to force Maduro from power. The brutal calculus seems to be punishing the CLAP will deprive the Maduro government of an instrument of political control. That may be true but it may not be true.
“If it is scarcity that grants Maduro the power to weaponize food,” asks political scientist Dorothy Kronick, “would more scarcity weaken that power? The answer is far from obvious.”
Kronick, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Francisco Rodriguez, a private sector economist, have called for the creation of an “oil-for-food” or “oil-for-necessities” program to address the dramatic impact U.S. sanctions will have on the Venezuelans.
The program, modeled on the oil-for-food program established in Iraq in the 1990s, would enable international donors to bypass the government to deliver essential foodstuffs to the population While Saddam Husseein manipulated the oil-for-food program, it did help sustain Iraq’s people while the government was under sanctions
The distribution of food and essentials imported through the program should be carried out by independent agencies and overseen by committees integrated by representatives of both the Guaidó and Maduro administrations. Unlike in the case of Iraq, cooperation between the government and opposition is necessary in order for this program (or any alternative to it) to be minimally operational, as Maduro does not currently have access to the bank accounts necessary to collect payments from oil exported to the United States. Representatives of the Venezuelan opposition must also be involved on the ground in the implementation of the program in order to ensure that access to the program is not politicized.
But absent some kind of agreement between the government and the opposition, coordination on food seems out of the question. Both sides, it seems, would rather use weaponize food than forestall famine.
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