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The Guaidó Era

A Sixth, Very Long Coup Attempt

Venezuela investigates Guaido for electrical sabotage

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido speaks to the crowd during a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela, March 12, 2019. "Venezuela investigates Guaido for electrical sabotage," China Daily, March 13, 2019.

Joe Emersberger is an engineer, writer, and activist based in Canada. His writing, focused on the Western media’s coverage of the Americas, can be found at FAIR, CounterPunch, The Canary, Telesur English, and ZComm. Justin Podur is an associate professor at the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change at York University. He is the author of Haiti’s New Dictatorship, Siegebreakers, and America’s Wars on Democracy in Rwanda and the DR Congo.

This article is excerpted and adapted from chapter 3 of Extraordinary Threat: The U.S. Empire, the Media, and Twenty Years of Coup Attempts in Venezuela (Monthly Review Press, 2021).

U.S. sanctions killed tens of thousands of Venezuelans before the recognition of Juan Guaidó as interim president in 2019 led to even more murderous sanctions. In August 2017, president Donald Trump imposed financial sanctions on Venezuela that caused the government to lose at least $6 billion in oil revenues over the following twelve months. That is about 6 percent of Venezuela’s gross domestic product, in a region where most countries spend about 7 percent of gross domestic product annually on health care.1 Western journalists decried the Puntos Rojos exit polling stations but were impervious to the reality that U.S. sanctions are a gun to the head of the Venezuelan electorate.2 The message is that tremendous economic pain will be inflicted on the country until Nicolás Maduro is gone.

Francisco Rodríguez, an anti-Maduro Venezuelan economist, acknowledged the dramatic correlation between Trump’s financial sanctions and a greatly accelerated fall in Venezuela’s oil production in a piece he wrote for the Washington Office on Latin America.3 (Table 1 shows his key findings.)

Table 1. Monthly Percentage Growth in Oil Production in Venezuela and Colombia (2013–2019)

Period Venezuela Colombia
January 2013–December 2015 0.00 0.00
December 2015–August 2017 -1.00 -0.80
August 2017–January 2019 -3.00 0.30

Source: Francisco Rodríguez, “Crude Realities: Understanding Venezuela’s Economic Collapse,” Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights (blog), Washington Office on Latin America, September 20, 2018.

Rodríguez found that oil production in Venezuela followed the same general pattern as in Colombia until Trump’s financial sanctions were imposed. Production levels in both countries basically tracked international oil prices, but after Trump’s sanctions were imposed production levels in both countries diverged drastically: Venezuela’s plummeted while Colombia’s stabilized. Had Venezuela’s production continued to follow the same pattern as before the financial sanctions, its oil revenues would have been drastically higher.

How exactly did Trump’s financial sanctions hurt Venezuela?

One of the Venezuelan government’s major assets, the state-owned CITGO corporation, is based in Texas. CITGO’s parent company, PDVSA, was Venezuela’s state-owned oil company.4 The sanctions blocked CITGO from sending profits and dividends back to Venezuela, an amount averaging about $1 billion per year since 2015.5 Rodríguez explained that Trump’s sanctions also made it impossible for PDVSA to continue paying suppliers through the issuance of New York law promissory notes. The United States has tremendous leverage because all the Venezuelan government’s outstanding foreign currency bonds are governed under New York state law.6 Sanctions similarly ended PDVSA’s very effective practice of getting loans for joint ventures that it subsequently paid back through oil production.

Table 2 shows Venezuela’s estimated oil revenues for the first twelve months after Trump’s financial sanctions. The price of Venezuela’s oil increased linearly since August 2017, from $50 to about $70 per barrel.

Table 2. Real/Hypothetical Impact of Trump Sanctions on Production, Price & Revenue of Oil in Venezuela (9/2017–8/2018)

No Trump Sanctions (Hypothetical) Trump Sanctions in Place
Production (MBD) Price WTI oil Revenue
(billions USD)
Production (MBD) Price WTI oil Revenue
(billions USD)
Sep ’17 1.9 50 2.89 1.9 50 2.89
Oct ’17 1.88 51.82 2.97 1.84 51.82 2.89
Nov ’17 1.86 53.64 3.04 1.77 53.64 2.89
Dec ’17 1.85 55.45 3.11 1.71 55.45 2.88
Jan ’18 1.83 57.27 3.18 1.65 57.27 2.87
Feb ’18 1.81 59.09 3.25 1.58 59.09 2.84
Mar ’18 1.79 60.91 3.32 1.52 60.91 2.81
Apr ’18 1.77 62.73 3.38 1.45 62.73 2.78
May ’18 1.75 64.55 3.44 1.39 64.55 2.73
Jun ’18 1.74 66.36 3.5 1.33 66.36 2.68
Jul ’18 1.72 68.18 3.56 1.26 68.18 2.62
Aug ’18 1.7 70 3.62 1.2 70 2.56

Source: Author calculations using data presented by Francisco Rodríguez, “Crude Realities: Understanding Venezuela’s Economic Collapse,” Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights (blog), Washington Office on Latin America, September 20, 2018.

The predictions about Venezuela’s oil production had Trump not imposed sanctions on the country assume that it would have continued to fall at the same rate as in the twelve months before the financial sanctions. This means a decline of 11 percent, which is very close to the worst-case projections that were made before financial sanctions were imposed.7 With the sanctions in place, however, production fell by 37 percent. The difference in total revenue between the two cases (over the twelve-month period) is about $6 billion. That estimate is even larger if it is assumed that Venezuela’s production would have done better (declined by less than the “worst case” of about 11 percent) in the absence of Trump’s sanctions. And no additional impact of that $6 billion loss beyond the oil industry is assumed, which also contributes to making it a conservative estimate of the impact of Trump’s sanctions.

These $6 billion in losses from oil exports were in U.S. dollars, which means that Venezuela lost the hard currency needed to pay for imports.8 This is a crucial point. In 2018, Venezuela was only able to import $11.7 billion in goods, according to Torino Capital. The impact on medicine imports was especially destructive. According to U.S. economist Mark Weisbrot, while its economy was still growing in 2013, Venezuela was importing about $2 billion per year in medicine.9 By 2018, that amount had fallen to an astonishing low of $140 million—an especially horrifying development because medicines are much more difficult to substitute with local production than food.10 It is impossible to deny that a collapse in medicine imports has killed thousands of people between 2017 and 2018, as Mark Weisbrot and U.S. economist Jeffrey Sachs argued in a paper published in April 2019. Weisbrot and Sachs cite a 31 percent increase in general mortality in the 2017–18 period, according to a survey by anti-Maduro Venezuelan academics. That increase works out to an extra forty thousand deaths. Caution should be used when citing opposition sources, but there is no denying that thousands were being killed. Even Rodríguez estimated that about a third of the increased mortality in 2018 could be due to sanctions.11 In a civilized world, these sanctions would put numerous high-ranking U.S. officials in jail for murder.

U.S. sanctions against Venezuela are clearly crimes against humanity, and not only for their impact on medicines. The Venezuelan government’s Local Committees for Supply and Production (CLAP) program has also been undermined by U.S. sanctions. CLAPs distribute subsidized food and other basic products directly to households throughout Venezuela.12 About 60 percent of Venezuelan households have received supplies from these committees, according to Datanalisis.13 Another anti-Maduro source, the annual ENCOVI surveys, reported that almost 90 percent of households were receiving products through the CLAP program by December 2018.14 Slashing the Maduro government’s revenues through sanctions inevitably devastates its capacity to maintain a program on which Venezuelans have come to depend. This could not possibly be justified even if Maduro were a dictator. In the short term, U.S. belligerence entrenched Maduro’s electoral base behind him. But in the long term, the United States may coerce the kind of electoral result in Venezuela that, in 1990, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush produced in Nicaragua through a decade of terrorism and sanctions.

When Trump recognized Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president, it signaled a new, deadlier phase of sanctions. Two days after Guaidó declared himself president, Trump appointed Elliott Abrams, experienced in running genocidal U.S. proxy wars in Central America in the 1980s, as special envoy to Venezuela.15 It was impossible to miss the significance, the flaunting of U.S. imperial impunity.

Trump’s recognition of Guaidó was a legal pretext to make U.S. sanctions more devastating. Venezuelan government assets in the United States were seized and officially transferred to Guaidó’s self-declared interim government. Oil shipments from Venezuela to the United States would also now be invoiced only by the government recognized by Washington. In other words, Maduro’s government would simply be throwing money away if it continued oil shipments to the United States because it would not be paid for them, amounting to an embargo on Venezuela’s oil. Torino Capital immediately revised its projections for Venezuela’s economy in the coming year. It had predicted an 11 percent contraction in real gross domestic product for 2019. Shortly after Guaidó’s recognition, it revised that to a 26 percent contraction—a projection that proved extremely accurate.16

Recall that Barack Obama first imposed economic sanctions on Venezuela in March 2015 through an executive order that formally declared a national emergency (in the United States) based on the preposterous claim that “the situation in Venezuela” was “an extraordinary threat to the national security of the United States.”17 Both he, and later Trump, would renew the fraudulent national emergency every year. A bogus national emergency was also Reagan’s legal pretext to strangle Nicaragua’s economy during the 1980s and back Contra terrorists who opposed the government.

Not every national emergency is created equal. For instance, in February 2019, when Trump declared a national emergency to bypass Congress over building his infamous wall on the U.S.–Mexican border, legal challenges were quickly initiated.18 One of the arguments used to oppose Trump was, as one law professor said, that “the president can’t just say any old thing is a national emergency.”19 And yet, this has been precisely the case in Venezuela.

U.S. sanctions are also a flagrant violation of the Organization of American States Charter, which the U.S. government has signed. In Chapter IV, Article 19, it states: “No State or group of States has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any other State. The foregoing principle prohibits not only armed force but also any other form of interference or attempted threat against the personality of the State or against its political, economic, and cultural elements.”20

Article 2 of the UN Charter states: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”21

What If Venezuela Behaved Like the United States?

Imagine Venezuelan president Maduro saying, as Trump did, that he refused to rule out a “military option” against the United States, or saying that the U.S. military could “topple” Trump’s government “very quickly.” Imagine if a high-ranking Maduro government official said, as secretary of state Rex Tillerson did, that the U.S. military might step in as an “agent of change” and send Trump off to a nice “hacienda” somewhere; or if another top Maduro official said, as Tillerson’s successor Mike Pompeo did, that Venezuela was “very hopeful that there can be a transition” in the United States and that Venezuela’s intelligence services were discussing with regional allies how to achieve that “better outcome.”22 All of these examples were threats made long before the United States recognized Guaidó. Trump’s first statement about a possible “military option” for Venezuela was made in August 2017. The recognition of Guaidó made such threats more frequent and severe.

Consider, for example, the wild remarks made by John Bolton, Trump’s former national security advisor. After January 23, 2019, the date of Guaidó’s self-declaration, Bolton used Twitter to constantly implore the Venezuelan military to turn on Maduro. On March 12, Bolton tweeted: “The U.S. fully supports Interim President Juan Guaidó and the National Assembly. We will continue to intensify our efforts to end Maduro’s usurpation of Venezuela’s Presidency and will hold the military and security forces responsible for protecting the Venezuelan people.”

Bolton, a key U.S. official responsible for the Iraq War that cost at least half a million Iraqi lives, was, like his superiors, never held accountable for his crimes. The spectacle of Bolton not only out of jail but issuing threats and presuming to hold anyone “responsible” was disgusting.23

In a radio interview on February 1, Bolton joked about having Maduro sent to a U.S.-run torture camp in Cuba.24 Reuters seemed to chuckle along with Bolton’s thug humor: “Move over ayatollahs: Bolton turns tweets and talons on Maduro.”25 The Reuters article included a cartoon that showed Maduro behind bars wearing an orange jumpsuit while Bolton danced outside the cell. It even claimed that the cartoon, by Venezuelan cartoonist Fernando Pinilla, hung on Bolton’s office wall.

Weeks passed without the coup that Bolton clearly expected to occur immediately after Guaidó’s announcement. The United States issued grave warnings to Maduro not to arrest Guaidó, but for almost two decades Venezuela had, to an amazing degree, been tolerant of an openly insurrectionary U.S.-backed opposition.26 That crucial fact seemed to have escaped the empire’s notice. Guaidó led large rallies. The government also rallied its supporters to the streets. Another U.S. provocation would have to be arranged.

The Failed Aid Stunt

On February 12, 2019, at a large rally in eastern Caracas where upper- and middle-class opposition supporters tend to live, Guaidó ordered the Venezuelan military to allow humanitarian aid into the country through the border with Colombia on February 23—even though he lacked any legal authority to do so.27 The stunt failed to incite a coup, as the military simply obeyed Maduro’s orders not to let in the shipment. Frenzied propaganda aside, it was a non-event.

This was the shipment of U.S. government-supplied items that was to be sent into Venezuela without passing through official UN channels and international aid groups already working in the country. 28 Recall that the U.S. government has objected to aid being delivered to Gaza in defiance of Israel’s criminal blockade.29 If Israel pretended to force “aid” into Gaza, as the United States attempted to do in Venezuela, it would rival the cynicism of the stunt at the Colombia-Venezuela border. The Trump administration should have been forced to answer at least two questions by the Western media.

Instead of sending aid, why not end the economic sanctions? The loss of $6 billion per year from Trump’s sanctions dwarfs the $20 million in aid his administration intended to force through the border.30 And why not simply increase donations to the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, two organizations that were already working in Venezuela?

Predictably, no such questioning of the Trump administration took place. Instead, Western readers were bombarded with deceptive articles, such as one by Jim Wyss for the Miami Herald. Its headline was: “Venezuela Aid Organizers Imagine a ‘River of People’ Overwhelming Maduro’s Blockade.”31 Wyss wrote that “Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro continues to reject international aid—going so far as to blockade a road that might have been used for its delivery.”

Wyss’s article contained two big lies. First, in November 2018, Maduro publicly requested aid and the United Nations authorized it for Venezuela shortly afterward.32 This was even reported by Reuters at the time.33 But that did not stop Reuters from writing numerous articles a few months later with headlines such as “U.S. Looking for Ways to Get Aid into Venezuela: Envoy,” ignoring the option of simply donating money to aid workers who were already in the country.34

Second, the “blockaded” road widely mentioned at the time was the Tienditas Bridge linking Venezuela to Colombia. It had been blocked since 2016, when it was completed but never opened. U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo was responsible for the allegation, made in a tweet, that the bridge had been blocked by Maduro to stop aid. A CBC article from February 15, 2019, admitted to having been misled, like other news media, by Pompeo.35 But in the same article, the CBC also claimed that the Tienditas Bridge had been “featured in stories describing how the president of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, is keeping international food aid from his desperate citizens.” The CBC debunked one lie but spread an even more serious one: that Maduro was keeping aid from his citizens. There was also a huge lie of omission in the CBC article, as there was no mention of U.S. economic sanctions.

An earlier CBC article from February 8 ran with a subheading that falsely claimed: “Maduro says aid not needed in Venezuela, Guaidó wants to allow it.”36 The CBC later revised the article. It added a clause in the text of the article that said, “although Venezuela has accepted foreign aid in the past, and Maduro has not always been consistent in his statements on the subject.” But referring to international aid received in “the past” was deceptive. The CBC should have said that Venezuela “is receiving” (present tense) international aid from the United Nations and the Red Cross.37 And the dishonest subheading remained in the revised CBC article.

Numerous articles also ignored the historical precedent. When Abrams, Trump’s special representative for Venezuela, was an assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs in the 1980s, he used humanitarian aid as cover to arm the Contra terrorists in Nicaragua.38 In the Miami Herald article by Wyss, the use of U.S. aid for military purposes is presented as something only Maduro suspected. Independent U.S. foreign policy critics would have mentioned the historical precedent, but no effort was made to cite them. The journalistic approach used by Wyss and many others resembles the run up to the Iraq invasion of 2003, when completely factual statements that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction were often attributed solely to the discredited Iraqi government—and not to critical, independent observers.39

The aid stunt was aimed at giving the Venezuelan military a humanitarian pretext for turning on Maduro. As usual, Bolton made U.S. intentions impossible for anyone to miss. One of his many tweets before the aid stunt warned: “Any actions by the Venezuelan military to condone or instigate violence against peaceful civilians at the Colombian and Brazilian borders will not be forgotten. Leaders still have time to make the right choice.”40

U.S. senator Marco Rubio tweeted directly to Venezuela’s director of military counterintelligence: “@Ivanr_HD you should think very carefully about the actions you take over the next few days in #Venezuela. Because your actions will determine how you spend the rest of your life. Do you really want to be more loyal to #Maduro than to your own family?”41

The day after the failed aid stunt, Rubio tweeted, without comment, a picture showing former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi bloodied and in the clutches of the U.S.-backed rebels who raped and murdered him.42

This was open mafioso-style behavior intended to push a transparently fraudulent aid mission and incite a coup. The stunt was further discredited to any informed observer when Grayzone and, weeks later, even the New York Times, debunked claims that Maduro supporters had set some of the trucks carrying aid ablaze. Guaidó supporters had actually set the trucks on fire.43

Amnesty International Adds Reinforcement

Three days before the aid stunt (and shortly after meeting with Guaidó), Amnesty International issued a report denouncing an allegedly brutal response by Venezuelan security forces to recent antigovernment protests in poor neighborhoods.44 Amnesty’s Americas director, Erika Guevara Rosa, wrote, “international justice is the only hope for victims of human rights violations in Venezuela. It is time to activate all available mechanisms to prevent further atrocities.” Given the circumstances, the report read like a barely disguised attempt to bolster Trump’s threats against Venezuela from a human rights angle. Venezuela was days away from what may easily have resulted in a U.S.-backed coup or even invasion. What were the human rights implications of a U.S.-backed military coup or invasion? Anyone with knowledge of Latin American history knows the very disturbing answer. But Amnesty was completely unconcerned.

The Amnesty report was titled “Venezuela: Hunger, Punishment and Fear, the Formula for Repression Used by Authorities Under Nicolás Maduro.” The insinuation was that “hunger” was a weapon Maduro used against the public, even though the text only referred to food distribution in the following sentence: “There is a strong presence of pro-Nicolás Maduro armed groups (commonly known as ‘colectivos’) in these areas, where residents depend to a large extent on the currently limited state programs to distribute staple foods.”

The “limited state programs” referred to CLAP. Amnesty not only ignored Trump’s attack on CLAP, but it also cast as thugs the organized poor people distributing food to millions of people. When using the term colectivo, the report referred only to poor people who are armed and therefore vilified them as criminal. This is a very partisan use of the term and is often deployed by the opposition.

According to George Ciccariello-Maher, a U.S. scholar who has done extensive research on the grassroots Chavista organizations in the poorest neighborhoods, the term colectivo is used by these groups to refer to themselves, and the vast majority of them are not armed. The term means armed, progovernment criminals only in the U.S.-backed opposition’s definition.45

Thus, while Amnesty criticized Venezuela’s government for “stigmatizing” protesters in poor neighborhoods, it itself stigmatized Chavistas in poor areas by using the term colectivos as the opposition does. And this despite the fact that colectivos (armed or not) would be targets for savage repression by the opposition if it ever seized power. All six U.S.-backed coup attempts since 2002 have demonstrated their total disregard for the lives of the poor, and for Chavistas in particular. The opposition’s applause for the brutal coup-installed dictatorship in Bolivia, which took power in 2019 and governed for almost a year before democracy was restored, dramatically underscores this point.

When questioned directly about the financial sanctions Trump imposed on Venezuela in August 2017, Amnesty replied that it took no position on U.S. sanctions. As for its position regarding statements by U.S. officials and politicians encouraging the Venezuelan military to perpetrate a coup, Amnesty replied that “responsible discussion on the current state of human rights in Venezuela should not be focused on statements made by parties outside the country.”46

This was shocking. U.S. sanctions are attacks on Venezuelans’ rights to health and food—indeed, on their very lives. U.S. threats against Venezuela and its open encouragement of a military coup are similarly indefensible acts—and also grave threats to human rights. But Amnesty claimed that staying silent about those facts was the responsible thing to do.

On January 25, 2019, Amnesty received a petition asking it to change its position and oppose U.S. economic sanctions and the deliberate incitement of a military coup in Venezuela. It was signed by filmmaker and political activist John Pilger, former UN special rapporteur to Venezuela Alfred de Zayas, and Canadian author Linda McQuaig, among others.47 On February 7, Amnesty updated its position on U.S. sanctions and threats—by asking the U.S. government to be careful in imposing economic sanctions and to “monitor” their impact on the “most vulnerable groups.”48 This was absurd. The deadly impact of sanctions had been well established for over a year before Trump made them even worse in January 2019. Regarding U.S. threats and incitement of a military coup, Amnesty now vaguely requested that the “international community” follow the law. It did not single out Trump, even though his government was driving the attacks on Venezuela. Moreover, Amnesty’s timid request to follow the law was contradicted by its position that the United States should merely “monitor” its illegal economic sanctions.

It was infuriating to see Amnesty, a major human rights group, completely incapable of denouncing grave abuses by the most transparently racist and cynical U.S. president in recent memory.

Another Eminent Fraud: The UN Rights Chief

On March 20, 2019, UN high commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet made a statement about Venezuela: “Although this pervasive and devastating economic and social crisis began before the imposition of the first economic sanctions in 2017, I am concerned that the recent sanctions on financial transfers related to the sale of Venezuelan oil within the United States may contribute to aggravating the economic crisis, with possible repercussions on people’s basic rights and wellbeing.”49

In a literal reading of her words, even if the sanctions made a preexisting crisis worse, they would only have a “possible” negative impact on “people’s basic rights and wellbeing”—a total absurdity. Bachelet’s cowardly nonsense contrasted sharply with the candor of Alfred De Zayas, a UN-appointed special investigator who visited Venezuela in 2017.50 He said that U.S. sanctions amounted to “economic warfare.”

Bachelet said that Maduro’s government did not “fully acknowledge” the scale of the economic crisis, but she herself failed to acknowledge the U.S. economic strangulation of Venezuela. She also said nothing about repeated U.S. military threats. And while Bachelet failed to dissent against U.S. crimes, she hypocritically expressed concern about dissent within Venezuela—where Guaidó was free to lead a U.S.-backed insurrection against Maduro’s government.

In July, Bachelet released another report in which she less timidly stated the obvious about devastating U.S. sanctions, but was still unable or unwilling to demand that they be lifted. Her report said that “the economy of Venezuela, particularly its oil industry and food production systems, were already in crisis before any sectoral sanctions were imposed.”51 That’s precisely what makes U.S. sanctions so depraved. Imagine a defense attorney saying, “Your Honor, I will show that the victim was already in intensive care when my client began to assault him.”52 Attacking somebody who is vulnerable is much worse than attacking somebody who is not. This was especially true after Trump escalated U.S. sanctions in August 2017. But rather than make that obvious point, Bachelet’s report stated the following:

Nevertheless, the latest economic sanctions are exacerbating further the effects of the economic crisis, and thus the humanitarian situation, given that most of the foreign exchange earnings derive from oil exports, many of which are linked to the U.S. market. The Government has agreed to gradually authorize humanitarian assistance from the United Nations and other actors. However, the level of assistance is minimal vis-à-vis the scale of the crisis and there is an urgent need to adopt structural economic reforms.

After admitting that U.S. policy was deliberately worsening “the humanitarian situation,” the report demanded that Maduro’s government offset the damage through “economic reforms”—but not that U.S. sanctions be lifted, even though their very objective is to make any economic recovery impossible.

Only two months earlier, on May 16, Rubio approvingly tweeted that Maduro “can’t access funds to rebuild electric grid or PDVSA.”53 In March and April, Venezuela had been hit with unusually severe electrical blackouts. Maduro claimed (plausibly) that the blackouts were caused by opposition sabotage, using snipers and cyberattacks. But even if that claim turned out to be false, the much larger point Rubio acknowledged—and celebrated—was the obvious link between U.S. sanctions and the reduced capacity of Maduro’s government to provide essential services to all Venezuelans.54 Could Bachelet possibly have missed how utterly vile U.S. objectives were, especially after a high-profile figure like Rubio had made them explicit?

In August 2019, Trump escalated the sanctions yet again by imposing a blanket ban on dealing with Maduro’s government. This basically meant a full trade embargo.55

In a December interview with Anya Parampil of the investigative website Grayzone, Rodríguez, the prominent anti-Maduro economist, described how opposition legislators blocked a law that would have authorized the UN Development Programme to procure parts to repair Venezuela’s electrical grid—parts Maduro’s government would not be able to get on its own due to sanctions. “The more hardline groups, in particular Voluntad Popular [Guaidó’s party at the time] and Primero Justicia, decided to block the law,” Rodríguez said. “Publicly they haven’t made their argument clear but everybody knows the rationale is that they believe that anything that makes Venezuelans’ lives better is giving oxygen to the Maduro regime.”56 Indeed—and a conclusion like this should have been stated by Bachelet if even an anti-Maduro Venezuelan like Rodríguez could do it.

Problems Emerge as Coup Attempt Drags On

By the end of 2019, four U.S.-backed governments in the Western Hemisphere—Chile, Ecuador, Haiti, and Colombia—were shaken by massive protests against neoliberal economic policies. The unrest was met with deadly responses by security forces. The regional “good guys” in the U.S. government’s story were exposing themselves as “bad guys” in a conspicuous way. The U.S. government, the Organization of American States secretary general Luis Almagro, Guaidó, and other Venezuelan opposition leaders all responded by accusing Cuba and Venezuela of stirring up the unrest.57 It was alleged that Maduro, cash strapped and supposedly on the brink of collapse, was successfully destabilizing several U.S.-backed governments. Maduro mocked the allegations.58 The protests undermined the idea that surrendering to Washington paved the way to peace and prosperity: Chavistas could now point to massive unrest under several U.S.-backed governments in the region.

Corporate media diverted public attention toward pro-U.S. protesters in Hong Kong. Alan MacLeod, writing for FAIR, showed that the Hong Kong protests received about ten times more coverage from the New York Times and CNN than the protests in Ecuador, Chile, and Haiti combined. This was especially striking considering that seventy-six protesters had been killed in Ecuador, Chile, and Haiti, while only two protest-related deaths had occurred in Hong Kong.59

The U.S.-backed military coup in Bolivia in November 2019 also exposed the hypocrisy of the Venezuelan opposition and its cheerleaders. By the end of 2019, Guaidó, who applauded the coup, was strutting around Caracas pretending to defy a “dictatorship” while Evo Morales, who won Bolivia’s presidential election in October, was threatened by a real dictatorship if he dared return from exile.60 But, despite his remarkable freedom to operate in Venezuela, the Guaidó insurrection became increasingly undermined by corruption scandals, internal disputes, and embarrassing failures.

On April 30, 2019, Guaidó announced a military uprising while standing outside an air force base in wealthy eastern Caracas. The uprising was exposed as farcical within hours. Trump was reduced to publicly whining that Cuba had foiled it.61 Five weeks later, on June 6, the Washington Post said it acquired a recording in which Pompeo, perhaps trying to shift blame for the U.S. failure to oust Maduro, aired frustrations over how difficult it was to keep the opposition united.62 Then, on June 14, a hardline opposition outlet, PanAm Post, reported that Guaidó’s representatives had stolen funds that were supposed to help recent defectors from the Venezuelan military living in Colombia.63 The tone of the article was unabashedly angry and sarcastic. It mocked Guaidó’s promises to treat military defectors like heroes, saying, “surprise, heroes don’t starve.” But it also said many defectors spent money on alcohol and sex workers, and “didn’t leave a good impression” in Colombia. Reuters conveyed the basics of the story the next day in far less detail and using an objective tone.64

In September, photographs (and later, video) emerged of Guaidó smiling with armed members of the Colombian drug-trafficking paramilitaries known as Los Rastrojos during the time of the aid stunt. Reuters reported that Guaidó denied knowing who the men were, but did not mention that one Rastrojos member who posed with Guaidó was wearing a gun. Would not Guaidó’s security team have to know and trust an armed man to let him get that close? Was the man actually part of Guaidó’s security team during the aid stunt?

In early December, another pro-opposition outlet, Armando, published new allegations that were damaging to Guaidó.65 Nine opposition legislators were accused of receiving kickbacks in exchange for helping a Colombian businessman evade U.S. sanctions. Guaidó said he would not tolerate corruption. But one of the accused lawmakers, José Brito, fired back, saying Guaidó was corrupt and that people close to Guaidó bought a nightclub in Madrid with illegally acquired funds.

This public dispute with Brito came at the same moment when Humberto Calderón Berti, who had been recently fired by Guaidó as his representative to Colombia, gave a lengthy interview to the PanAm Post in which he portrayed Guaidó as being surrounded by “toxic” people. Calderon singled out Leopoldo López as a bad influence.66

Remarkably, strong attacks on Guaidó began to appear in some U.S. corporate media. Opposition figures in the United States, who had soured on Guaidó as the coup attempt dragged on, appeared to have mobilized to make him the scapegoat, and perhaps position themselves to replace him. For example, a Miami Herald article from December 4, 2019, ran with the headline: “Poll Shows Venezuela’s Guaidó Is Losing Popularity and Has Sunk to Maduro Level.” A day earlier, a Reuters headline stated: “‘Missed His Moment’: Opposition Corruption Scandal Undermines Venezuela’s Guaidó.”67

As 2019 ended, it looked as if Guaidó may not be reelected as the National Assembly president for 2020.68 Indeed, on January 5, progovernment assembly members voted with opposition legislators to elect Luis Parra as the new president of the National Assembly.69 Guaidó’s allies disputed the vote and held their own in the headquarters of El Nacional, an anti-Maduro newspaper.70 Needless to say, they claimed Guaidó was reelected. Much more importantly, the United States continued to back Guaidó and escalate its sanctions even further.

2020: U.S. Crimes Against Humanity Get More Brazen

As the world reeled from the COVID-19 pandemic, Maduro solicited emergency loans that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was making available to member countries. The IMF quickly rejected Maduro’s request, claiming that it was unclear if his government was recognized by UN member states. This was an absurd excuse: in 2002, the IMF, which is traditionally dominated by the U.S. Treasury Department, had immediately offered loans to the Pedro Carmona dictatorship after it ousted Hugo Chávez in a coup. That dictatorship, in power for only two days, was recognized by almost no government but the United States. The IMF’s excuse to reject Maduro’s 2020 request was also ridiculous because, in October 2019, the majority of UN member states voted Venezuela onto the UN Human Rights Council—despite intense U.S. lobbying.71 And yet, the Washington Post editorial board lashed out at Maduro over his request, whining that Maduro “must have known” the loan “would be turned down.” That was indeed predictable, thanks to the same U.S. government that made a spectacle of demanding that Maduro accept “aid.”72

In March 2020, the United States. began imposing sanctions on foreign firms that trade with Venezuela.73 It also announced a Wild West-style bounty on the head of Maduro and other officials, based on drug trafficking allegations that were transparently political in nature—and in some instances, totally preposterous. For example, it was alleged that Maduro’s government intended to “flood” the United States with cocaine.74 This claim, no matter how unhinged, was consistent with the officially declared U.S. “national emergency” that said that Venezuela was an “extraordinary threat” to the United States: a clear example of the aggressor demanding victim status.

Bachelet said in March that, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, “sectoral sanctions” should be “eased or suspended.” She added benevolently that the people in countries targeted by U.S. sanctions (though she never explicitly singled out the United States) “are in no way responsible for the policies being targeted by sanctions”—as if stated U.S. concerns about democracy, human rights, and U.S. “national security” were the reasons countries like Venezuela were targeted.75

Recall that anti-Maduro Venezuelan economist Rodríguez had projected a return to growth for Venezuela in 2020. Additional U.S. sanctions and threats therefore had a clear and savage logic to them, which was to ensure that no economic recovery would take place after years of crisis. Fuel shortages began to plague the country in May as key refineries stopped producing. That month, a raid by U.S. mercenaries who had been hired by Guaidó and his allies was easily snuffed out by the Venezuelan military (with help from armed fishermen). Secretary of State Pompeo denied “direct” U.S. involvement.76 Indeed, “indirect” U.S. involvement was obvious to anyone who closely followed U.S. policy toward Venezuela for the past twenty years, especially during Trump’s presidency, but it was still remarkable that Pompeo would issue only a qualified denial over the raid.

Iranian tankers began to arrive in Venezuela on May 23 with desperately needed gasoline. Iran has formally complained to the United Nations about U.S. threats against the tankers.77 Bernie Sanders, supposedly the leading progressive Democrat, tweeted nothing about it. Only a year earlier, he had tweeted a demand for Maduro to accept aid. Now he was silent as Trump openly sought to block fuel from reaching Venezuela. Democrats in Congress were useless as an opposition—a point that came through clearly in the Venezuela-related chapter of The Room Where It Happened, a memoir Bolton published in June. The person Bolton described as his most serious concern, in terms of stifling him on Venezuela, was Trump’s secretary of the treasury, Steven Mnuchin. Appropriately enough, Bolton barely mentioned the Democrats.78 In fact, Joe Biden, once he secured the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, made it clear that his aggression toward Venezuela would match Trump’s.79

As 2020 came to a close, the United States seemed unwilling to declare an end to the Guaidó era any time soon—the very long attempt to oust Maduro through threats, appeals to the Venezuelan military to perpetrate a coup, and, worst of all, constantly escalating economic warfare. The lack of opposition to this prolonged coup attempt where it would be most effective—in Western governments, media, and prominent nonprofits—has proven lethal. The empire centered in Washington is an extraordinary threat to the world.

Notes

  1. Torino Capital estimates Venezuela’s gross domestic product as $116 billion in 2018. The International Monetary Fund estimated it as $96 billion. See International Monetary Fund, “World Economic Outlook Databases,” accessed April 23, 2021. For regional health care spending as a share of gross domestic product, see World Bank, “Current Health Expenditure (% of GDP),” accessed April 23, 2021.
  2. Puntos Rojos, or “red points,” are kiosks set up by the government close to voting centers on election day. Puntos Rojos are used for exit polling and have also been used by the opposition, except in a different color, in numerous elections over the past twenty years.
  3. Francisco Rodríguez, “Crude Realities: Understanding Venezuela’s Economic Collapse,” Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights (blog), Washington Office on Latin America, September 20, 2018. Rodríguez later presented his data in tabular form to refute claims that a graph he presented was misleading. See Mark Weisbrot and Jeffrey Sachs, “Economists Use ‘Fuzzy Graphs’ to Challenge Data on the Human Cost of Trump Sanctions on Venezuela,” CEPR, May 6, 2019.
  4. Due to U.S. sanctions, PDVSA and CITGO severed ties in 2019. See Anya Parampil, “Blockbuster Oil Bribery Scandal Exposes Corrupt Double-Dealing of Guaidó ‘Attorney General,’” Grayzone, July 14, 2020.
  5. Marianna Parraga and Catherine Ngai, “Exclusive: Venezuela State Oil Firm’s Credit Woes Spread to U.S. Unit Citgo,” Reuters, September 14, 2017.
  6. “All foreign-currency bonds are denominated in dollars, and all are governed by New York law.” Torino Capital, “Venezuela Red Book: Hard Landing,” January 9, 2018, 22.
  7. See Rodríguez, “Crude Realities.”
  8. That is very different from a government “losing” revenue in local currency that it is able to print.
  9. Mark Weisbrot, “Trump’s Other ‘National Emergency’: Sanctions That Kill Venezuelans,” CEPR, February 28, 2019.
  10. This figure came from unpublished data Francisco Rodríguez of Torino Capital supplied to Mark Weisbrot and Jeffrey Sachs for their paper. Mark Weisbrot and Jeffrey Sachs, “Economic Sanctions as Collective Punishment: The Case of Venezuela,” CEPR, April 2019.
  11. Personal communication with Rodríguez on June 26, 2019.
  12. Katrina Kozarek, “CLAP: Venezuela’s Latest Food Distribution and Production Initiative,” Venezuelanalysis, May 22, 2017.
  13. Joshua Goodman, “As Venezuelans Go Hungry, Trump Targets Food Corruption,” Associated Press, September 24, 2018.
  14. Encovi: 7,3 millones de hogares se benefician de las cajas Clap,” Version Final, December 3, 2018.
  15. Amy Goodman, “Allan Nairn: Trump’s Venezuela Envoy Elliott Abrams Is a War Criminal Who Has Abetted Genocide,” Democracy Now!, January 30, 2019.
  16. Joe Emersberger, “Francisco Rodríguez Answers Some Questions I Asked About Venezuela,” Znet, December 16, 2019.
  17. Office of the Press Secretary, “Fact Sheet: Venezuela Executive Order,” White House, March 9, 2015.
  18. Alan Gomez and Christal Hayes, “First Lawsuits Filed Against President Donald Trump’s National Emergency Order,” USA Today, February 15, 2019.
  19. Courtney Vinopal, “3 Legal Arguments That Could Challenge Trump’s National Emergency,” PBS, February 15, 2019.
  20. Organization of American States, Charter of the Organization of American States (A-41), chap. XV, Article 106 (Managua: Organization of American States, 1993), available at oas.org.
  21. United Nations, Charter of the United Nations, chap. 1 (San Francisco: United Nations, 1945), available at un.org.
  22. Andrew Knoll, Patricia Torres, and Steve Kenny, “Trump Alarms Venezuela with Talk of a ‘Military Option,’” New York Times, August 12, 2017; Scott Smith, “Trump: Venezuelan Socialist President Easily Toppled,” US News and World Report, September 25, 2018; “Tillerson Says Venezuelan Military May Turn on Maduro,” BBC, February 2, 2018; Ben Norton, “VIDEO: CIA Director Mike Pompeo Hints U.S. Is Working with Mexico and Colombia to Push Regime Change in Venezuela,” AlterNet, July 26, 2017.
  23. John Bolton (@AmbJohn Bolton), Twitter search of terms Venezuela and military since January 23, 2019, accessed April 23, 2021; John Bolton (@AmbJohnBolton), Twitter post, March 12, 2019, 4:08 pm, accessed April 23, 2021.
  24. Hugh Hewitt, “National Security Adviser Ambassador John Bolton, Interview with Hugh Hewitt,” Hugh Hewitt, February 1, 2019.
  25. Roberta Rampton, “Move Over Ayatollahs: Bolton Turns Tweets and Talons on Maduro,” Reuters, February 27, 2019.
  26. Lesley Wroughton, “S. Envoy Warns Maduro That Actions Against Guaidó Would Be ‘Foolish,’” Reuters, January 30, 2019.
  27. Paul Dobson, “Guaidó Sets Date for Attempted Aid Entry as UN Reiterates Call for Dialogue,” Venezuelanalysis, February 13, 2019.
  28. Ricardo Vaz, “Venezuela: Maduro Leads Military Exercises as Guaidó Appeals to Armed Forces,” Venezuelanalysis, January 28, 2019.
  29. S. Warns Against New Gaza Flotilla Plans,” Reuters, June 24, 2011.
  30. Jim Wyss, “Venezuela Aid Organizers Imagine a ‘River of People’ Overwhelming Maduro’s Blockade,” Miami Herald, February 8, 2019.
  31. Wyss, “Venezuela Aid Organizers Imagine a ‘River of People’ Overwhelming Maduro’s Blockade.”
  32. Stephanie Nebehay and Brian Ellsworth, “N. Approves $9 Million in Aid for Crisis-Stricken Venezuela,” Reuters, November 26, 2018; Paul Dobson, “Maduro Calls on UN to Help Break U.S.-Led Blockade, Supply Medical Equipment,” Venezuelanalysis, November 14, 2019.
  33. Nebehay and Ellsworth, “U.N. Approves $9 Million in Aid for Crisis-Stricken Venezuela.”
  34. Matt Spetalnick and Luc Cohen, “S. Looking for Ways to Get Aid into Venezuela: Envoy,” Reuters, February 14, 2019. Other Reuters articles had similarly deceitful headlines around the time of the aid stunt, such as “Brazil Has 200 Tons of Aid for Venezuela, Trucks Cannot Cross Border,” “‘Disgusting’ That Venezuela’s Maduro Would Close Borders to Aid, Says UK.”
  35. How a Bridge between Colombia and Venezuela Became Part of a Propaganda Fight,” CBC, February 15, 2019.
  36. Fight Over Food Aid a High-Stakes Battle in Venezuela as Hunger Hits Hard,” CBC, February 8, 2019.
  37. Joe Emersberger, “Venezuela Gets Foreign Aid with Maduro’s Consent. Canadian State Media Is ‘Comfortable’ Denying It,” The Canary, February 19, 2019.
  38. Kevin Gosztola (@kgosztola), Twitter post, February 2, 2019, 7 pm, accessed April 23, 2021; Associated Press, “Aide Says U.S. Planes Carried Contra Arms,” New York Times, August 15, 1987.
  39. David Edwards and David Cromwell, “Outrageous Omissions—How the Press Has Buried the Truth of Iraqi Disarmament,” Media Lens, February 28, 2003; David Edwards and David Cromwell, “Blair’s Betrayal Part 1—The Newsnight Debate—Dismantling the Case for War,” Media Lens, February 10, 2003; David Edwards and David Cromwell, “It Wasn’t Just Blair; the Media Also Duped Us,” New Statesman.
  40. John Bolton (@AmbJohnBolton), Twitter post, February 19, 2019, 9:14 pm, accessed April 23, 2021.
  41. Marco Rubio (@marcorubio), Twitter post, February 20, 2019, 9:37 pm, accessed April 23, 2021.
  42. Marco Rubio (@marcorubio), Twitter post, February 24, 2019, accessed April 23, 2021.
  43. Glenn Greenwald, “NYT’s Exposé on the Lies About Burning Aid Trucks in Venezuela Shows How U.S. Government and Media Spread Pro-War Propaganda,” Intercept, March 10, 2019.
  44. Venezuela: Hunger, Punishment and Fear, the Formula for Repression Used by Authorities under Nicolás Maduro,” Amnesty International, February 20, 2019.
  45. George Ciccariello-Maher, “Collective Panic in Venezuela,” Jacobin, June 18, 2014.
  46. Joe Emersberger, “Amnesty International Replied to Questions About Venezuela,” Znet, February 24, 2018.
  47. Amnesty International Should Oppose U.S. Economic Sanctions and Incitement of a Military Coup in Venezuela,” Mint Press News, January 26, 2019.
  48. Joe Emersberger, “Amnesty International Modifies Its Position on U.S. Sanctions and Threats Against Venezuela,” Znet, February 8, 2019.
  49. Michelle Bachelet, “Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet,” 40th Session of the Human Rights Council, March 20, 2019, available at ohchr.org.
  50. Alfred de Zayas, “UN Human Rights Expert: Statement on Venezuela & Ecuador,” Venezuelanalysis, December 13, 2017.
  51. Human Rights Council, Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Situation of Human Rights in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (Geneva: UN Human Rights Council Forty-First Session, 2019).
  52. This analogy (which was a modified version of one used by Caitlin Johnstone) was used in an article for FAIR by Joe Emersberger. Caitlin Johnstone (@caitoz), Twitter post, April 25, 2019, 9:19 pm, accessed April 23, 2021; Joe Emersberger, “Study Linking U.S. Sanctions to Venezuelan Deaths Buried by Reuters for Over a Month,” FAIR, June 14, 2019.
  53. Marco Rubio (@marcorubio), Twitter post, May 16, 2019, 4:05 pm, accessed April 23, 2021.
  54. Paul Dobson, “Venezuelan Government Announces Arrests over Electrical Blackouts,” Venezuelanalysis, April 24, 2019.
  55. Lucas Koerner and Ricardo Vaz, “Washington Escalates Venezuela Sanctions into Full-Fledged Embargo,” Venezuelanalysis, August 6, 2019.
  56. Anya Parampil, “S. Sanctions ‘Carpet Bombed Venezuela’s Economy’: Opposition Advisor & Economist Francisco Rodríguez Interviewed by Anya Parampil,” Reddit, December 21, 2019.
  57. Lisa Lambert and Daphne Psaledakis, “Pompeo Says U.S. Will Help Prevent Latin American Protests Becoming Riots,” Reuters, December 2, 2019; AFP, “Almagro denuncia ‘patrón’ de desestabilización de Venezuela y Cuba en la región,” Voz de America, October 25, 2019; Juan Guaidó (@jguaido), Twitter post, October 7, 2019, 10:36 pm; Julio Borges (@JulioBorges), Twitter post, October 19, 2019, 12:17 pm; “Juan Guaidó: ‘Nicolás Maduro financia las protestas y el vandalismo en los países latinoamericanos para desestabilizar la región,’” infobae, October 22, 2019.
  58. Maduro se burla de Lenín Moreno por culparlo de las protestas en Ecuador,” El Periodico, October 9, 2019.
  59. Alan MacLeod, “With People in the Streets Worldwide, Media Focus Uniquely on Hong Kong,” FAIR, December 6, 2019.
  60. Daniel Ramos, “Bolivia’s Interim Government Charges Morales with Sedition and Terrorism,” Reuters, November 22, 2019.
  61. Jorge Martin, “Venezuela: Guaidó’s Botched Coup—What Does it Mean and What’s Next?,” Venezuelanalysis, May 2, 2019.
  62. Paul Dobson, “Venezuela: Pompeo Exposes Frustration Over Opposition Divisions as China, Russia Call for Non-Interference,” Venezuelanalysis, June 6, 2019.
  63. Orlando Avendaño, “Enviados de Guaidó se apropian de fondos para ayuda humanitaria en Colombia,” PanAm Post, June 14, 2019.
  64. Venezuela’s Guaidó Calls for Probe into Funds for Military Defectors,” Reuters, June 16, 2019.
  65. Lucas Koerner and Ricardo Vaz, “Venezuela: Guaidó Embattled as Opposition Splits over New Corruption Scandal,” Venezuelanalysis, December 5, 2019.
  66. Orlando Avendaño, “Calderón Berti: «Nuestros grandes errores han sido responsabilidad de Leopoldo López»,” PanAm Post, December 3, 2019.
  67. Jim Wyss, “Poll Shows Venezuela’s Guaidó Is Losing Popularity and Has Sunk to Maduro Level,” Miami Herald, December 4, 2019; Angus Berwick and Mariela Nava, “‘Missed His Moment’: Opposition Corruption Scandal Undermines Venezuela’s Guaidó,” Reuters, December 3, 2019.
  68. See also Anya Parampil, “The CITGO Conspiracy: Opposition Figures Accuse Guaidó Officials of ‘Scam’ to Liquidate Venezuela’s Most Prized International Asset,” Grayzone, September 3, 2019.
  69. Joe Emersberger, “Remembering the Venezuelan National Assembly Vote Lost by Guaidó in January 2019,” Znet, July 11, 2020.
  70. Lucas Koerner and Ricardo Vaz, “Venezuela: Guaidó Replaced as Parliament Head in Disputed Vote,” Venezuelanalysis, January 5, 2020.
  71. Joe Emersberger, “Media Struggle to Defend Washington’s Cruelty Toward Venezuela and Iran as Coronavirus Spreads,” FAIR, March 25, 2020.
  72. Why the Spread of COVID-19 in Venezuela Is a Particularly Frightening Prospect,” Washington Post, March 20, 2020.
  73. Treasury Targets Additional Russian Oil Brokerage Firm for Continued Support of Maduro Regime,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, March 12, 2020.
  74. Lucas Koerner and Ricardo Vaz, “Corporate Media Cover for U.S. Mob Threats Against Venezuela,” FAIR, April 15, 2020.
  75. Bachelet Calls for Easing of Sanctions to Enable Medical Systems to Fight COVID-19 and Limit Global Contagion,” UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, March 24, 2020.
  76. Ricardo Vaz and Lucas Koerner, “US Investigating Ex-Green Beret, Denies ‘Direct’ Involvement in Failed Venezuela Coup,” Venezuelanalysis, May 7, 2020.
  77. Lucas Koerner, “Trump Claims to Have Venezuela ‘Surrounded’ as Iranian Tankers Approach,” Venezuelanalysis, May 21, 2020; “Iran Complains to U.N., Summons Envoy over U.S. Threat on Venezuela Shipment,” Reuters, May 17, 2020.
  78. Joe Emersberger (@rosendo_joe), Twitter post, June 18, 2020, 11:34 pm, accessed April 23, 2021.
  79. Leonardo Flores, “Biden’s Vision for Venezuela Is Virtually Indistinguishable from Trump’s,” Grayzone, July 9, 2020.
2021, Volume 73, Issue 02 (June 2021)
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