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An Open Letter to the Washington Office on Latin America About Its Stance on US Effort to Overthrow Venezuelan Government

We believe that the Trump administration’s regime change effort in Venezuela is wrong in every way: morally, legally, and politically.

U.S. Vice President of United States Mike Pence and Venezuelan opposition leader and declared acting president by the National Assembly Juan Guaidó meet during the Lima Group Summit on February 25, 2019 in Bogota, Colombia. The meeting occurs after Nicolás Maduro blocked humanitarian aid in the border with Colombia in Cúcuta. (Photo: Luis Ramirez/Vizzor Image/Getty Images)

The following open letter, signed by 124 academics from around the globe, is addressed to the Washington Office on Latin America and voices serious concerns over WOLA's support for various components of the Trump administration's policy towards Venezuela.

We write out of concern for the direction that WOLA has taken with regard to a matter of life and death, and possibly war and peace, in Latin America. This letter is an attempt to engage with WOLA about your support for various components of the Trump administration’s efforts to topple the government of Venezuela.

We believe that the Trump administration’s regime change effort in Venezuela is wrong in every way: morally, legally, and politically. Since war has been openly threatened repeatedly by Trump himself and his top officials, this effort also runs a high risk in terms of the loss of human life and limb, and other unforeseen consequences of war and political violence.

For these reasons and more, WOLA should oppose this regime change effort unequivocally, just as progressives throughout the world opposed the Iraq War of 2003. But it has not done so. Rather, it has endorsed much of it. People may have differing personal opinions regarding the internal politics of Venezuela or how Venezuelans might best resolve their differences. But there is no doubt that the Trump administration’s illegal regime change operation is greatly worsening the situation and should be opposed by all who care about human life and international law.

"WOLA should oppose this regime change effort unequivocally, just as progressives throughout the world opposed the Iraq War of 2003."

Most dangerous is WOLA’s opposition to the offers of mediation by Pope Francis as well as the neutral governments of Mexico and Uruguay. WOLA has referred to these offers ― which have been called the Montevideo mechanism ― as a “non-starter.” Instead, WOLA has chosen the European Contact Group, which is dominated by Washington and governments allied with its illegal sanctions and regime change effort, as the only legitimate place for negotiations to take place.

Since the Trump administration clearly has no desire to negotiate, and has openly stated this, WOLA’s choice implies that there will be no real negotiations until the other (European and Latin American) governments in the group are willing to make a clean break with Washington. This is not impossible, but it is unlikely in the foreseeable future. WOLA’s choice of a Trump-dominated negotiating group therefore aids Trump and his team of extremists (John Bolton, Marco Rubio, and Elliott Abrams), in their rejection of dialogue or negotiation.

WOLA even rejects the involvement of the UN in negotiations, which the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has proposed, claiming that their role should be limited to overseeing a transition. The UN is the international body that has accumulated the most experience and knowledge in mediating inter- and intra-national crises. This includes successfully mediating the end to even seemingly intractable civil wars, such as in El Salvador in the 1990s. This expertise, alongside the moral authority the UN has as the most representative international body, means that a mediation process overseen by them would carry much more legitimacy than one led by the Trump administration and its political allies.

WOLA has been ambiguous about whether it supports the recognition of Juan Guaidó as “interim president,” a move that automatically creates a trade embargo on top of the current financial embargo. This is because the source of almost all of the country’s foreign exchange is from oil exports, about three-quarters of which goes to countries that have joined the Trump recognition of a parallel government, and therefore will not be expected to pay the current government of Venezuela for its oil.[1] 

This will deprive the economy of billions of dollars of foreign exchange, thus accelerating the increase in mortality (including infant and child mortality) from lack of medicines and health care, as well as worsening shortages of food ― an impact that is widely acknowledged. This is profoundly immoral. It also breaches international law, including Article 19 of the OAS Charter, the UN charter, and many other international treaties that the US has signed.

WOLA has also taken an ambivalent position on the August 2017 Trump sanctions, offering some criticisms but also offering suggestions for improvement. These sanctions imposed an illegal (for the same reasons as above) financial embargo that has been devastating, crippling oil production and thereby depriving the economy of billions of dollars for foreign exchange needed for vital imports. It also prevented any debt restructuring, as well as most other measures that would be necessary to exit from the country’s depression and hyperinflation.

WOLA defended these sanctions by arguing that “they complicate the Maduro government’s finances in such a way that they will not have an immediate impact on the population (although in the longer term, they likely would).” This is false, as anyone familiar with the sanctions and the Venezuelan economy knows. The Venezuelan economy ― not just the government ― depends on oil exports for almost the entirety of its foreign exchange. That is what pays for imports of medicine, food, and other vital necessities ― whether from government or the private sector.

"It is good that WOLA has distinguished itself from these people by opposing US military intervention and the manipulation of humanitarian aid for political purposes. But that is not enough."

These positions are not defensible from a human point of view, and neither is the Trump administration’s apparent goal of extra-legal regime change. Why does the Trump team reject negotiation? Because they do not want a compromise solution which is necessary for the opposing political forces in a polarized country to co-exist. They are not concerned with the human costs of a winner-take-all solution; indeed it is possible that for people like Elliott Abrams and John Bolton, violence may be seen as an integral part of their strategy for vanquishing Chavismo and its followers, or gaining the control that both Trump and Bolton have stated that they want to have over the world’s largest oil reserves.

It is good that WOLA has distinguished itself from these people by opposing US military intervention and the manipulation of humanitarian aid for political purposes. But that is not enough. It should unequivocally oppose the whole sordid regime change operation, the violations of international law, and the illegal sanctions that are causing so much suffering.

WOLA should not pretend that this external regime change operation led by violence-prone extremists is actually a legitimate effort by the “international community” to help resolve Venezuela’s political and economic crisis. And most importantly, WOLA should abandon the implausible assertion that the only viable negotiation process is one that is controlled by the Trump administration and its allies, i.e., the European Contact Group.

 [1] The Trump administration subsequently carved out some temporary exceptions for some oil companies.

Signed (affiliations used for identification purposes only):

Greg Grandin, Professor of History, New York University

Noam Chomsky, Emeritus Professor, MIT

Sujatha Fernandes, Professor of Political Economy and Sociology, University of Sydney

Daniel Hellinger, Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Webster University

John Womack Jr., Robert Woods Bliss Professor of Latin American History and Economics, emeritus, Harvard University

Steve Ellner, Associate Managing Editor of Latin American Perspectives

Richard Falk, Professor of International Law Emeritus, Princeton University

Marisol de la Cadena, Professor of Anthropology, University of California-Davis

Julio Yao, Professor of Public International Law, Agent of Panama to the International Court of Justice and Foreign Policy Advisor of General Omar Torrijos during Canal Negotiations

Emir Simão Sader, Professor of Sociology, University of the State of Rio de Janeiro

Gerardo Renique, Associate Professor, Department of History, City College of the City University of New York

Mark Weisbrot, Co-Director, Center for Economic and Policy Research

Sinclair S. Thomson, Associate Professor of History, New York University

Brad Simpson, Associate Professor of History, University of Connecticut

Thomas C. Field Jr., Associate Professor, Embry-Riddle College of Security and Intelligence

Marc Becker, Professor of History, Truman State University

Fred Rosen, Retired editor and director, NACLA

Forrest Hylton, Associate Professor of History, Universidad Nacional de Colombia-Medellín

Rosaura Sanchez, Professor of Literature, UCSD

Suyapa Portillo, Associate Professor, Pitzer College

Jocelyn Olcott, Professor, History, International Comparative Studies, Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies, Duke University

John Mill Ackerman, Law Professor, National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM)

Paul Ortiz, Associate Professor of History, University of Florida

Bret Gustafson, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Washington University in St Louis

Alexander Aviña, PhD, Associate Professor of History, Arizona State University

Julie A. Charlip, Professor of History, Whitman College

Richard Stahler-Sholk, Professor of Political Science, Eastern Michigan University

Alex Dupuy, John E. Andrus Professor of Sociology Emeritus, Wesleyan University

José Antonio Lucero, Associate Professor of International Studies, University of Washington

Francine Masiello, Ancker Professor Emerita, UC Berkeley

Elizabeth Monasterios, Professor of Latin American Literatures and Andean Studies and Co-editor, Bolivian Studies Journal, Department of Hispanic Languages and Literatures, University of Pittsburgh

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Professor Emerita, California State University

Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, Associate Professor, George Mason University

Christian Parenti, Associate Professor, Economics, John Jay College CUNY

James Krippner, Professor of Latin American History at Haverford College

William I. Robinson, Professor of Sociology and Global and International Studies, University of California-Santa Barbara

James Cohen, University of Paris 3 Sorbonne Nouvelle

Naomi Schiller, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Brooklyn College, CUNY

Jeb Sprague, University of Virginia

Victor Silverman, Professor, Department of History, Pomona College

Aviva Chomsky, Professor of History and Coordinator of Latin American Studies, Salem State University

Jorge Majfud, Associate Professor of Spanish, Latin American Literature & International Studies, Jacksonville University

Maryclen Stelling, Directora Ejecutiva del Centro de Estudios Latinoamericano, Celarg,  Analista político y de Medios de Comunicación

Jeffrey L. Gould, Rudy Professor of History, Indiana University

Jules Boykoff, Professor of Political Science, Pacific University

Gavin Fridell, Canada Research Chair in International Development Studies, Saint Mary’s University

Margaret Power, Professor of History, Illinois Institute of Technology

Dr. Jerise Fogel, Classics & Humanities Dept, Montclair State University

Clara Irazábal, Professor, University of Missouri— Kansas City

Heather Williams, Associate Professor of Politics, Pomona College

Kevin A. Young, Assistant Professor of History, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Robert Austin, Honorary Associate, Department of History, School of Philosophical & Historical Inquiry , University of Sydney

Bill Bollinger, Latin American Studies, California State University, Los Angeles

Susan Spronk, Associate Professor, University of Ottawa

Gregory S Kealey, CM, FRSC, Professor Emeritus of History, University of New Brunswick

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Rosalind Bresnahan, California State University San Bernardino (retired)

Rich Potter, PhD, Assistant Professor, Chair, Department of Media Arts, The American Jewish University

Silvia M. Arrom, Jane’s Professor of Latin American Studies, Emerita, History Dept, Brandeis University

Christopher Helali, Graduate Student, Dartmouth College

Van Gosse, Professor of History, Franklin and Marshall College

Charles Bergquist, Professor Emeritus of History, University of Washington

Bob Buchanan Ph.D., Faculty, Goddard College

Francis Shor, Emeritus Professor, History, Wayne State University

Barbara Weinstein, New York University

Jessica K. Taft, Associate Professor, Latin American and Latino Studies, University of California at Santa Cruz

Renate Bridenthal, emerita Professor of History, Brooklyn College, CUNY

Hannah Gurman, Clinical Associate Professor, Gallatin School, New York University

Pamela S. Murray, Professor, History Department, The University of Alabama at Birmingham

Guillermo Calvo Mahe, Writer and political commentator; former Chair, Political Science, Government and International Relations at the Universidad Autónoma de Manizales

Raymond Craib, Professor of History, Cornell University

Shari Orisich, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of History, Coastal Carolina University

Fernando Leiva, Associate Professor, Department of Latin American and Latino Studies, University of California Santa Cruz

William Smaldone, Professor of History, Willamette University

Robert C. H. Sweeny, Honourary Research Professor, Department of History, Memorial University of Newfoundland

Joan Paluzzi, Ph.D. Medical Anthropologist

Robert Hannigan, Scholar in Residence, History, Suffolk University

Elizabeth Dore, Professor of Latin American Studies, University of Southampton, UK

Sanford Kelson, attorney-at-law and labor arbitrator, past president of Veterans For Peace

Marian Mollin, Ph.D., Associate Professor of History, Virginia Tech

Osamah Khalil, Assoc. Prof., History, Syracuse University, Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs

Bruce Levine, J.G. Randall Distinguished Professor, Emeritus of History, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Gabriela F. Arredondo, Associate Professor and Department Chair, Latin American & Latino Studies, University of California at Santa Cruz

Patricia de Santana Pinho, Associate Professor, Department of Latin American & Latino Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz

Lewis Siegelbaum, Jack and Margaret Sweet Professor Emeritus, Department of History, Michigan State University

Sylvanna Falcón, Associate Professor of Latin American & Latino Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz

John Marciano, Professor Emeritus, SUNY Cortland

Shanti Marie Singham, Professor of History and Africana Studies, Williams College

Ronald Grele, Columbia University

Sandi E. Cooper, Professor Emerita, History, City University of New York

Robert Samet, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Union College

Keith Brooks, UFT, NWU

Enrique Davalos, Chicana/o Studies Professor and Department Chair, San Diego City College

Naoko Shibusawa, Associate Professor of History and American Studies, Brown University

Celia E. Naylor, Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History, Barnard College, Columbia University

Arnold J. Oliver, Ph.D., Emeritus Professor of Political Science, Heidelberg University

Jeff Cooper, Professor of History, Santa Monica College (retired)

John Munro, Associate Professor, St. Mary's University

Tanalis Padilla, Associate Professor of History, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Karen Breda, Professor, University of Hartford

Pat Lauderdale, Professor and Honors Faculty, Faculty of Justice and Social Inquiry, SST, Arizona State University

Pennee Bender, Acting Director, American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, City University of New York—The Graduate Center

Dale L. Johnson, Professor Emeritus, Sociology, Rutgers University

John Beverley, Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Hispanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pittsburgh, and a founding member of Democratic Socialists of America

Rachel Elfenbein, Ph.D., author, Engendering Revolution: Women, Unpaid Labor, and Maternalism in Bolivarian Venezuela

Judy Ancel, President, The Cross Border Network

Guy Aronoff, Lecturer at Humboldt State University

Jeffrey Erbig, Assistant Professor of Latin American and Latino Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz

Paul Alexander, English Professor, San Diego City College

Liisa L. North, Professor Emeritus, York University, Toronto

Daniel Kovalik, Adjunct Professor of Law, University of Pittsburgh

Frederick B. Mills, Professor of Philosophy, Bowie State University

Brooke Larson, Professor, Department of History, Affiliated Faculty, Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies and Associated Faculty, Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Stony Brook University

Howard Brick, Louis Evans Professor of History, University of Michigan

Viviana Ramírez, BA (Hons), Dip. Ed., Senior Teacher of Spanish (retired) Queensland Dept. of Education (1994-2016), Australia

Amy Chazkel, Columbia University

Teishan Latner, Assistant Professor Thomas Jefferson University

Richard Grossman, Instructor, Department of History, Northeastern Illinois University

Chris Carlsson, author, co-director, Shaping San Francisco

Tina Braxton, PhD Candidate in History, Georgetown University

Emilie Vardaman, ESL Instructor, Retired

Rupa Shah MD, FACC

Jodie Evans, CODEPINK

Roger Leisner, Radio Free Maine

Frank Brodhead, Peace activist

Miguel Ramirez, Professor of Economics, Trinity College

Greg Grandin

Greg Grandin teaches history at New York University and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His most recent book isThe End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. His previous books include, Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman, The Empire of Necessity:  Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World and Fordlandia, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history.

Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor (retired) at MIT. He is the author of many books and articles on international affairs and social-political issues, and a long-time participant in activist movements. His most recent books include:  Who Rules the World? (Metropolitan Books, the American Empire Project, 2016); Power Systems: Conversations on Global Democratic Uprisings and the New Challenges to U.S. Empire (with interviewer David Barsamian); Making the Future: Occupations, Interventions; Empire and Resistance, Hopes and Prospects; and Profit Over People: Neoliberalism & Global Order. Previous books include: 9-11: 10th Anniversary Edition, Failed States, What We Say Goes (with David Barsamian), Hegemony or Survival, and the Essential Chomsky.

Sujatha Fernandes

Sujatha Fernandes is professor of Political Economy and Sociology at the University of Sydney.

Daniel Hellinger

Daniel Hellinger is Professor Emeritus of International Relations at Webster University.

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