The Trump administration’s efforts to block oil and gasoline shipments into and out of Venezuela are designed to force strongman Nicolás Maduro to step aside. But his supporters say the sanctions demonstrate indifference to the suffering of Venezuelans. Their argument would be more convincing if not for Mr. Maduro’s persistent cruelty against his own people.
Take his regime’s decision this month to try to block the use of Airtm, an increasingly popular digital-currency platform that allows Venezuelans to receive, save and transact in U.S. dollars and to buy or sell bolivars at market rates.
One reason the regime doesn’t like Airtm is that it allows individuals to buck a measure of state control. By making markets in cyberspace, Venezuelans no longer need permission from the central bank to buy dollars, and they are not forced to accept the government’s overvalued price of the bolivar when buying. As the cyberspace market has blossomed, the regime has had to abandon its pegged exchange rate.
Worse for Mr. Maduro is that, according to Venezuelan Interim President Juan Guaidó, the U.S. Treasury has agreed to use Airtm to distribute Venezuelan assets that it controls to Venezuelan medical workers on the front lines of the Covid-19 pandemic. Until now those assets have been frozen in the U.S., and last week a Treasury spokesman declined to comment on Mr. Guaidó’s claims when I asked. But if they are true, it is a rare and much needed victory for the opposition in its struggle to unseat Mr. Maduro.
Mr. Guaidó was constitutionally recognized in January 2019 as Venezuela’s interim president by the National Assembly he presided over. But his efforts to assert the powers of his office have been checked at every turn and Venezuelans seem to have lost confidence in his leadership. The optimism that prevailed in the early days of his ascent, inside and outside Venezuela, is no longer in fashion.
Still, Venezuela isn’t yet the totalitarian hellhole that the Castro family has made Cuba. Mr. Maduro’s rule might seem invincible, but he is in a constant game of Whac-A-Mole against the Venezuelan people. Recently he has chalked up a few significant losses.
One development that flew under the international radar this summer was the decision by the hard-left Nation for All party (PPT) to break with Mr. Maduro. When the PPT, which had a close bond with the late Hugo Chávez, refused to accept the slate of regime-approved candidates for the December legislative election, the Maduro-controlled Supreme Court deposed the party’s leadership and assigned an ad hoc board of directors.
A statement released by the PPT said the court had done the same to “several left-wing organizations” in recent years, assigning them boards allied with Mr. Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela. In June 2019 the Communist Party also broke with Mr. Maduro, asserting that he had reneged on promises he made in 2018 to win its support. Among the broken commitments, it said, was failure to respect the rights of workers to unionize.
Paging Bernie Sanders.
The regime also took a hit this month when the U.S. seized the cargo of four Liberian-flagged tankers carrying gasoline from Iran to Venezuela. It was the first time the U.S. had successfully denied passage of gasoline to Venezuela. Five Iranian tankers in the original flotilla presumably got through but the seizure may make non-Iranian merchant vessels think twice about violating U.S. sanctions against Tehran. If so, supplies to its South American ally could be cut back when domestic production has nearly collapsed.
Mr. Guaidó’s announcement that Treasury has agreed to use frozen Venezuelan assets to pay 62,000 health care professionals $100 a month for three months also dings Mr. Maduro. Mr. Guaidó had promised as much back in April but has so far failed to deliver. My sources in Venezuela say that if the interim president does so now, it will go a long way toward repairing his damaged prestige.
It won’t be easy for Mr. Maduro to prevail against Airtm since would-be users should be able to add a virtual private network to their computers or smartphones to circumvent the block and access the platform. His superintendent of banks recently warned financial institutions not to transact with Airtm. But since users transact with agents on the platform and the money merely moves between two bank accounts, the banks have no knowledge of transactions related to Airtm.
If agents are uncovered, state reprisals are a risk. But even in the worst of circumstances underground markets innovate and flourish and I expect Venezuelans will find ways to circumvent regulators. As use spreads, including among merchants, sheer numbers are likely to overwhelm enforcers. In a nation hungry for dollars, the incentives are gigantic.
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Appeared in the August 31, 2020, print edition.
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