Monday 20 August 2018

Famine in Venezuela: Update

Famine in Venezuela: Update

Note: this is an update and rewrite of my blog of May 10, 2018)


Starvation in Venezuela

By May 2018, approximately 5,000 people per day were leaving Venezuela in search of food. (“Venezuela’s Crisis Spills Over,” New York Times International Weekly, in the Hamilton Spectator, May 5, 2018, p. 1). At this rate, 1.8 million people will have left by the end of 2018, joining 1.5 million who have already fled. This is over ten per cent of Venezuela’s population of 32 million.

The Mirriam-Webster dictionary defines famine as “widespread scarcity of food, caused by several factors including… government policies. This phenomenon is usually accompanied or followed by regional malnutrition, starvation, epidemic, and increased mortality.”  By this definition, Venezuelans may already be experiencing famine. At the very least, they are experiencing state-induced hunger.

Hugo Chávez was elected President of Venezuela in 1999. He instituted several policies that were meant to feed poor Venezuelans, but actually made the situation worse. From 1999 to 2007 people’s living conditions improved, but food shortages started when oil prices declined. Chávez died in 2013. See my blog on Chávez’s rule, .

Chávez was succeeded by Nicolás Maduro, whose draconian policies have created massive food shortages. By 2017 malnutrition was confirmed in Venezuela, precipitating the political unrest now roiling the country. See my blogs on Maduro’s policies:

According to Antulio Rosales (“An Ugly New Low for the Venezuelan President,” Globe and Mail, March 12, 2018, p.A11) and Enrique Krauze (“Hell of a Fiesta,” New York Review of Books, March 8, 2018, pp. 4-7), by early 2018 more than half of all Venezuelans had lost between 19 and 24 pounds, and 90 per cent said they do not have enough money for food. The minimum monthly wage in mid-2017 bought only 12 per cent of one person’s basic food needs, even less now. Sixty per cent of the population lives in extreme poverty. Formerly dormant diseases such as malaria, diphtheria and dengue are reoccurring, while hospitals are extremely short of personnel, medicines, and the most basic equipment. Some people receive subsidized food boxes, but the contents are inconsistent and insufficient, are distributed irregularly, and are more likely to go to supporters of Maduro than others.

This shortage of food is a completely predictable consequence of the policies that both the Chávez and Maduro governments have favored over the last two decades. They destroyed the market in food by imposing control prices that resulted in underproduction when the official prices did not meet costs of production. The government expropriated farms, ranches, and even food distributors such as butchers. There’s very little if anything produced on these expropriated territories. Food is now heavily controlled by the black market and by corrupt importers (often members of the military who are also Maduro’s cronies) who sit on food at the ports to drive up the price.

At the same time political appointees, rather than competent managers, now run the state oil company. Failure to reinvest has meant that oil production has fallen drastically, so that Venezuela’s earnings of foreign exchange have diminished.

To keep all this going, the government has undermined the rule of law and the judiciary, and arrested independent trade union leaders. It has manipulated elections and is attempting to replace the legitimate elected legislature, where there are still some opposition members, with a “Constituent National Assembly” completely loyal to Maduro. Both Chávez and Maduro have ruled by decree and used arbitrary arrest, torture and even executions to maintain themselves in power. Maduro also controls the media: it is illegal now to post pictures of empty store shelves or images of desperation, supposedly because it foments hatred.

International Mechanisms to Protect Venezuelans’ Right to Food

It’s very difficult to know what to do about the situation in Venezuela. Individual citizens have hardly any recourse to outside institutions to help them in their search for food and medicine. Citizens of some states can complain about violations of their right to food to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, but all that committee can do is make recommendations or “name and shame” rights-violating states. But even this doesn’t apply to Venezuela, which hasn’t ratified the necessary international treaty to permit its citizens to make individual complaints.

The US has imposed sanctions on some Venezuelan individuals, freezing their assets and banning travel to the US. It’s also prohibited financial dealings by US citizens with these sanctioned Venezuelans. Maduro replies to these measures by accusing the US of imperialism, a plausible accusation given its real history of imperialism in Central and South America.

There’s also been some regional pressure on Chávez and Maduro. The Organization of American States tried to persuade Chávez to change some of his policies, but he replied by withdrawing from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2012. Maduro has been barred from visiting some other South American countries: Peru withdrew his invitation to the 8th Summit of the Americas for April 2018.

On Feb 8, 2018 the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which Venezuela joined in 2002, opened a preliminary investigation into alleged crimes against humanity in Venezuela, such as arbitrary detentions and torture. This followed a 2017 determination by the Organization of American States that there was evidence of such widespread crimes. The ICC Statute considers extermination via denial of food to be a crime against humanity, but the preliminary investigation did not mention this.

On May 24, 2018 the UN Security Council voted unanimously to ban the use of starvation as a weapon of war: see .However, Venezuela is not a war-torn state, even though there is much civil conflict there now as a result of Maduro’s starvation-inducing policies.

There is no international legal mechanism to stop perfectly predictable state-induced food shortages before they happen. Nor can any legal mechanism hold entire regimes accountable, even when all or most senior government officials are complicit in the wrong-doing. All the ICC can do, if it gets that far, is try individuals, not an entire government.

Except for committing genocide or crimes against humanity, states (or the governments of those states) still have the sovereign right to violate their citizens’ human rights. They also have the sovereign right to choose whatever “development” path a state elite wants, even if that so-called development is bound to fail and result in de-development, if not outright starvation, as in Venezuela. These states’ rights are sacrosanct, and far more important to the international “community’ than the rights of starving citizens.

The Future

For the foreseeable future, Venezuelans will try to flee in their hundreds of thousands in search of food.  But they will find it increasingly difficult to do so, as both Colombia and Brazil have been cracking down on legal migration. The result is irregular migration controlled by smugglers and armed groups. Venezuelan women and girls are now trafficked across the border to satisfy the Colombian demand for sex workers. ( ).

Meantime, like the Emperor Nero fiddling while Rome burnt, Maduro continues to fiddle with the economy, arbitrarily imposing currency devaluations and insufficient wage increases, everything but permitting a free market and property rights that would encourage production and distribution of food (See “Confusion reigns as Maduro mega-devaluation roils Venezuela,” The Globe and Mail, August 20, 2019 p. B3).

On August 4, 2018 there was a drone attack on Maduro while he was giving a speech at a military parade. The question now is, whether a civil war in Venezuela will exacerbate famine even further, or whether there might be a coup by anti-Maduro factions within the military or elsewhere. If the latter, the new rulers might turn to a somewhat more rational economic policy, although they will not necessarily restore civil liberties or encourage political democracy.

(For a more detailed scholarly analysis of the situation in Venezuela and what might be done about it, see my State Food Crimes, Cambridge University Press, 2016).

Thursday 16 August 2018

Colonial Cruising

Colonial Cruising

Last week (August 4-11, 2018) my husband and I enjoyed a week-long cruise in the “inner passage’ in Alaska. This cruise focuses on the south-eastern part of Alaska, sailing between the islands off the coast and the shore. It was a long-awaited trip, my husband’s 40th wedding anniversary present to me.

I was already aware of the pollution that cruise ships can cause in oceans and seas, thanks to a presentation I once heard by a student in the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Ontario, where I used to work.  But I was on a Dutch ship that claimed to be environmentally conscious, so I thought perhaps I was not personally doing too much damage.

an Alaskan cruise ship
As the trip progressed, though, I did wonder how “colonial,” in the current parlance, it was for us to even take the cruise. The ship was Dutch-registered, and the senior staff, including the captain, seemed to all be Dutch.  The dining room servers, cabin stewards, maintenance and repair people, and security and safety crew seemed to be all Indonesian and Philippino (also mainly, but not entirely, male). The patrons were largely of European origin, Americans, Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders especially. There was also a large contingent of patrons presumably of Chinese background, reflecting the changing distribution of wealth in the latest round of economic globalization.

Indonesia used to be a Dutch colony, until a war of independence in the late 1940s: the Dutch did not give up their colony without a cruel and brutal fight. I wondered how long this cruise line’s ships had been serviced by Indonesian migrants. Perhaps there had been several generations of cruise ship employees from specific locations in Indonesia.

Also, as migrant labor goes, perhaps working on a Dutch cruise ship is not as bad as a lot of other options.  Presumably, the workers’ living quarters had to adhere not only to Dutch but possibly also to Canadian and/or US standards.  The workers had the right to return home for three months every year. While we were on the ship there was an earthquake on the Indonesian island of Lambok, where one of the servers came from. While unhurt, all his family (wife, four children, siblings and parents) were reduced to living in tents: the ship gave him leave and helped him arrange his transport home.

The other aspect of colonialism that I encountered was the almost complete disregard of the Indigenous peoples and cultures in Alaska. We attended a presentation of her culture by a Tlingit woman, presented in the ship’s main entertainment hall to a fairly large audience. But beyond that, we weren’t given much information about Alaskan culture, society, politics or economics.

I went ashore at a small town called Ketchikan and discovered a professionally-curated museum featuring town artifacts and a display of late 19th and early 20th century photographs. An individual there told me that the museum received very few visitors from cruise ships, and those who arrived said that it was the cruise ship staff, not the ship’s publicity agents, who told them about it. The assistant at the museum was a half-Tlingit and half-Haida woman who said to me, regarding the cruise industry’s lack of interest in Indigenous culture. “Colonialism has many windows and doors: when one closes, another opens.”
Ketchikan, Alaska

The main thing that the ship promoted on shore was stores selling diamonds and tanzanite.  I couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to buy diamonds or tanzanite (a stone originating in Tanzania) in Alaska; perhaps there were tax advantages.

On shore, tourist companies also promoted visits to the (presumably renovated and kitschified) brothels that existed during the late 19th century Gold Rush in Alaska and the Yukon (a northern Canadian territory). Apparently there is a myth of merry women cavorting happily with the men seeking gold. The truth, I imagine, is that many of those women died of botched abortions, gang rapes and sexually transmitted diseases. This, of course, is not something the average tourist wishes to hear about. Nor is this precisely colonialism, jut your good old-fashioned sexism.

I am not saying people shouldn’t take Alaska cruises. If you do want to take one though, do it soon. One of the speakers we listened to told us 97% of the glaciers are receding because of climate change. If you wait a decade or two, they may no longer be there.

And if you do go, maybe try a little harder than I did—never having been on a cruise before—to forewarn yourself about local culture and conditions before you visit.