Venezuelan Children under the US Blockade: A Conversation with Anahi Arizmendi

December 1, 2023, Cira Pascual Marquina talks to Anahi Arizmendi, author of a recent book that examines the impact of the US sanctions on Venezuelan children.

Too little attention has been paid to the dire impact of the 8-year-old US blockade on the lives of children and adolescents, who are among the most vulnerable parts of the Venezuelan population. To counter this oversight and raise awareness about the condition of Venezuela’s children, Anahi Arizmendi, a journalist and human rights advocate, has written the new book Infancia bajo asedio [Children Under Siege]. Here she talks to Venezuelanalysis about the real-life impact of the unilateral coercive measures on Venezuela’s youth.

What were your objectives when you sat down to write Infancia bajo asedio?

My first objective with the book is to underscore the existence and devastating impact of the blockade. Why? Because there has been a deliberate effort to downplay the consequences of the coercive measures in both mainstream media and from the political Right. My second aim is to illustrate how the blockade has affected the lives of children and adolescents. The book’s claims are backed up by quantitative and qualitative evidence.

I argue that the implementation of coercive measures constitutes a crime against humanity particularly targeting the youth. The blockade poses a direct violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Venezuela and the majority of countries are signatories. The proponents of the coercive measures – the White House – sought to undo all the social progress witnessed in Venezuela from 1998 through 2015.

Lastly, I work to demonstrate that the coercive measures imposed by the US government form part of a broader strategy of non-conventional warfare against the people of Venezuela – and, of course, against the billions of people who live under a “sanctions” regime imposed by the US in countries such as Cuba and Russia. While the blockade is a crucial element, it is just one piece in an arsenal of strategies deployed by US imperialism.

In your book, you research and expose the impact of the coercive measures in the period 2015-2019. Why did you focus on this period?

2015 is the year of the Obama Decree, the year in which a US president expressed the intent to enforce unilateral coercive measures against our nation as a form of collective punishment. This decree serves as the linchpin in the framework of unilateral measures persisting to this day. Explicitly labeling Venezuela an “unusual and extraordinary threat,” the decree’s translation into everyday language is clear: war.

The book’s account ends 2019, the year of Juan Guaidó‘s self-proclamation as Venezuela’s “interim president” in a dangerous pantomime backed by the US. It is also the year that saw the imposition of the highest number of “sanctions” on Venezuela, particularly those targeting our oil industry.

My next book will cover the period from 2020 onward, and it will have the same objective as Infancia bajo asedio: letting everyone know about the devastating impact of the coercive measures so that there is no impunity.

You argue that sanctions are one of the most important weapons in the US war arsenal. Can you elaborate on this idea?

The unilateral coercive measures have a physical and a psychological component, and that’s why we talk about a “5th generation war.” In addition to the damage to people’s bodies, particularly the bodies of children and adolescents, so-called sanctions are part of a colonial endeavor in which the colonists feel entitled to dictate the lives of others. Additionally, the use of the term “sanctions” implies that if someone or some country is targeted, it must be because they did something wrong.

So what is our sin? To struggle for our liberty and our independence as a nation.

During the 2015 to 2019 period, even UNICEF bought into the US government’s discourse. They would say: It’s okay to sanction the Venezuelan government, but children should be protected. But that is simply not possible! It’s impossible to “sanction” a government and not impact the everyday life of the common people. That is why we are calling for refounding the International Human Rights System.

Of the world population, 28% live under a sanctions regime. Cuba has been under siege for 64 years, but there are 30 other countries “sanctioned” by the US! This is absolutely unacceptable. If the International Human Rights System was working, if its entities were really committed to human rights and not to the interests of those who finance the system, things would be very different.

In your book, you delve into the repercussions of the blockade on the lives of children and adolescents, focusing specifically on nutrition and healthcare. Could you elaborate on these aspects?

The coercive measures exact a toll on the fundamental rights of children and adolescents, particularly in the areas of health and nutrition. The coercive measures have led to the tragic loss of many young lives, making it unequivocal that the blockade deprives children of their most basic human rights.

The book presents compelling evidence in this regard. I will highlight five poignant instances where the blockade affected the Venezuelan children’s right to life.

First, the constraints imposed by the coercive measures severely hampered Venezuela’s ability to procure vaccines, resulting in a substantial disruption to the immunization schedule. Needless to say, this has long-lasting consequences for the lives of our children. Compounding the issue, Colombia closed its border with Venezuela, actively limiting the entry of vaccines into the country.

In addition to the long-term effects of delayed or protracted immunization schedules, we also saw a spike in malaria in 2017. The Venezuelan government had to triangulate with India to get vaccine and treatment shipments.

Second, the 2019 attack on Venezuela’s oil industry had a direct impact on the lives of children for another reason: the illegal seizure of the Venezuelan oil subsidiary CITGO meant that the government could no longer maintain the social program for children and adults who need liver and bone marrow transplants. Before that, these people would be referred to hospitals abroad that had the facilities to carry out these kinds of complex interventions, and CITGO would finance the transplant. This affected 500 people, while at least 52 children died while awaiting transplants. Unfortunately, CITGO continues in the hands of the so-called “interim government,” so this social program remains suspended.

Third, from the outset of Hugo Chávez’s administration, the government ensured the provision of medications to individuals, both adults and children, grappling with chronic illnesses. While the Venezuelan government continued to allocate at least 70% of its budget to social investment through this period, resource constraints hindered the importation of crucial medications. Additionally, numerous shipments were outright blocked. A notable instance occurred in 2019 when Spain blocked the acquisition of 200 thousand doses of medication intended for patients with chronic conditions like hypertension.

Fourth, the Pediatric Cardiology Hospital, inaugurated by Chávez to serve children from across the continent, experienced a significant downturn in surgical activities. In a few years, the hospital’s surgical capacity diminished by half, while overall, the National Surgery Plan saw its capacity drop by 40%.

Fifth, the blockade’s impact on general public access to medication was substantial, with 16 pharmaceutical companies leaving the country. This exit made it very difficult for children and adults to obtain common medicines.

It’s important to underscore that between 2015 and 2019, a period that witnessed at least 40 thousand deaths, many of the victims were children.

Despite the ongoing devastation caused by coercive measures, people have organized themselves to address the crisis. Can you delve into this resourcefulness, focusing on specific examples such as the initiative for the recovery of incubators?

Around 2018-19, Venezuela had practically no working incubators. Up to that point, maintenance of these and other medical equipment had been carried out by Argentinian companies under an agreement signed by Néstor Kirchner and Chávez in 2005. However, Argentina’s Mauricio Macri discontinued the agreement, leading the maintenance companies to withdraw their services from Venezuela.

The government and scientists didn’t succumb to despair. When the problem was detected, a remarkable collaboration emerged between a team of women scientists and specialists from the National Bolivarian Armed Forces. This collaboration project is a beautiful example of civic-military union. Over time, this dedicated team successfully reactivated a total of 1800 pieces of medical equipment, particularly incubators and digital microscopes, which are crucial for conducting specialized medical exams.

This multidisciplinary team remains active to this day, showcasing resilience, adaptability, and ingenuity. Notably, during the pandemic, they even ventured into the development of artificial respirators.

Let’s address the crucial issue of nutrition. How have children, and the population in general, been impacted by the US blockade?

Withholding food has long been a strategic weapon in the US arsenal. We can trace it back to the settler colonialist project, and it is best expressed in General Dodge’s infamous statement, “Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.” This historical context connects the genocide of Plains Indigenous peoples with the decimation of millions of buffalo.

Today, we are witnessing a contemporary manifestation of this wartime tactic applied by the US and its allies. Even the United Nations recognizes that withholding food from a population is an extermination policy. This is precisely what Venezuela is experiencing: coercive measures not only limit the government’s ability to purchase food in the international market, but they also represent a problem for private-sector food importers who also have to wrestle with the financial blockade.

Food shortages became dramatic in the mid-2010s. However, the Venezuelan government responded proactively with the creation of the CLAP food program in 2016, which currently benefits over six million families. The CLAP program was developed in collaboration with grassroots and popular power initiatives. It’s still active: the government supplies the food, and the people organize to distribute it and supervise the process.

Unsurprisingly, however, the US attack on Venezuela affected the CLAP food program. There were moments when Colombia and Brazil obstructed the entry of food to Venezuela, even in cases where the payment had already been made! Enormous quantities of food, including millions of hams intended for the traditional Christmas feast, were withheld in Colombia. Additionally, shipments from Europe and Mexico destined for the CLAP system faced obstacles arising from the complex financial transactions required when a country – Venezuela in this case – is subjected to a financial blockade.

An emblematic case is when the US financial system blocked the payment of 18 million food boxes in September 2017. In fact, through 2017 alone, 23 financial transactions for the purchase of food and medicines were blocked by diverse international banking entities.

Finally, in the context of attacks on the CLAP program, it is crucial to recall the abduction of Alex Saab by the US. He is a Venezuelan diplomat who was actively involved in securing food for the CLAP system. The US collaborated with Cabo Verde to apprehend him. Currently, Saab is held in a Miami prison.

How has children’s development been impacted by the blockade?

Food shortages exert a tangible impact on any population, particularly children and teens. The surge in childhood malnutrition and subalimentation was evident through 2019, though these indicators have shown signs of improvement in recent years. Over the 2015 to 2019 period, access to cereal and milk – critical for a child’s development – was hindered, while protein intake was reduced. Additionally, the coercive measures took a toll on the School Lunch Program.

Upon assuming the presidency in 1998, Hugo Chávez inherited a nation with high levels of child and adult malnutrition. However, the social policies implemented by the Bolivarian Government successfully reduced these rates to around 2%, maintaining that level up through 2015. That’s why, in recognition of his achievements, the FAO named its anti-hunger initiative “Hugo Chávez.” Despite the dramatic setbacks induced by coercive measures post-2015, neither the government nor the people gave up.

Before 2015, Venezuela had successfully achieved all of the Millennium Goals outlined by the UN, including those related to nutrition. The only remaining area was maternal mortality. The coercive measures brought important setbacks, but Venezuelans didn’t sit idle, and women especially fought back. With hard work and with the participation of the government and the people, the indicators are improving day by day.

The attack has been extraordinary, but the people of Venezuela have also demonstrated incredible resilience and ingenuity.

Source: Venezuela Analysis