As part of the broad economic sanctions against the Maduro regime in Venezuela and especially the petroleum sector, the Trump administration barred swaps of Venezuelan crude oil for gasoline and diesel.
There has been a debate over this step. The humanitarian argument against barring diesel swaps was simple: trucks that use diesel are critical in the food and agricultural sector, so a shortage of diesel will eventually affect the food supply. Why is a shortage of diesel predicted? The Maduro regime has through corruption and incompetence destroyed Venezuela’s oil sector, including its refining capacity. The country has a refining capacity of about 1.3 million barrels per day, but is actually refining at most 10% of that.
Thus far, it is hard to demonstrate that barring diesel swaps (and gasoline swaps) has led to shortages but advocates of allowing the diesel swaps suggest real shortages are coming. It’s worth noting that the Maduro regime gives thousands of barrels of diesel per day to Cuba, suggesting that the commodity is still available in Venezuela.
The humanitarian argument—that many Venezuelans are hungry already, so we should not do anything that may interfere with food supplies—comes up against a stark fact: many Venezuelans are hungry yet the vicious regime refuses to allow the World Food Program (WFP) to operate there.
Why not? Simple. The regime uses access to food as a weapon of social and political control, for example requiring citizens who seek food to show their membership card in the ruling party to get it.
Consider this from the July 2019 report of OCHCR, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, on Venezuela:
The Government has not demonstrated that it has used all resources at its disposal to ensure the progressive realization of the right to food, nor that it has unsuccessfully sought international assistance to address gaps…. On 13 May 2016, the Government declared a “state of exception and economic emergency” and created the Local Committees for Supply and Food Distribution (CLAP) as part of the local structure of “community councils”…. OHCHR received accounts of people, who despite not having adequate access to food, were not included in the distribution lists of the CLAP boxes because they were not Government supporters….The list of beneficiaries of these [social] programmes is managed by the local structures of the governing parties, as opposed to Government institutions. Interviewees reported that members of these local structures monitor beneficiaries’ political activity….As the economic crisis deepened, the authorities began using social programmes in a discriminatory manner, based on political grounds, and as an instrument of social control….
While Venezuelans go hungry, the regime has blocked WFP because WFP’s principles—political neutrality, distribution of food on the basis of need—would undermine the regime’s use of food as a weapon.
Today, there are serious efforts to negotiate the WFP’s entry into Venezuela. And that gives us an answer to the diesel swap question. The Biden administration should condition permitting diesel swaps on permission for the WFP to work in Venezuela. It’s logical: if the diesel swaps are meant to help the food situation, then let’s demand that the regime allow serious and direct help to Venezuelans in need. Let’s not permit the brutal Maduro regime to shed crocodile tears about diesel while continuing to block WFP.
That way, the true beneficiaries will be the people of Venezuela.