Response letter to WOLA

Members and friends of Historians for Peace and Democracy,

We are circulating the following request for signers for a response letter to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) after they wrote a statement in reaction to a previous open letter about Venezuela that we circulated to this list. The original statement questioning some of WOLA’s positions on US policy toward Venezuela is here. If you haven’t read WOLA’s response, it’s on their site here.

The text of the response letter addressed to WOLA is below. Initial signers include Greg Grandin, Noam Chomsky, Venezuela experts Sujatha Fernandes and Steve Ellner, Laura Carlsen of CIP’s Americas Program, Elisabeth Jean Wood of Yale University, and John Mills Ackerman of UNAM.

If you’re interested in signing this new letter please email Joseph Salvatore Sammut at

If you are in need to more information on the current situation on Venezuela, see the excellent syllabus drafted in part by H-Pad member Kevin Young at

Thank you for your response to our letter of March 5. Unfortunately it did not address our most important concerns. And it contains some factual errors.


Our main point was summarized in the letter as follows:


“WOLA should oppose this [Trump’s] 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.”


In its response, WOLA does not offer any explanation for why they do not oppose this illegal regime change effort, nor do they recognize the enormous damage that Trump and his allies have done and continue to do.


The financial embargo that Trump imposed by executive order in August 2017 has been killing people by depriving them of medicine, medical supplies, and other essential imports; and preventing a recovery from what has become the worst depression in Latin American history.


Yet WOLA has not opposed these ongoing sanctions, even in their response to our criticism of their stance. In fact, following the implementation of these sanctions, WOLA Senior Fellow David Smilde wrote in The New York Times that “Countries throughout the region and the United States … should continue to pressure Mr. Maduro by deepening the current sanctions regime…” He also praised the [August 2017] “‘debt sanctions’ levied by the Trump administration that prohibit United States citizens or institutions from buying or issuing new Venezuelan debt,” noting that they “have hamstrung the Maduro government’s ability to raise new funds.”


Contrary to WOLA’s response to us, this position does not reflect that they “are in principle suspicious of” sanctions, even when these sanctions kill innocent people.


And does it matter that the vast majority of Venezuelans, according to opposition polling, have consistently opposed these sanctions by large majorities? Shouldn’t their human rights and opinions be taken into account?


WOLA claims that they now “oppose the January 2019 U.S. oil sanctions.” But as a factual, logical, and economic matter ― as we noted in the last letter ― they cannot oppose these new sanctions without opposing the recognition of Guaidó.


That’s because this action by itself aside from other sanctions such as those on PDVSA ― involved a transfer of the accounts of Venezuela’s Central Bank and Republic of Venezuela to Guaidó. This means that the government of Venezuela cannot make payments ― including those for life-saving medicines and essential goods ― in the US or European financial system. Furthermore, companies and financial institutions in countries outside of Europe or the US are inhibited from carrying out transactions with the actual Venezuelan government, because they too will be sanctioned for doing so. Even Gazprom of Russia closed a PDVSA account because of this threat.


The recognition of Guaidó also leads to the imposition of a devastating trade embargo, since about 73 percent of Venezuela’s oil goes to the United States and its allied governments who have recognized the parallel government. This means that the Maduro government cannot receive payment for oil, which deprives the Venezuelan economy ― both public and private sector ― of almost all of its foreign exchange. Perhaps these are the “oil sanctions” that WOLA claims to oppose. But again, these sanctions are the direct and inevitable consequence of recognizing a parallel government, which WOLA emphatically does not oppose. Smilde has stated that “The opposition has finally put forward a fresh face that has courage, new ideas and leadership skills.”


The recognition of Guaidó, therefore, is provoking even greater economic damage and causing more deaths than Trump’s August 2017 executive order. If WOLA staff lack a clear understanding of the consequences attached to the recognition of Guaidó, then it is our sincere hope that they reconsider the position that they’ve taken. 


OPEC data released for February shows a collapse of oil production since the recognition of Guaidó and the resulting financial sanctions and trade embargo. Venezuela’s oil production fell by 142,000 barrels per day. For the prior six months, it had fallen by an average of 20,500 barrels per day. This is another devastating blow to the people of Venezuela, who depend on the foreign exchange earnings of oil sales for necessary imports.


We also find it inexplicable that, as a human rights organization, WOLA did not respond to our argument that the US sanctions against Venezuela ― all of them ― are illegal under international law, including the OAS charter, the UN charter, and various international conventions against collective punishment. In our view, that alone should settle the debate over sanctions.


Most human rights experts believe that increasing compliance with international laws and treaties that protect human rights has a vital role to play in reducing human rights abuses. If WOLA shares that view, then they should explain why international law does not enter into WOLA’s discussion of the US sanctions against Venezuela anywhere in their writings on this subject; and not even when it is presented to them directly in a criticism of their position regarding these illegal sanctions.


In our letter, we criticized WOLA for dismissing the mediation offers of neutral parties, including the Vatican, and the governments of Mexico and Uruguay, as a “non-starter,” and supporting the International Contact group as the only place where negotiations can take place. WOLA responds with certain statements that are not true, and also by mischaracterizing our criticism.


First, it is not true that, as WOLA states, that “this initiative [by Mexico and Uruguay] appears to have been discarded.” On the contrary, the initiative remains on the table and has been joined by most of the Caricom countries (see here and here). WOLA’s assertion that Uruguay has abandoned the effort appears to be based on the fact that it is also a member of the International Contact Group, but of course the country can be, and is, part of both initiatives. WOLA presents no evidence that Mexico has abandoned its effort to promote dialogue.


WOLA also advances the illogical argument that the ICG is not dominated by Washington simply because the Trump administration didn’t want it in the first place. The Trump administration does not want any negotiation at all, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t dominate this group after failing to prevent its creation. Every country in the group except for Uruguay and Italy has recognized Guaidó as interim president of Venezuela. As explained above, this is equivalent to an economic embargo, which the Europeans ― both willingly and under open threat of US sanctions on European financial institutions– are carrying out. This is not a neutral party by any stretch of the imagination, and the fact that one or two neutral countries have joined the group cannot change this reality.


In our letter we also noted that it is possible that, eventually, the Europeans might break with Washington and pursue a negotiated solution while adopting a more neutral stance. But many Venezuelans will likely die before that happens. We find it disturbing that WOLA would pretend that the ICG is neutral and be so eager to bury the efforts of neutral parties.


Furthermore, in the history of conflict resolution, it is both normal and more pragmatic to have negotiations without setting as a precondition the central issue that the opposing parties of a polarized country disagree on. In this case, that is the call for new elections, since the government and its supporters consider the May 2018 presidential elections to be legitimate and the opposition does not. Moreover, given the very polarized political environment in Venezuela, the Maduro government is highly unlikely to agree to new elections without prior agreement on basic guarantees ensuring fair treatment and protection from judicial persecution in the event of an electoral defeat. Those who do not want a negotiated solution ― including the Trump team and their allies ― would understandably set new elections as a precondition. It is not clear why a human rights organization that claims to be in favor of a negotiated solution would support such preconditions.


Finally, we must respond to what WOLA claims is


“[our] most fundamental disagreement, and probably the one that explains our difference with the signatories of the letter, is in how we frame the problem.”


“For the signers, this is about the United States. The letter mentions the United States twice as many times as it mentions Venezuela. What is more, the letter’s mentions of Venezuela are almost exclusively as a passive subject receiving action. The only real actor mentioned in the text is the Trump administration. Most specifically, there are no descriptions of the Maduro government’s assault on democratic institutions and violations of basic human rights.


For WOLA, this is about Venezuela. As a human rights organization, WOLA’s central focus is on the Venezuelan people and their rights.”


Our central focus is also on the Venezuelan people and their rights. But our letter to your organization, which is based in Washington—the first word of your institutional title—is to question your conspicuous lack of opposition to concrete policies developed in Washington that are killing people on a daily basis in Venezuela right now. The U.S. sanctions and trade embargo against Venezuela, which undermine the rule of law, have been developed and imposed on the Venezuelan people by the Trump Administration without a modicum of democratic input from the American people or their elected representatives. These sanctions contribute to the lack of access to medicine, medical supplies, and other essential imports for Venezuelans, and prevent a recovery from what has become the worst depression in Latin American history.


WOLA faults us for not including “descriptions of the Maduro government’s assault on democratic institutions and violations of basic human rights” in a letter about WOLA’s positions on the Trump administration’s illegal sanctions and attempt to overthrow the government of Venezuela. But that is simply because we do not believe that the Trump administration’s regime change operation has anything to do with democracy or human rights, and indeed is likely to worsen the human rights situation. If WOLA believes otherwise, we would like to know how they might draw such a conclusion from the actions and statements of the leaders of this effort: Trump, Bolton, Rubio, Pompeo, and Elliott Abrams. We would also be interested in how the organization might reconcile such a belief with the past 17 years of US involvement in regime change efforts in Venezuela, which have been antithetical to advancing human rights or democracy in Venezuela.


It is not enough to simply oppose US military intervention in a situation where the Trump administration is using brutal collective punishment to prevent a negotiated solution and topple the government of Venezuela. As we noted previously, WOLA “should unequivocally oppose the whole sordid regime change operation, the violations of international law, and the illegal sanctions that are causing so much suffering.”




Greg Grandin, Professor of History, New York University


Noam Chomsky, Emeritus Professor, MIT


Laura Carlsen, Director, Americas Program, Center for International Policy


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


Steve Ellner, Associate Managing Editor of Latin American Perspectives


Elisabeth Jean Wood, Professor of Political Science, Yale University


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