McGovern spoke to activists outside his Northampton office calling for an end to U.S. sanctions.
By Sarah Robertson
NORTHAMPTON — United States Congress member Jim McGovern joined activists outside his Northampton office on Friday, Nov. 12, for what organizers called a “people’s press conference” to bring attention to ongoing human rights abuses in Venezuela, Cuba, and elsewhere suffering under U.S. sanctions.
Hector Figarella, a lead organizer of the press conference with the Anti-Imperialist Action Committee, called the Trump-era sanctions continued under Biden a “draconian, brutal blockade against the people of Venezuela.”
“People are going hungry. People are dying of preventable causes, and it needs to stop,” said Figarella, a healthcare worker and longtime western Massachusetts resident from Venezuela.
After listening to Figarella and members of the activist groups Code Pink, Massachusetts Peace Action, and the Democratic Socialists of America, McGovern expressed his support for lifting sanctions against Cuba and Venezuela and promised to continue to listen to and learn from advocates. A group of about two dozen people gathered with signs and banners early that evening as the sun broke after a day of heavy rain.
“They can’t earn a living in Venezuela, they can’t put food on the table for their families in Venezuela because of our sanctions,” McGovern said at the rally. “At the end of the day, our national security interests are best served when average people around the world are treated with dignity and respect, and they are not living in misery.”
Since 1997 McGovern has represented Massachusetts’s 2nd congressional district, which includes towns from Amherst, to Athol, Oxford, Leominster, Greenfield and Northampton. He has long been an advocate of restoring diplomatic ties with Cuba, and more recently, for more humane policy regarding Venezuela.
In a letter to Biden last May about the Trump-era sanctions towards the latter country, McGovern wrote, “I have never believed that sanctions should be used to punish whole populations for the actions of their leaders or to bludgeon an adversary into submission.”
According to statistics from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, around 40,000 people died of preventable causes in the first year of the Venezuelan sanctions, and today 85% of medicines are in short supply. In addition to food shortages amidst the global pandemic-induced recession, the sanctions also make it particularly difficult for either country to purchase supplies for vaccination campaigns on international markets.
“Back in June, the vaccines were available, but Venezuela could not buy them,” Figarella said. “I’ve seen people dying of COVID, and it’s been hell over the last year and a half. It’s hellish to look at a person and see they cannot breathe.”
Venezuela, left dangling in economic peril by U.S. trade sanctions, has struggled to purchase their own supply of COVID-19 vaccines from the global vaccine distribution initiative backed by the World Health Organization, COVAX.
“This is a new form of warfare. We’re calling this a hybrid war. The United States is engaged in a war against the Venezuelan people,” Figarella said as McGovern stood by. “You don’t have to drop bombs, you just subjugate an entire population—squeeze them, kill them—slowly and silently. But we’re here to let the world know that it has to stop because it can not continue. People are dying.”
“A relic from the Cold War”
Cuban scientists were among the first in the world to successfully research and develop COVID-19 vaccines. While the country is on track to produce far more vaccines than it needs to vaccinate every citizen, U.S. trade sanctions could pose a barrier to Cuba exporting vaccines internationally. Importing enough hypodermic needles to Cuba has posed a problem, too.
“Their economy has been completely strangled by the U.S. blockade that has been in effect for over 60 years,” said Michael Kowalchuk, a PhD student at UMass Amherst and lead organizer of the event. “[But] if you’re thinking about protecting human life… oftentimes they succeed where we fail.”
Kowalchuk pointed to the longer life expectancy of the average Cuban citizen and the safety and efficacy of their vaccines which can inoculate children as young as two years old.
“We don’t have to lecture Representative McGovern because he is leading the charge on getting rid of the blockade in Congress and we applaud him for that,” Kowalchuk said.
During his remarks, McGovern said that it was Joe Biden, then President Obama’s vice president, who had called him excited to announce that the U.S. would begin to normalize relationships with Cuba and welcome travel and international trade. The Trump administration reinstated travel and business restrictions upon taking office in 2017, and Biden has yet to reverse them.
“I had hoped that when Joe Biden became president one of the first things he would do is, at a minimum, get rid of the Trump sanctions,” McGovern said. “We have been maintaining the same old policy, a relic from the Cold War for over 60 years.”
Activists, organizers and student groups stood out with signs acknowledging a number of other international crises unfolding in Nicaragua and Palestine, too. Regarding Palestinian rights, McGovern said he vehemently opposes encroaching Israeli settlements on Palestinian land. He also mentioned a letter he had sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging him to reject and condemn the Israeli government’s designation of multiple Palestinian civil rights organizations and NGOs as terrorist groups.
“Counter-terrorism laws are used to stigmatize and silence critics and criminalize their work. The groups that have been named, as far as I can tell, are legitimate human rights organizations,” McGovern said. “And Israel’s designation is an example of using counter-terrorism laws to silence critics and civil society activists.”
Event organizers acknowledged McGovern’s vocal support for international human rights already, and asked for his continued advocacy to end U.S. imperialism and oppression.
“The Venezuelan socialist model is building things from the ground up. Entire neighborhoods are organized around food justice, food access, medicine, security, sports, they have their own governing bodies,” Figarella said. “That’s why the socialist revolution of Venezuela that puts people and planet first is a real danger to capitalism. It’s a real danger to empire, and that’s why they’re trying to destroy it, and that’s why they’re trying to crush it and that’s why they don’t want it to survive.”
At the end of the press conference, Figarella handed McGovern a letter from the Anti-Imperialist Action Committee outlining specific actions he could take to address the crises.
“The fact that you are here today listening to us goes a long way. It means that things are changing.” Figarella said. “And we wanted to ask you, what next?”
McGovern responded saying he would read the letter the activists presented to him and get back to them with a formal response.
“I don’t know everything. I don’t think of everything. Sometimes I have opinions or judgements that, maybe, you cause me to rethink. And I welcome that—that’s the way this system is supposed to operate here.”
Sarah Robertson is a member-writer at The Shoestring. Photo Celina della Croce