By Dusty Christensen
NORTHAMPTON — For Hector Figarella, the sanctions that the United States has imposed on his home country of Venezuela aren’t just an abstraction he reads about on the news. In 2017, his dad died from a blood clot after he was unable to get the anticoagulant medicine he needed — a shortage he said is the direct result of U.S. sanctions.
Gloria Caballero knows the feeling. As a Cuban-American, she said that when she recently went back to visit the island, her mother asked her to bring bread in her luggage. The U.S. sanctions and embargo are a central part of the economic crisis on the island, she said.
Figarella didn’t mince words: “The sanctions are killing people.”
As U.S. leaders continue to take an aggressive stance towards the leftist governments in those countries, activists in western Massachusetts are trying to do what they can to push for a more humane approach. A record 220,000 Cubans arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border last fiscal year as the sanctions squeeze the island’s economy. And in Venezuela, sanctions imposed under former President Donald Trump have exacerbated already dire medicine and food shortages there. One study from the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that from 2017 to 2018, U.S. sanctions contributed to the deaths of more than 40,000 Venezuelans, and the Venezuelan economist Francisco Rodríguez described the resulting crisis as “the largest economic collapse, outside of wartime, since 1950.”
Figarella and Caballero spoke at a recent protest in front of the Northampton office of U.S.Rep Jim McGovern, D-Worcester. The local Anti-Imperialist Action Committee organized the demonstration, and in the past has had success in urging the congressman to keep speaking up about U.S. foreign policy. One of the more left-leaning members of Congress, McGovern has a history of denouncing human rights abuses, particularly in Latin America, as well as the U.S. sanctions in Cuba and Venezuela.
But while McGovern and the Anti-Imperialist Action Committee have previously been in step with each other, the group now appears to be at loggerheads with the powerful Democrat. The reason?: Mcgovern declined to sign a letter other progressive members of Congress sent to President Joe Biden urging him to end Trump-era sanctions against Cuba and Venezuela.
In a statement, McGovern’s office said that the letter — an effort led Texas Rep. Veronica Escobar, who is co-chairing Biden’s reelection campaign — “simply reiterates principles without identifying a path forward.” His office said that he has decided to lead his own letter to the Biden administration that reflects realities on the ground and “offers real options for easing sanctions.”
“Congressman McGovern has been the leader in Congress on ending indiscriminate U.S. sanctions that hurt people,” the statement said. “He has been fighting urgently to do just that with respect to both Cuba and Venezuela — working tirelessly, both publicly and behind-the-scenes, to exert pressure on the Biden administration in a way that will make a difference.”
But the Anti-Imperialist Action Committee has rejected the idea that the letter didn’t offer a path forward, given its call to lift the sanctions that the Trump administration imposed.
“You have a historic opportunity to help mitigate economic push-factors driving migration affecting our border and many of our cities, while reorienting U.S. policy in the hemisphere towards a more holistic approach that eschews destructive sanctions policies to focus on peace, stability, and prosperity for all inhabitants of the Americas,” the letter ends. “We hope you will continue down this path.”
In an email, Anti-Imperialist Action Committee organizer Celina della Croce said that the group didn’t understand why it would be harmful for McGovern to rally support among colleagues for the letter, and that the effort would have been more successful had he joined. Other progressives to sign onto the letter, which was crafted by House lawmakers from border states, included New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib.
“We have many questions about why he did not sign and why he didn’t talk to us before the letter closed, given that he told us in meetings again and again that ‘the time is now’ to act, that he is deeply moved by the humanitarian crisis, that he has grown impatient with the Biden administration’s inaction, and so on,” della Croce wrote.
Della Croce pointed to a 2021 letter McGovern wrote calling on Biden to lift the Trump-era sanctions on Venezuela. She said that letter was “extremely powerful,” but that he didn’t open it up for signatures.
“He told us that he wanted to establish his position on the issue, so shouldn’t other representatives be given the same opportunity?” della Croce asked. “Isn’t it a show of unity for a broad group of congresspeople to call, clearly, for the Biden administration to lift the sanctions? We do not see how his point could possibly be detrimental to the cause, and Rep. McGovern knows it was widely supported by his constituents and many progressive advocacy groups beyond his district.”
McGovern has also, more recently, written another letter to Biden urging him to drop sanctions against Venezuela. He also penned an op-ed in The Boston Globe calling for sanctions relief on Cuba and for the United States to drop that country from its list of state sponsors of terrorism — a list it was added to in the waning days of the Trump administration.
Della Croce said that following the group’s rally in front of McGovern’s office, they did secure a meeting with the representative. However, the letter in question had already been sent.
Speaking ahead of that rally, Figarella said that there is a dire need to lift the sanctions so that Venezuelans, including his own family, “can stop suffering and live a dignified life.”
Dusty Christensen is an independent investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dustyc123.
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