U.S. Sanctions and a Shamanic Curse: Two Very Different Enemies Challenge Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro

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Over the course of forty-eight hours last week, Venezuela’s president Nicolás Maduro was the target of two very different forms of political action. On May 17, indigenous shamans from the Amazonian region invoked their creator deity to cast a terrible curse on Maduro, who is said to believe in powers from the beyond. The very next day, the United States Department of the Treasury released a memo imposing economic sanctions on eight members of Venezuela’s Supreme Court, all Maduro loyalists. The move indicates that the administration of U.S. president Donald Trump intends to play a bigger role in the politics of the troubled South American nation.

That Venezuela is in crisis is hardly news. The country’s economy is in deep recession: the result of plummeting foreign investment, diminishing production, and low oil prices (Venezuela is one of the world’s top oil producers and highly dependent on oil revenues). The internal consumer market is in shambles, the butt of jokes around the world, with staple household products absent from most store shelves, impossibly long lines at government-subsidized food distributors, and a ubiquitous black market. Maduro’s opponents blame government price controls for the crisis, while government backers counter that the opposition is actively trying to sabotage the national economy to force Maduro out.

The frequency and intensity of anti-government protests has increased significantly over the last few months. Hundreds of opposition activists have been arrested, including some visible resistance leaders such as Leopoldo López, been behind bars since 2014. Violence erupts frequently as pro- and anti-government groups clash, leading to an undetermined number of injuries and even deaths. Again, the two sides blame each other for the bloodshed. It is well known that Maduro’s government has hundreds of small groups of armed supporters at its disposal. Reports of such citizen militias crashing protests and intimidating demonstrators abound. On the other hand, supporters of the government argue that the opposition has its own set of shock forces, who employ equally brutal tactics to make their voices heard.

It is in this context that Liborio Guarulla, the governor of the state of Amazonas, headed a march of mostly indigenous protesters decrying the government’s anti-democratic actions as well as its exploitation of natural resources through mining, logging, and pollution. Dressed in the garb of the natives of the Amazon forest, Guarulla spoke forcefully against the government as demonstrators broke out in traditional songs. In one video released by Guarulla’s office, indigenous shamans are seen preparing potions, congregating in a circle, and chanting incantations in what is called the Dabucurí ritual, which summons the creator of the world to defeat evil and restore purity to the Amazon.

Maduro apparently believes in witchcraft and spiritualism, performing rituals on national television, often trying to communicate with the spirit of his predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chávez. Although the event in Amazonas is to a large degree a performance for the cameras, it’s not clear to what degree the president will take it seriously. Indubitably many of his constituents will, on both sides of the political spectrum.

Maduro’s indigenous opponents hope against hope that this latest demonstration will help persuade the president to change course when it comes to exploiting his country’s natural resources from what Guarulla calls “foreign interests.” While much of the opposition to Chávez and Maduro has come from the liberal right – those who believe Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution and 21st Century Socialism, continued by Maduro, are bad economic policy – indigenous protesters generally attack government policies from the left. Much like Maduro allies Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador, also left-leaning populists leaders with support among the working poor, the Bolivarian government is charged with perpetuating a destructive development system that plays into the hands of transnational corporations and will ultimately spell doom for Venezuela’s spectacular natural riches. As Venezuela has a much smaller indigenous population than its Andean neighbors, the Amazonian natives have so far been unsuccessful in changing government policy. Hence the appeal to the supernatural.

A very different curse was placed upon Maduro supporters by the U.S. Treasury Department, which on May 18 announced that eight members of Venezuela’s Supreme Court are now included on the Specially Designated Nationals And Blocked Persons List (SDN). Individuals and companies on the SDN have their U.S. assets frozen, and are prohibited with doing business with American individuals or corporations. The list includes Maikel Moreno Pérez, the Supreme Court president, as well as its two vice-presidents. U.S. officials have stated that the move is a response to the Supreme Court’s aiding of Maduro in removing power from the National Assembly, the country’s legislative body currently controlled by the opposition. The Supreme Court magistrates join Venezuelan vice president Tareck El Aissami, who was added to the SDN last November, for his alleged involvement in drug trafficking.

Maduro, who criticized the sanctions on El Aissami without mentioning Trump by name, has come out swinging over this latest affront. “Get your dirty hands of Venezuela!”, he bellowed to Trump in a televised speech. As of now, the prospect of reconciliation between the two countries, which some had hoped could be mediated by Russia, is becoming less and less likely.

It would be difficult to find two political actors as different as the Trump Administration and the indigenous Shamans of the Amazon. On most every issue they would seem to be at odds, yet they are linked by their rejection of the Maduro government and its brazen attack on democratic norms. Time will tell whether the spell cast on Maduro will provoke a change of heart before the crisis in Venezuela reaches truly catastrophic proportions. This, unfortunately, doesn’t seem particularly likely.

 

 

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