The Beggar is now on Horseback

By Robert Navan

Up until recent times Ireland’s image in Latin America was a relatively positive one. Names like Bernardo O’Higgins son of an Irish viceroy, who freed Chile from Spanish rule, Admiral William Brown the Irish merchant sea captain whose improvised navy broke the Spanish blockade of the River Plate in Argentina, the San Patricio Brigade which fought on the side of Mexico against the US in the Mexican American War and composed mainly of poor Irish emigrants. Probably the most illustrious of Latin American heroes is Simón Bolívar but less well known is his aide-de-camp, Cork man Daniel Florence O’Leary. Many streets in Latin America carry his name.

Ireland’s recent history, unfortunately, has shown a trend of siding with the oppressor rather than the oppressed. In Venezuela where O’Leary’s name is still revered, illegal sanctions by both the US and the EU have caused appalling economic damage to the country. The economic war spearheaded by the US has led to the near collapse of Venezuela’s infrastructure, particularly in the healthcare and education sectors. The food supply chain is another casualty of these sanctions. This has mainly affected the poor and most vulnerable people in the country. Since the election of Hugo Chávez as president in 1998 most of these people had experienced a huge rise in their living standards, particularly in the fields of health, housing and education. Now, as the sanctions began to bite many of them have been forced to emigrate. Cancer sufferers and other seriously ill people, among them children and old people have not been able to avail of treatments or surgery due to the lack of medicines and spare parts for hospital equipment.

Ireland is a party to these illegal sanctions. In 2014 the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution which stresses that “unilateral coercive measures and legislation are contrary to international law”. * Article 20 of the Organisation of American States (OAS) is even clearer on this and states that “No State may use or encourage the use of coercive measures of an economic or political character in order to force the sovereign will of another State and obtain from it advantages of any kind.” **

The UN Special Rapporteur on unilateral coercive measures and human rights, Alena Douhan, has urged the United States, the European Union and other states to drop sanctions imposed against Venezuela.*** At the end of a recent visit to Venezuela, she said the sanctions “had exacerbated pre-existing economic situations and had dramatically affected the whole population of Venezuela, especially but not only those in extreme poverty, women, children, medical workers, people with disabilities or life-threatening or chronic diseases, and the indigenous populations.”

A report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR),**** said that 40,000 Venezuelans have died as a consequence of these sanctions. The Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and Defence, when asked by the Venezuela Ireland Network, has refused to acknowledge the consequences of these sanctions to which Ireland is a party. The Department has hidden behind the EU line which states that the sanctions are targeted only at individuals (despite all evidence pointing to the opposite).

Venezuela is not the only country in Latin America that is suffering destabilisation by external actors. The ongoing coup US backed in Honduras, the recent short-lived coup in Bolivia and blatant interference by the US in Nicaragua’s upcoming elections are all occasions where Ireland’s silence has spoken volumes. Nicaragua’s vote was sought when Ireland was canvassing for a seat on the UN Security Council. All that Nicaragua asked in exchange was Ireland’s support for all small countries that were struggling against oppression and or aggression. It looks like history will not “absolve us” as, up until now, this support has not been forthcoming. The absence of the hoped for solidarity from Ireland with small nations will have been noted around the world, particularly in Latin America.

Ireland’s reputation, as a source for good and an ally of progressive movements in Latin America, is no longer. We are now seen as another cog in the reactionary imperialist machine. The old saying “Set a Beggar on Horseback” has particular resonance here.

Venezuela Ireland Network Street Protest

Robert Navan, Venezuela Ireland Network