UN special rapporteur exhorts Portugal to release Venezuela’s millions

A scathing report by UN special rapporteur Alena Douhan has mentioned Portugal’s part in the desperate situation of people in Venezuela, living in such crippling poverty that Covid-19 is ‘the last thing on their minds’.

Portugal is one of a number of countries whose banks are ‘holding onto billions in Venezuelan assets’, refusing to release them.

Says Ms Douhan, the money is needed to buy “medication, vaccines, food, medical equipment and other essential items to guarantee that the humanitarian needs of the Venezuelan people are satisfied”.

A CNN report highlights just how terrible life is in Venezuela, where 96% of the population live in unimaginable poverty (click here).

Yet all countries, Portugal included, have this far resisted pressures to release the money they are holding (click here).

In Portugal’s case it is roughly €1.5 billion – the bulk of it in Novo Banco.

The situation stems from events in 2017 when President Trump urged foreign powers to ‘recognise’ Juan Guiadó as Venezuela’s rightful president following what many saw as rigged elections.

Guaidó’s movement never made it: president Nicolás Maduro has doggedly held on to power – but at unbelievable cost to the population.

This isn’t the first time pressure has been brought to bear on Portugal, UK and the United States (between them holding almost €30 billion in Venezuelan cash/ gold). Maduro unsuccessfully tried to get 31 tonnes of Venezuelan gold out of the vaults of the Bank of England last summer. He was thwarted by the High Court which at the time understood that Britain recognised Juan Guiadó as Venezuela’s president.

Mr Justice Teare said it was the British government’s prerogative to decide who was the legitimate head of state. Though according to the Financial Times the British government “continued to maintain full diplomatic relations with Mr Maduro’s government after recognising Mr Guaidó”.

In Portugal’s case, foreign affairs minister Augusto Santos Silva has said it is not up to the Socialist government to decide whether or not to release Venezuela’s money. 

He told journalists two years ago that it was a matter for Europe and the European Central Bank.

He was also at pains to stress that Portugal itself has not applied any sanctions against Venezuela, but is simply going along with Europe’s decision to be part of the opposition to the Maduro regime. 

The toughest sanctions are those imposed by the United States which the Financial Times described two years ago as designed to “throttle the economy and force Mr Maduro from power”.

To some extent they have worked in that the Venezuelan economy is well and truly throttled. But Mr Maduro is still in power – and has been delighted by the visit and subsequent message to the rest of the world by special rapporteur Alena Douhan.

It remains to be seen whether anything will change – and whether any banks release Venezuela’s assets which Mr Maduro has pledged to use under UN-led programmes.

Say reports in the Portuguese press, Ms Douhan met with Maduro and other members of his government on her visit to Caracas, as well as with “representatives of the opposition, NGOs, the Catholic Church, syndicates, teachers, lawyers, activists, and victims and their families”.

But a US State Department spokesperson has criticised her fact-finding, telling CNN that she spoke “almost only to regime insiders and others the regime authorized”.

And a Venezuelan reader reacting to this story after it went online has written in to say in no uncertain terms that this money “cannot arrive in Venezuela while Maduro is still in power!

“He is a delinquent! He does not represent Venezuela. He is a criminal from a Colombian favela who is killing Venezuela.

“The good people of Venezuela ask international society for protection… do not give him the money of Venezuelans…”

[email protected]