By Chuck Kaufman
Everything I know about true solidarity I learned from Sandinista Nicaraguans in the 1980s and since. I’m excited to write in this last NicaNotes blog of 2019 to introduce a 3-way solidarity project that we can all participate in. It is called the Manitos Children’s Fund. Manitos means “little hands” in Spanish. At its most basic, Manitos Children’s Fund raises money in North America (US and Canada) to buy food from Nicaraguan cooperatives to donate for children’s nutrition in Venezuela. But there’s a lot more to the story than just the basics.
The reason Venezuelan children need to have their nutrition supplemented is because the United States government is trying to overthrow their government, and the weapon of choice is unilateral coercive measures – sanctions – that are explicitly forbidden in the Charter of the Organization of American States (OAS).
Sanctions are sold to us as a more humane way to pressure other governments to bow to our will. But that is not true. Sanctions kill. In April, 2019, Mark Weisbrot, director of Center for Economic and Policy Research, and Colombia University Economist Jeffrey Sachs released a report on the effects of sanctions on Venezuela. Their report revealed at least 40,000 more people died in 2017-18 under sanctions than died in a similar period before sanctions.
40,000 people died. That’s how many people were killed during the whole Contra War in Nicaragua. But in only two years, sanctions killed that many Venezuelans. The people who made up that 40,000 were not democratically-elected President Maduro or his family, or members of his cabinet. They were not the commanders of the military and police or the CEOs of corporations. No. The people who died were children. They were the elderly. They were people with HIV/AIDS or who needed dialysis, insulin, or blood pressure medicine. They were the poor.
When the US and Canadian governments tell us their sanctions are targeted like a laser beam they are lying. Actually they are targeted, but not where they tell us. The State-imposed sanctions are targeted in a way that is intended to make life unbearable for ordinary citizens so that they will rise up and overthrow the government that Washington doesn’t like. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo admitted as much to AP reporter Matthew Lee, on March 11, 2019, when he said, “The circle is tightening; the humanitarian crisis is increasing by the hour. … You can see the increasing pain and suffering.” He is talking about the effects of sanctions. The suffering of the civilian population is not an unintended consequence; it is exactly the consequence intended and it is morally wrong!
When US President Donald Trump announced a “complete economic blockade” of Venezuela in August, 2019, we in Alliance for Global Justice knew we had to act. In the 1980s, the Nicaragua Network, our predecessor organization, opposed the US economic blockade of Nicaragua with the Let Nicaragua Live Campaign, our humanitarian aid campaign. The last two years of the campaign included contracting with a black family farm cooperative in Alabama to grow oats which were shipped to Nicaragua where the milling of them created jobs. Nicaraguans drink their oats so the end product was a beverage distributed to the children’s hospital and orphanages to supplement children’s nutrition.
That experience became the inspiration for us today, over thirty years later, to create the Manitos Children’s Fund. We have joined with Canadian partners to create a campaign across both countries that have imposed illegal sanctions on Venezuela.
Our staff traveled to Nicaragua to work out the details of buying beans from Rural Workers Association (ATC) cooperatives and its affiliate, the Union of Agricultural Cooperatives of Nueva Segovia (UCANS). Nicaraguans showed us once again what true solidarity is. Of course they were excited to sell us beans. But their primary reaction was, “How can we be part of this solidarity action?”
“Do Venezuelan farmers need seeds?” “Yes,” we replied. “Then we will ask each of our members to donate several pounds of seeds to send along with the beans.” And they offered as part of their contribution to pack the beans and transport them to the port that they will ship from. They said all we have to do is pay for the gas! Nicaraguans remember the solidarity they received from Venezuela under Hugo Chavez and they didn’t hesitate for a minute to give some of that solidarity back. I remember in the 1990s during Cuba’s “special period,” that Nicaraguans, who didn’t have enough milk for themselves, voluntarily donated milk for Cuba. That is what solidarity is all about.
So the Manitos Children’s Fund is off to a good start. We hope to ship our first 18 ton container of beans to Venezuela by the end of January. We need approximately $20,000 to purchase and ship the beans. The final price will depend on how good the current bean harvest is. I hope you can make a tax-deductible contribution online at: https://manitoschildrensfund.org/donate/. Or mail a check made out to AFGJ/Manitos Children’s Fund to 225 E 26th St., Ste. 1, Tucson, AZ 85713. (US dollars only for checks.)
Our mission statement explains our goals and strategy: “Manitos Children’s Fund aspires to build a world where not one child dies of malnutrition or lack of access to medical care due to political differences among nations. We believe that unilateral sanctions and economic blockades are illegal under international law. At the same time, we recognize that while we can challenge sanctions within the US political arena, we must work to deliver humanitarian aid within the limitations of laws and Presidential Orders. Manitos means “little hands” in many Spanish speaking countries. Manitos Children’s Fund operates on two levels: 1) to raise money to legally provide food and medicine to children and other vulnerable sectors of countries targeted by economic sanctions, and 2) to raise awareness of the suffering and death caused by US sanctions against the children and ordinary families of the countries targeted by our government.”
Humanitarian aid is exempted from the sanctions and Trump’s economic blockade so what we are doing is entirely legal and there is no risk to you to donate to it. We have set up Manitos Children’s Fund as its own entity but fiscally sponsored by the Alliance for Global Justice. We do that just in case we have to defend the legality of our project. AFGJ acts as fiscal sponsor for 120 groups that do not have their own tax-exempt status. We want to keep the solidarity aid work separate from the other work we support.
We call it solidarity aid because the Trump administration besmirched the meaning of humanitarian aid last year when they tried to force “humanitarian” aid across the border of Venezuela from Colombia. Even the Red Cross has criticized Trump for politicizing humanitarian aid.
In North America, the Manitos Children’s Fund will educate people in the US and Canada about the suffering and even death caused by US and Canadian unilateral coercive measures. We intend to build a movement that rejects sanctions as a tool to bully other countries and to expose its deadly effect.
But as far as hungry children in Venezuela, we do not differentiate between families that are Chavista and those who support the opposition. Our mission is to prevent any child from being hungry or sick due to disputes between nations. The food we send and the medicine we hope to send later will be distributed strictly according to need. We oppose our governments using food as a weapon and we will not use our solidarity as a weapon either.
Right now we are concentrating on food, but as this project grows we will also seek to provide medicine and medical equipment that Venezuela is unable to buy itself due to the US blockade which cuts it off from the international banking system and international trade. But for now, we’re all about beans!
Beans are a great food source. One pound of dried beans makes 10 meals. A ton feeds 20,000 people once or 667 people for a month. A container holds 18 tons, so when we ship a container to Venezuela from Nicaragua, it will be holding 360,000 meals. That is a drop in the bucket to what the real needs are, but it is not insignificant to feed over a third of a million people either! The only real solution to the problem is to end US and Canadian sanctions against Venezuela, but until we can achieve that, we can at least do what we can to alleviate the pain our governments are causing.
If you want to learn more about the Manitos Children’s Fund, go to our web page at www.manitoschildrensfund.org.
In addition to making a personal tax-deductible donation, even more helpful would be to have your local group take up Manitos Children’s Fund as a project, or if that isn’t possible, to set up a local committee that will. We can provide you with information and organizing suggestions. It can be a real local movement-builder to have a fundraising project. Even more so, it provides the ideal tool to educate your neighbors about the suffering and death that is caused by illegal unilateral sanctions. If we are going to build an effective movement to build a better world, the building blocks for that will be at the local level. I will be doing a series of speaking tours over the next year to promote the Manitos Children’s Fund. If you would like to host me in your community, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This project of solidarity with Venezuela is part of a larger movement that is coming together to reject illegal sanctions. Thirty-nine countries are under some level of US sanctions, a third of the world’s population. How many people know that? Even I didn’t know that until recently.
AfGJ is part of a new coalition against US-imposed sanctions called the Sanctions Kill Coalition. Click here to read about the international Call to Action March 13-15 and here to join over 1,000 individuals and groups which have signed on to the Call already.
Chuck Kaufman is National Co-Coordinator of the Alliance for Global Justice. He has been a leader of the Central and Latin America solidarity movements since joining the staff of the Nicaragua Network in 1987. He gave up his successful advertising business out of disgust at Congress’ cowardice during the Iran-Contra scandal. He went on his first coffee picking brigade to Nicaragua that same year. Chuck has been in the front ranks of the movements to support the right of people in Latin America and the Caribbean to dignity, sovereignty, and self-determination. He has led delegations to Nicaragua, Venezuela, Haiti and Honduras.