The US’ Illegal War on Venezuela / Is Free Press Officially Dead Now?

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The US’ Illegal War on Venezuela / Is Free Press Officially Dead Now?
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On this Project Censored Show Eleanor Goldfield interviews Venezuelan political analyst Leonardo Flores, who gives updates on the ongoing illegal imprisonment of Venezuelan diplomat Alex Saab by the United States. His crime? Seeking food and medicine for the Venezuelan people struggling under US sanctions. Flores also shares insight on these sanctions including workarounds that sidestep US hegemony. Next up, Matilda Bliss and Veronica Coit return to the show to give updates on their recent jury trial and verdict: guilty of journalism. Bliss and Coit share details on what sounds like an absolute farce of a trial, the horrifying precedent this now sets for journalists across the nation, and what comes next.

 

Below is a Rough Transcript of The Interviews with Leonardo Flores, Matilda Bliss and Veronica Coit

Eleanor Goldfield: Welcome to the Project Censored Radio Show. I’m your host for this week, Eleanor Goldfield.

We start today with Venezuelan political analyst, Leonardo Flores, who joins the show to give updates on the ongoing illegal imprisonment of Venezuelan diplomat Alex Saab by the United States. His crime? Seeking food and medicine for the Venezuelan people struggling under US sanctions. Flores also shares insight on these sanctions, including workarounds that sidestep US hegemony.

Next up, Matilda Bliss and Veronica Coit join the show once again to give updates on their recent jury trial and verdict: guilty of journalism. Bliss and Coit share details on what sounds like an absolute farce of a trial, the horrifying precedent this now sets for journalists across the nation, and what’s next. All this and more coming up now on Project Censored.

Thanks everyone for joining us at the Project Censored Radio Show. We’re very glad right now to be joined by Leonardo Flores, who’s a Venezuelan political analyst. He worked at the Venezuelan Embassy in the United States for nearly a decade and later worked as a peace activist with Code Pink. Leonardo was born in Venezuela and maintains close ties to social movements that have transformed the country over the past 20 years. Leo, thanks so much for joining us.

Leonardo Flores: Oh, it’s such a pleasure.

Eleanor Goldfield: So I want to start off with a story that some folks might not be familiar with. So I’ll just give a little bit of backstory before we dig into some, some updates and details about Alex Saab, the Venezuelan diplomat who in 2020 was traveling to Iran on a diplomatic mission for the Venezuelan government to secure medical supplies and food for the Venezuelan people, thanks to COVID and U. S. imposed sanctions, creating a lack of those supplies.

The Venezuelan government plane that Saab was traveling in stopped in Cape Verde, an archipelago country off the west coast of Africa in order to refuel. And during that refueling, Cape Verdean police officers illegally detained Saab, who again is a diplomat, and they said that it was at the request of an alleged international Interpol red alert, which was then issued with the wrong name a day after the arrest.

And despite having diplomatic papers from Venezuela confirmed by Iran, Saab was detained for over a year and then handed over to U. S. officials and has since October 2021 been imprisoned in Florida under so called lawfare charges, which is helping Venezuela get around the illegal sanctions. And at a hearing in December 2022, a Florida judge rejected a motion to dismiss criminal charges against Saab because the judge claimed the U.S. doesn’t recognize Maduro as the president of Venezuela, therefore he can’t possibly be a diplomat for Maduro’s government, which is just…wow.

So Leo, with that backstory, I would like to hear what is the status of this case? I mean, he’s been rotting in a Florida prison and he’s been detained illegally now for three years. What is the status right now?

Leonardo Flores: Well, his case is still pending. It’s ongoing. His defense had argued that since he was a diplomat, he should be released immediately, but unfortunately the U. S. authorities disagreed. And so the, the case is still ongoing. There’s still some pending other appeals about whether to continue with the case or not, but really it’s a political case.

So regardless of what Alex Saab’s attorneys say there’s really no way that the United States is going to release him until after they secure a conviction, and that may be the only way that he gets released is in some sort of prisoner exchange with Venezuela, but that won’t happen in my opinion until after he’s convicted and really they’re going after him because he’s such a key player in terms of helping the Venezuelan government overcome the sanctions and really, really helping feed the Venezuelan people because he was one of the architects behind what’s known as the CLAP program, the local committees for supply and production.

This is a food distribution program that began in Venezuela in around 2016. And it literally prevented a famine. And I say that, and I don’t say that lightly. Those were the words of a Venezuelan economist, Francisco Rodriguez, an economist who, by the way, is linked to the opposition. So he’s not a friend of the Maduro government by any means. But this program has been so wildly successful in helping, you know, average Venezuelans overcome the sanctions and really kind of lessen the impact on their families because they’ve, it’s kept them fed.

And that’s one of the reasons they went after Alex Saab: to try to figure out the networks behind the Venezuelan government, and how it’s overcoming the sanctions to be able to bring down that network and really make Venezuelans suffer even more.

Because according to the logic of the United States, Venezuelan have to, people are gonna have to suffer in order for them to quote unquote rise up and overthrow their government. Which time and time again, they’ve refused to do because it’s their government. They voted for it and they’re not going to accept any sort of foreign interference in their affairs.

Eleanor Goldfield: Yeah, I mean, I feel like even though most Americans don’t actually vote for the people that end up in office, because we don’t have a democracy, even we would be like, No, you can’t overthrow our government. That’s our government. Like, we would take pride in even our not democratically elected government.

And Venezuela, of course, time and time again, as international observers have found, the process, the voting process is incredibly democratic, incredibly rigorous. And Maduro just is the president. That’s not really up for debate for anyone outside of the U. S. propaganda machine. So I mean, you’re talking about a prisoner exchange, what, what would that look like? I mean, it’s not like the Venezuelan government has arrested a lot of people that tried to push Guaido into office. They didn’t even arrest Guaido. I mean, they’ve been incredibly lenient. So what would a prisoner exchange even look like?

Leonardo Flores: Sure, so there’s been some high profile people with either U.S. citizenship or U. S. residency that have been in prison in Venezuela. So, for example, about a year ago, there were these six executives from the Citgo Corporation, Citgo being an oil company based in the United States, but it’s actually a subsidiary of PDVSA, the Venezuelan state oil company. And there were these six high-ranking, you know, executives from CITGO who went to Venezuela and were immediately arrested on corruption charges. All six of them were actually Venezuelan citizens. I think four of them had dual citizenship with the United States and the other two had green cards. But they’ve been in prison in Venezuela for about four years, if I’m not mistaken, maybe a little longer.

And, you know, initially, when Alex Saab was first extradited to the U. S. two and a half years ago, roughly, the idea was that he was going to be exchanged for these people. It didn’t happen. In fact, the Maduro government gave them a house arrest, released them from prison, and then when Saab was extradited, they went back into prison, and as a result of kind of back channel negotiations between the U.S. and Venezuela, all six of these prisoners were released. They’re now back in the United States. And really, that kind of undercuts the U. S. story that this is a case about corruption, because they’re claiming that Alex Saab laundered money through the U. S. financial system. But again, If it really was about corruption, then they wouldn’t be agitating so hard to release these CITGO executives.

They were released. There’s a few more U. S. citizens in prison in Venezuela, including two of the people who participated in the so called Operation Gideon, the Bay of Piglets, as it’s called. This was the attempted mercenary invasion of Venezuela. That was where Juan Guaido signed the contract with this mercenary gig to basically kidnap the president of Venezuela and overthrow the government. And it really was a spectacular failure. And in the course of that, the operation’s failure, two former Green Berets were arrested and they’re currently in Venezuela and actually the U. S. Special Envoy for hostage, I believe it’s hostage negotiations, his name is Roger Carstens. He’s a part of the White House. He actually went to Venezuela yesterday, June 19th. So there’s maybe something going on, but obviously he goes there now regularly. He has been going for the past year and a half to meet with U.S. Citizens who were detained in Venezuela because as the United States and Venezuela don’t have diplomatic relations, you’ve got prisoners in Venezuela and really a lot more Venezuelans in the United States who were either detained by ICE or detained by the authorities and other locations who haven’t really been able to receive consular advice, consular access, which is a right of all citizens throughout the world because of this kind of geopolitical struggle between the United States and Venezuela, which is really more of a war that the United States has been carrying out against Venezuela.

So there are some U. S. people in Venezuela that could be exchanged for Alex Saab. That’s actually what the Alex Saab campaign, which is led by Saab’s wife’s Camila Fabri Saab has been agitating for. They’ve been calling and pressuring the administration to release Alex in exchange for prisoners that are held in Venezuela. But again, I think it will be very difficult for the administration to do this because they’ve kind of put themselves in a corner where they have to really present a hard line against Venezuela because they think that’s going to help them in Florida in the next presidential elections, but at the same time, they know that the Trump administration strategy has failed. So they’re kind of trying to play both sides of like slowly trying to change policy towards Venezuela, and we’ve seen a couple of examples of that.

Most notably is Chevron Oil Corporation got a waiver from the sanctions to allow them to resume operations in Venezuela. It’s a very limited waiver, but it has helped improve the situation in Venezuela. Somewhat a very tiny bit, I would say. And so they’re trying to play both sides of the hardliners and the rest of kind of these political establishment, which potentially sees that a new approach is needed towards Venezuela because the sanctions have failed miserably in their stated goal of overthrowing the government, although the sanctions have also been wildly successful in their unstated goal of harming the Venezuelan people.

So, yeah, there are a couple of options that for people that might be traded, but it seems unlikely that it’s going to happen until he is actually convicted in the U.S. Court, because that’s kind of been the M.O. of the United States when it comes to political prisoners that it then exchanges.

Eleanor Goldfield: And it also speaks to the U. S. prison system, that there are people who languish in prison for years without a conviction, so according to law, they’re innocent until proven guilty, but they’re still rotting in prison. That’s, yeah, that’s the U. S. for you.

And I, I kind of want to shift gears, but I, this is of course also tied in to Saab and, and with the lack of relations or the, the, the difficult relations between the U. S. and Venezuela.

Saying the quiet part loud, which former President Donald Trump is really good at. On June 10th at a Republican party rally in North Carolina, Trump boasted that he wanted to quote, take over Venezuela and quote, we would have gotten all that oil, but now instead we’re buying it. And of course, his point was how ridiculous is that that we’re buying it when we could have just taken it, which of course is what the U.S. has done forever, but it’s the quiet part loud again.

But so I’m curious, you mentioned Chevron and that kind of being a door and the U. S.’s need for oil being a way to try to normalize relations. How is that going? And has it created any sort of actual relief for the people or just for, you know, larger corporations like Chevron?

Leonardo Flores: Well, it’s going well in terms of, you know, Venezuela just hit a three year high in terms of oil production. And it seems like now they’re going to be focusing a little bit more on trying to get investment in their natural gas fields, which Venezuela also is one of the top ten in terms of a natural gas potential.

So in that sense, it’s going well. The effects have been slowly trickling down to the rest of the Venezuelan people actually, but you know, we have to keep in mind that when the sanctions started, as a result of the sanctions, I should say, Venezuela lost 99 percent of its income.

So which is a wild statistic, right?

99 percent of of your income gone basically from one year to the next because of the oil sanctions.

So now this Chevron waiver is really kind of a trickle in what should be a spigot in terms of Venezuela’s oil production and historically, Venezuela or not historically, I should say, in the last 25 years since the Bolivarian Revolution, Venezuela has invested heavily in social spending, social investment, what they call and about 75 to 85% of government revenue goes into social spending.

So when you destroy the backbone of the economy, which is oil income, when you take away that 99 percent obviously, the effects are going to be felt everywhere in every possible field. But most notably, the impact has been on the health system, which has been totally destroyed.

So even if you take away the Chevron, if you grant Chevron this waiver, which they did, it is bringing in some more income and that is being invested, but it’s not, Venezuela is not going to return to what it was even 10 years ago until all the sanctions are lifted.

And even then it’s going to take several years of economic production in order to get back to those levels. So there’s not like a magic wand where you know suddenly the U.S. lifts all sanctions and Venezuela’s going to be fine from one day to the next. This damage is going to be ongoing.

And so despite the fact that Chevron has this waiver, you know, there are still sanctions all over Venezuela’s economy that would need to be lifted before it could really start to recuperate and what we’re seeing now is that you know, I think there’s been a drag on the Biden administration’s part in terms of offering even more sanctions relief because Venezuela has elections in 2024. And although the date hasn’t been set yet, it’s most likely going to happen after the US elections here. So we’re talking about December 2024 for the Venezuelan elections.

And the last thing that the Biden administration wants is to lift sanctions and see Venezuela improve, and in such a way that it would give the Maduro government an advantage in the elections in terms of, oh, the people would finally see that the sanctions were a real thing because at first, you know, the Venezuelan people were skeptical that economic problems are related to the sanctions, but as time went on, you could see it in the polls. More and more people grew to understand that the sanctions were really responsible for the economic problems. I think now the statistic is something like 80 percent of Venezuelans reject US sanctions and an even higher number agree that US sanctions are the main driver behind the economic collapse. And so with these numbers, the sanctions have been just incredibly unpopular, and they’ve already linked to kind of Juan Guaido, of course.

And now with Trump saying the quiet part out loud, as you just said, you know, it’s really, what we’re seeing is that the opposition in Venezuela is now scrambling as fast as they can to try to distance themselves from Trump and try to distance themselves from Guaido, despite the fact that for years and years, they loved Trump, you know, the right wing Venezuelans absolutely loved Trump because he was seen as their kind of possible salvation.

Of course, it didn’t work out that way for them. And so now they’re, they’re trying to like backtrack and trying to say like, Oh, we never really supported sanctions anyway. You know, there’s video after video of them basically echoing Trump’s talking points and saying how much they love the sanctions and saying there should be more. So now they’re the ones kind of paying the price for this backlash that Trump initiated.

Eleanor Goldfield: I know that Venezuela has nationalized the oil industry, but what would stop, you know, let’s say that sanctions were lifted and oil production was allowed to proceed at the levels that the Venezuelan government and people desire?

What kind of safeguards are there to keep the U. S. from, as Trump put it, just coming in and taking all that oil?

Leonardo Flores: Yeah, I mean, the only way for the U. S. to come and take all that oil is to do it physically, is to do it with U. S. troops on the ground, like they’ve done in Syria, because that’s really what’s going on in Syria, and really that’s Trump’s framework for, for the, the words he said because that’s exactly what the United States did under Trump in Syria, is to take over control of oil fields directly. And so that’s what the United States would do to really take control, so to speak, of the oil.

But, you know, even during the worst of worst low points between the U. S. and Venezuela in that relationship, the Venezuelan government has been adamant that if the sanctions were lifted, they would trade oil with the United States, just like they do with anybody else in the world. So there wouldn’t be any sort of backlash in the economic and the commercial relationship with the United States if sanctions were to be lifted.

And now, that is true but at the same time, you know, oil is really kind of a complicated industry. You can’t just turn off an oil drill and oil spigot and then turn it back on a couple of years later. There are machines that if you turn them off, you can never turn them back on and you basically have to reinstall a lot.

And so Venezuela has had really a tough time maintaining these kind of bottom levels of production to ensure that they wouldn’t need a huge reinvestment once the sanctions are off and and once oil production can resume to what it was before, but it’s not clear that they’ve actually managed to do that.

So beyond oil, you know, I think part of the Venezuelan response has been to try to diversify their economy. I mean, that’s been really an ongoing struggle for the past 100 years since oil was discovered in Venezuela because Venezuela used to be a very agricultural economy. They would export cacao and coffee and other agricultural goods. Suddenly, oil was discovered in early 20th century, the economy totally transformed to be completely dependent on oil and government after government, not just the Bolivarian Revolution, but even before those, they tried to diversify and they failed.

And so really, it’s incumbent on the Venezuelan government to find other avenues that aren’t just oil or natural gas or other extractive industries, of course, but to try to find homegrown production, and we’ve seen a bit of change in that regard. Venezuela actually has now, it’s producing most of the food that it consumes, which is a total 180 from what it was 20 years ago, even right before the sanctions.

Venezuela used to import most of its food. Now it produces most of its food. Really, Venezuela, though, is such a complicated country. So for example, bread. Venezuelans eat bread on a daily basis, despite the fact that it doesn’t grow any wheat, and it has never grown wheat. So it’s always been dependent on U. S. imports of wheat. And then when the sanctions came, you had to quickly find alternatives, quickly find substitutions, and now Venezuela imports most of its wheat from Russia. So this is what really the U. S. has done to itself, right? Because the U. S. blockaded Venezuela economically, Venezuela was forced to find other trading partners.

And the reality is that now China and Russia and Iran are more important trading partners to the to Venezuela than the U. S. is currently because of the sanctions. And if the sanctions were lifted tomorrow, it’s not like you could just cut off relations with those three countries economic relations because these are contracts that are set in place.

And frankly, It wouldn’t make any sort of sense for Venezuela to turn its back on the very countries that have been helping it through the worst times in its history. So it’s going to be complicated moving forward in terms of the economic relations between Venezuela and the United States.

But certainly the oil has always been there to be sold to the United States. In fact, the United States was the biggest importer of Venezuelan oil for many, many years prior to the sanctions. And those relationships could resume, but it’ll be complicated.

Eleanor Goldfield: Yeah, I mean, I was going to ask as well, because there’s a side of this that is not talked about because of course it’s, it kind of takes a backseat to these other issues, but the environmental questions, are these questions that the Venezuelan people are grappling with as well? Well, what if we could just turn on all the oil production tomorrow? Do we want to do that? Are there conversations happening around that? As opposed to, could we do renewables or something like that?

Leonardo Flores: Right. In terms of oil, you know, there is an eco-socialist movement in Venezuela, and there are parts of the government that have an eco-socialist mindset, but it really doesn’t, you know, go far enough, in my opinion, in terms of grappling with these questions about oil, because from Venezuela’s perspective, Venezuela is not a historical emitter of CO2 and so it sees the burden of moving towards a green future on the bigger countries like the United States, like Western Europe and so and and sees the responsibility on their side.

But that said, there is an important eco-socialist movement in Venezuela, but really, they’re more concerned about mining because one of the unfortunate consequences of the sanctions on Venezuela, particularly of the oil sanctions, was that it put a lot of people out of work. It put a lot of people, you know, who used to receive government benefits, who then no longer received as much as they could or as much as they were before, looking for alternatives.

And one of those alternatives became illegal gold mining. And so there’s been an explosion in illegal gold mining, which actually the United States then uses for its benefit rhetorically, pointing to illegal gold mining and blaming the Venezuelan government, when really it’s the economic forces brought on by the sanctions that pushed Venezuelans to go to mine gold illegally.

And really, these illegal gold mines are now controlled by mafias. And so the government has taken a very kind of eco-socialist position on that and is trying to stop that. But it’s really gonna require almost like a military operation because we’re actually talking about armed cartels that now control these gold mines, and part of the problem in the last five, six years is that Venezuela couldn’t really afford to divert, you know, military resources to stop the gold mining because they were under threat of invasion by the United States. And so now that that dynamic is changing, there’s been a push against these gold mines.

But no, I would say that in terms of direct response to your question, there hasn’t been kind of a questioning of oil’s place in Venezuela’s so called green economy. It really hasn’t gone to that extent.

Eleanor Goldfield: Well, and I appreciate your framing of that because I think there’s often questions like, what are these small, poor countries doing to address this, and you can’t ask that question sitting in the U.S., and I realize I did just ask that question, but I appreciate you framing it that way because unless the U.S. and other large nations, unless we can diminish our requirement for oil and resources as a whole, then, you know, smaller countries are in no place to dictate that.

So, I, I mean, relations continue to be obviously very rocky, but I’m curious, what do you think the chances are of, and I realize a lot of this will have to do with the, the election next year, In the U.S. but what do you think the likelihood is of the sanctions being either partially lifted or moving in that direction in the coming years?

Leonardo Flores: Yeah, if you’d asked me about a year ago, maybe a year and a half ago, I would have been…more enthusiastic because the Biden administration had this opportunity to lift sanctions to really do a kind of a shift, a paradigm shift and its relations and its attitude towards Venezuela, to see Venezuela not as an enemy and adversary, but as a country that it could engage with, especially because Venezuela had been prior to the sanctions, really helping the Caribbean and Caribbean countries with their energy needs through this oil plan where they basically sold discounted oil to Caribbean countries, the smaller countries, and it really helped them especially during the 2008/2009 recession, when oil prices skyrocketed and countries were, you know, really feeling the pinch.

But right now, I’m not very enthusiastic at all. I’m pretty skeptical, actually, that we’re going to see a major improvement in Venezuela U.S. relations, specifically on the issue of sanctions, precisely because of the of the 2024 presidential elections.

Florida remains, you know, is really the one number one reason why US policy is what it is towards Venezuela, as it is what it is towards Cuba. Because in Florida, you have a lot of these Venezuelan expats who have a lot of money and a lot of influence, and they might play and they have been playing an important role in deciding who wins elections in Florida, deciding in terms of campaign financing and getting out the vote and pushing, you know, candidates to go even more right every time there’s an election coming up to go further right on Venezuela policy.

So, if the Democrats think that they have to win in Florida to win the elections, which they don’t, because, you know, Biden already proved that he didn’t have to, but they still have that mentality that they have to, you know, appease everyone in Florida, and by everyone, really, they focus on the hard right. It, it’s a really a weird strategy to try to appease the hard right in Florida on issues like Cuba and Venezuela, because obviously it doesn’t work. They’re not ever gonna vote for Democrats. And, it creates this, creates this very situation where you have this policy that you can’t change towards Venezuela.

I don’t think we’re gonna see sanctions relief towards Venezuela. If we might it’ll be minimum because of the elections and then after the elections it depends on who wins, right? Because on the Republican side, if it’s either Trump or DeSantis, they have absolutely no incentive to lift sanctions on Venezuela, and what we’ll see is really a deepening of the sanctions against Venezuela and more threats of invasion if it’s Trump and maybe even DeSantis as well.

If Biden somehow wins, he’s really given no indication that he wants to change policy towards Venezuela. So, so either way, I’m very skeptical that we’re going to see any sort of sanctions relief.

I’m more fearful that this is really going to become one of those situations like Cuba, where you have sanctions in place for 60 years, despite the fact that everyone agrees that it’s a bad policy.

Eleanor Goldfield: I definitely hope that’s not the case, but, finally here, I’m curious, because of the way that the world is moving right now, and we see more nations wanting to join BRICS, we see people moving away from the U.S. dollar, you know, Blinken just came back from a very disappointing trip to Saudi Arabia where the Middle East seems to be moving away from the U. S. and moving away from just agreeing, Yes, yes, Uncle Sam, we’ll do whatever you want. So we see this kind of shift happening.

And so I’m curious, do you see in that, as opposed to a lifting of the sanctions, do you see a way for Venezuela to just be like, All right, U.S., you do your stupid thing over here, but we are now engaging with the expanding amount of nations that are members of BRICS, we’re not going to trade in the U. S. dollar, we don’t need you. Do you see that as a viable option for Venezuela?

Leonardo Flores: I do. And really, that’s the reason that Venezuela’s economy has been able to stabilize and grow a little bit in the last couple of years, because they found alternatives.

And going back to what we first started talking about, Alex Saab. Alex Saab was on his way to Iran when he was illegally detained. And Venezuela’s relationship with Iran has been crucial because Iran has provided not just technicians, but also chemical dilutants that Venezuela’s oil needs in order to produce it and make gasoline.

And Venezuela had a really extreme gasoline shortage a couple of years ago, and it was through Iran’s help that it was able to overcome that. And it’s through help with China and Russia, again, that we’ve seen Venezuela be able to promote and develop some other industries beyond oil.

So already, Venezuela is really deeply ingrained with some of the BRICS countries, particularly Russia and particularly China.

Venezuela also has really great relationships throughout the Middle East. One of the key goals of the United States was to isolate President Maduro, especially during the early parts of the Trump administration. And we kind of saw that when we had 50 plus countries recognize the so called fake President Juan Guaido as the president of Venezuela, but that plan failed.

And what we’re seeing now, and especially in the last couple of months is to the extent to which it failed because President Maduro just went on a world tour. He was in Turkey for the inauguration of Erdogan. He then went to Saudi Arabia for an OPEC meeting. Maduro met with Lula da Silva in Brazil, the president of Brazil recently. He was just in Brazil for a state visit and actually he mentioned there, Maduro did, the possibility of Venezuela joining BRICS and Lula said, yes, absolutely. Russia and China have also said that they would welcome that.

You know, I would hit the brakes a little bit because we’ve seen a lot of countries say that they want to join BRICS, and we haven’t really seen a mechanism for countries entering BRICS. So I think that’s kind of something outstanding that has to happen. But really, what we have, what we are seeing is the emergence of the multipolar world and that multipolar world has been emerging for quite a while and it’s still going to take some time to really come through but I do think that’s going to be what offers hope to the Venezuelan people is that, you know, they’re no longer going to have to be tied to the United States, economically dependent on the United States economically.

And of course, until those sanctions are lifted, you’ve got billions and billions of dollars that are frozen overseas that are not going to go to the Venezuelan people. So really, they’re kind of starting from like 10 steps behind the starting line, but there is the possibility that Venezuela will develop without the United States through these organizations like BRICS and through its, really its relations with the global south, where Venezuela has been kind of a leader in building south-south relations and in formalizing those relations. And so that is going to be really the only way that Venezuela is going to be able to move forward with the United States continuing its sanctions policy, through, these alternate ways of substituting U.S. economic dominance for a more kind of broad based real economic relations with the rest of the world.

And one more thing before I forget, because I really should have mentioned it earlier, the Biden administration, you know, let me just get a little bit of the back story, the Venezuelan government and the opposition had been engaging in talks in Mexico City for a couple of years. Now, these talks go on and off. And basically in September 2021, when Alex Saab was extradited, excuse me, October 2021, those talks ended because of the extradition of Alex Saab. They resumed again about a year later, and the two parties agreed in November, I think, of 2022, on this kind of wide ranging plan to unfreeze $3.2 billion in assets held by the United States, and divert that money to the U.N. for a UN fund to then come to Venezuela and spend that money on education, on health care, on the power grid, really a wide range of of investments using Venezuela’s own money, and that was agreed to in November 2022 and unfortunately, the Biden administration really hasn’t done enough to ensure that that can happen because it’s been about eight months since November, and there’s been little movement. There’s actually been no movement on the money side.

And just last month, the U. S. said that it would allow these funds to transfer through the U.S. financial system and would protect them from creditors from Venezuela, but it’s still frozen. And again, that goes back to what I mentioned earlier about conditions improving in Venezuela prior to the 2024 elections and how that would be bad for the Biden administration’s hopes for reelection.

So it’s really shocking to see. Well, it’s not shocking because the U.S. does it basically every day. But it’s, it’s, it’s, I don’t know, I don’t know what the right adjective is. It’s really aggravating, let’s say, that the United States is putting the brakes on this social fund, $3.2 billion that would help Venezuelan people, for political gain, basically.

Eleanor Goldfield: Well, and as you pointed out, it’s Venezuela’s money. It’s not like anybody’s asking the U.S., which, by the way, $3.2 billion is like what you’d find in the Pentagon’s couch cushions, but like, it’s not even your money. It’s Venezuela’s money. Yes, aggravating is the nice way to put that, I feel, but we can’t curse on this show. So here we are.

Leo, thank you so much for putting all of that into context and giving us updates. Where can folks follow your work?

Leonardo Flores: Well, I’m on Twitter @LeonardoESA. And thank you so much for the invitation. It’s been such a pleasure talking to you.

Eleanor Goldfield: Thanks, everyone, for joining us at the Project Censored radio show. We’re glad and not glad to be joined again by Veronica Coit and Matilda Bliss, who’ve worked with the Asheville Blade.

If those names don’t ring a bell, please check out the May 8th episode of Project Censored where we spoke to Veronica and Matilda about the case, because this will be an update to that case.

Veronica Coit joined the Asheville Blade in the summer of 2020, driven by their unwavering commitment to uncovering the truth for the broader community. Veronica is a passionate advocate for social justice, mental health, and animal welfare, and has recently relocated to Colorado, where they remain open to the possibility of returning to journalism despite feeling uncertain about their safety and future in journalism following the Aston Park trials.

Matilda Bliss is an Appalachia born non-binary trans woman who lives in Asheville, North Carolina and she started writing for the Asheville Blade, a leftist media cooperative in 2019 with a focus on local government and a range of social justice movements before, during, and after 2020. Veronica, Matilda, thank you so much for joining us again.

Matilda Bliss: Thanks for having us.

Veronica Coit: Yes, thank you.

Eleanor Goldfield: So I wish I was inviting y’all on under different circumstances, but such is life under the U.S. Empire.

Just reading this from a press release by Reporters Without Borders, quote, concluding a week long trial, Bliss and Coit were found guilty of second degree trespassing and ordered to pay a fine plus court costs.

This ruling came, this, comes the same day the Department of Justice issued a report that states, quote, blanket enforcement of dispersal orders and curfews violates the rights of journalists to gather news. Nevertheless, the Superior Court judge in the Asheville Blade case denied the two journalists a First Amendment defense.

Veronica, Matilda, can you share some insight into this trial and how the outcome surprised you, shocked you, didn’t, and, and how you’re feeling at the moment?

Matilda Bliss: I guess one thing that’s notable is that going in, the state attempted to silence our lawyer. This was a few weeks after the decision in our bench trial.

So, our lawyer had been talking with the media and, nothing, that was ever egregious. One thing that he talked about some was the fact that the sentence that was given to Veronica in the bench trial was not actually within sentencing guidelines. Anyway, the prosecution latched on to the fact that he was just talking to the media about some details about the case, which lawyers do, and that that was somehow improper.

And so, that judge was convinced by the prosecution, not to say that he was in violation of any kind of general practice for lawyers, but just basically asking him to mind how he talks about the case. So that was going in.

We thought that we would keep that judge who had also told the prosecution that she anticipated First Amendment arguments from the defense, us. It got to be the week before trial. We had our motions together, a motion to dismiss.

We aren’t able to get dismissal. Then a motion to continue, and a motion for discovery. Because at this point, we had received hardly anything when it comes to what the state is mandated to provide. You know, if there’s exculpatory evidence out there, we’re supposed to receive it and to be able to defend ourselves.

Veronica Coit: I just want to add to that the evidence that we had to basically beg for multiple times, the prosecution kept saying that because it wasn’t a felony, they weren’t bound by the same regulations that they would have been. So discovery could be basically whatever they wanted it to be.

And they took full advantage of that by letting out little bits of evidence that we had to keep asking for.

Matilda Bliss: So one thing that we did receive during that time was confirmation that my phone had been searched when they confiscated it for two and a half months after I was arrested. And we got some more information about how the warrant was gained and what they found. They did not get in, it appears, which has been confirmed by the prosecution in the court.

But we got to the week before the trial and suddenly had a different judge. We’ve still not been given an explanation for that. A judge who is not familiar with these cases associated with Aston Park, and so we have this person, and he is, he just looks like he totally doesn’t want to be there.

His name is Superior Court Judge Alan Thornburg, and he’s just looking at our requests and just goes “nope, nope, nope.” This includes subpoenaing police commanders. It includes subpoenaing various officials that had said things about our case in public record that we did have, a broad range of people. And he said that we could not subpoena anyone except officers that were on site the night of our arrest.

So we were like, okay, well, we still have a number of people that we can bring up and cross examine, and it got to be the next week, and we get into trial, and we have a judge from a rural county surrounding Buncombe, who is a registered Republican. Every judge that’s in Buncombe County is a registered Democrat. Not that that’s, it’s not necessarily gonna work for us, it didn’t work for us in a bench trial, but this is a Republican coming in from a rural county, Rutherford County, and he gets in there, he’s like, I don’t know what’s going on, you know, he’s clearly immediately doubting that we have a case.

We have to explain everything little bit by little bit. The city attorney is saying that they don’t have to subpoena the officers that the former judge had implied would need to be subpoenaed. You know, like every officer that night, he would allow those subpoenas. Those officers didn’t have to be subpoenaed because it was somehow improper the way our lawyer issued those subpoenas, like brought into the police station, but yeah.

Veronica Coit: The policy on this is one of the weird ones, like, basically, our lawyer did exactly what he was supposed to do, which was write up these subpoenas and take them down to the PD and hand them off. But they essentially said that’s not the procedure and it’s supposed to, the subpoenas are supposed to be delivered by the sheriff’s department, which is what happens to like everybody who’s not a cop, I guess. So he wouldn’t allow us to subpoena anyone except for, like Matilda said, the cops that were present.

And even that was difficult to get, honestly.

Matilda Bliss: I don’t think we ever got notice that those cops were actually reached and served, right?

Veronica Coit: They weren’t.

Matilda Bliss: We had to bring in those subpoenas first thing on Tuesday morning of trial week. And I don’t think we ever got confirmation that they had been served. Nobody. So this is pretty concerning. And we’re trying to figure out how we’re going to defend ourselves against the state’s case.

It was a similar approach to the bench trial. They were just basically like there’s nothing else than the fact that they were in the park and they were told to leave and they didn’t. Like, that’s the only relevant thing in this case.

Veronica, do you want to talk some about the cops that were cross examined?

Veronica Coit: I think one of the most interesting things to me during the trial was the ruling about the application of the Constitution. And I can’t remember how the judge worded it, but essentially the jury was not allowed to decide on whether or not our constitutional rights were violated.

Not only that, but the evidence that we had was for a constitutional argument.

So, to get that in front, because the judge said, I’ll rule when everybody rests, but we had to use the trespassing… this is so complicated. We had to use the trespassing charge to get in the constitutional argument. So, if it didn’t immediately pertain to specifically the trespassing charge itself, separate from the fact that it’s a constitutional argument, then we couldn’t get it in.

We were only barely able to get in a handful of things. We got in some of the most important things, I think, but he really, the judge absolutely tied our attorney’s hands behind his back the whole time. It was a complete disadvantage.

The cops, I think my favorite cop was probably the one that came on the stand, she was like the last cop that was on the stand and it was so interesting because our lawyer was showing her her own body cam footage. And she keeps going “I can’t hear him. No, I don’t, I don’t know what he’s talking about. I can’t actually hear him. Um, we might have been talking about that. I’m not sure.”

And then the prosecution gets her and all of a sudden she can remember verbatim every single word she said to that same exact officer in approximately that same timeframe. So it went from, I don’t know, I can’t recall, uh, oh, I can’t actually hear him, to, oh, yes, word for word, hearing everything that I said to him, and our conversation. And it was just so blatant, it was, it was very frustrating.

Eleanor Goldfield: So I don’t understand, because in speaking of the body cam footage, for instance, y’all say we’re press, I’m press. So, how do you decouple the constitutional argument from the trespassing argument? Because without that, there is no argument! If y’all would have just listened from the beginning, we wouldn’t be sitting here.

Veronica Coit: And the jury found it just as complicated as you do. When they went into deliberation, I think they were in there for maybe 30 minutes to an hour, and then they sent out three questions for the judge, and of course these got argued between the judge and the two attorneys.

And it was essentially, the second question they asked was, are we allowed to consider the constitutional application? To which, no, they were not. That was going to be the answer. It was the answer. And then the 3rd question was, are we allowed to consider the fact that they’re press as part of the evidence, and I’m paraphrasing and probably ruining it a little bit, but essentially that’s the idea.

And so the answer that was yes, because the fact that we were press was part of the evidence. And yes, they were allowed to consider it, but they weren’t to make a judgment based on the constitutionality of the charges.

Right. It’s infuriating. When the lawyers and the judge were all talking about this, they’re picking apart these words, and I’m thinking about a jury who, there was actually one lawyer in the jury pool, but I was thinking that these are normal people that wrote these words, so they understand these words in a very different context than the lawyers. So the lawyers and judge, they’re picking apart all the nuance legalese, exactly how these words are going to apply. And I’m like, they’re never, that doesn’t, no normal person is going to understand what you’re trying to say. It’s, it’s overly complicated and unnecessary, but a lot of times it’s the nature of, I think, our legal process is to confuse people.

Matilda Bliss: Yeah, and I think that there’s some real laws against telling a jury they can’t consider things that were presented in trial. That you kind of have to let them consider everything, but as far as guiding the deliberation, the judge was very specific about that, guiding it towards: were we in the park? Were we told to leave? Did we do that?

And one thing that our lawyer was trying to bring in in the week before the trial was the fact that the curfew that was on the park was itself unconstitutional, like on a facial level. There was no exemption for press. You know, there’s no First Amendment exemption in the park rules.

We were trying to get that established. That judge ruled against that and said that it would be up to the trial judge whether or not he believed it could be challenged as applied. So was this park curfew applied in a way to limit press freedom? And that judge, at the end of day, was just like, that’s not part of this case, that’s, that’s not something you can consider jury, that’s not something I’m instructing you to consider, so.

Eleanor Goldfield: You said that the jury came out with questions, which I would have had many as well. How long did they deliberate once their questions were quote unquote answered and were there different counts or how did that verdict come down?

Veronica Coit: I think maybe just an hour after that, Matilda, is that right?

Yeah. And then they do the whole procedural in court thing and then there were only one charge for each of us, so they read them off separately, guilty to both of us.

Matilda Bliss: Yeah.

Eleanor Goldfield: Were you shocked by this? Did you expect them to have a different outcome?

Veronica Coit: Yep, very shocked.

Matilda Bliss: Yeah, I think we were thinking at least somebody. The, beyond a reasonable doubt, even the prosecution is admitting once again that we are press, that we are representing ourselves as press.

So I testified, Veronica testified, our editor, david Forbes testified, and one thing that they really focused on and cross examination of Veronica and I is trying to undermine our credibility and trying to basically claim that we were planning and organizing the event that we were covering.

Veronica Coit: They called it ‘manufacturing the situation,’ that we had orchestrated it purposely for the cops to come there. I’m like, no, it’s Christmas. I wanted to be home. I was home, and then I was not able to go back home.

Matilda Bliss: Yeah, but still, we were hearing that people observing that cross examination, especially of me, were like, wow, this prosecution really doesn’t like Matilda.

The way that they’re claiming this is so narrow, but they’re still going after my personal Facebook, sharing various sentiments about previous events that week, various leftist views were being brought up in court, but we, we, we definitely believed that there were enough people, so it was, it was quite the week.

Eleanor Goldfield: Obviously, this is a despicable outcome. And I’m curious if you think that when we first spoke, one of the questions that kind of started this whole ball rolling was the question that was asked that Veronica was sharing about the magistrate: “real press,” and what that means, and did you get the feeling in the trial that, regardless of whether the jury thought that you were press or not, there was a question of, well, I don’t know if they’re “real press,” and so in which case, then you are just two people trespassing, and, I mean, we’ll never know what went on in the deliberating room, but do you feel like that was part of it, that like, okay, so maybe they are press, but they’re not “real press?”

Veronica Coit: I’m glad you brought that one up. We did try to bring that in, the instance where I witnessed this interaction between the magistrate and the officer that was dropping off my paperwork. And I was not allowed to get it in. It got cut off for hearsay.

I wish we had been able to locate some kind of footage. I don’t think it’s on any of the body cam footage, but I do know that that area is definitely yeah video monitored. So I’m sure that exists somewhere if they are required to keep it, which, of course, if they’re not required to keep it, I’m sure they got rid of it. But yeah, had we had a video evidence of that, probably would have been able to, but we didn’t.

So when we tried, the prosecution shut it down, called it hearsay.

Matilda Bliss: Yeah, and we did get some more body cam footage from that night that for some reason was not released as a result of the public judge order back in February. So we were able to access some more tapes.

Interestingly, there were plenty of officers who have the body cam rolling in the jail around the magistrate. But for that exact period of time when Veronica was being brought up to sign paperwork, suddenly there was no body cam footage. We don’t know exactly what happened there, but we did get some interesting footage just kind of running off of that.

There was one cop whose body cam footage was not released at all in the public release that the judge mandated, and that person who drove the police vehicle actually had some very interesting things to say about media, including a conversation with another police officer about our press status. This person was repeatedly laughing at the fact that we were press.

Veronica Coit: That’s the one who I was talking about when she was on the stand and she couldn’t remember and couldn’t hear and then –

Matilda Bliss: They’re talking about the fact that we do not have a nice f-word camera. It was very, very interesting to see some of this additional footage, but not exactly all the footage that we asked for, or not nearly as much.

Eleanor Goldfield: Yeah, so clearly you asked for your, again, your, your constitutional right to a fair trial, and that was not delivered, it seems, on multiple levels.

So, what are next steps? Is there an appeal process? What happens now?

Matilda Bliss: When we got the verdict, our lawyer announced immediately that we are appealing.

We’ll really be able to fully understand how we’re moving forward when the judge publishes his ruling. He didn’t dismiss it, obviously. And so he’s going to post a ruling about why he did not dismiss the charges against us. And so that will give the groundwork to what we’re able to press as far as our appeal. We’re still in the process of figuring out who exactly is going to be on our legal team for that.

This is, this is a national issue at this point, and there’s a lot of organizations that are very interested in how this turns out. So, I personally am still optimistic that we can pull together a defense. I don’t think we’re anywhere near done fighting on this.

Eleanor Goldfield: Well, I’m glad to hear it. And, and in terms of that, kind of, kind of wrapping up here, I mean, how are y’all feeling about being journalists?

This was obviously, this whole rigmarole has been orchestrated in order to stop people from not only participating in events like mutual aid events and the like, but on reporting on them. So how do y’all feel about your status as journalists? How do you feel about continuing this fight, but also other fights that will inevitably crop up?

Veronica Coit: So I think the updates to my bio kind of summed it up. I’m definitely very nervous about what my future in journalism looks like, but beyond that I’m terrified of what this looks like. They cited so many cases, both prosecution and defense during our trial, because that’s what they do, like the judge asked repeatedly for some sort of case law on this and the problem was, it doesn’t exist.

It doesn’t exist because every other time that members of press have been charged with things like trespassing, they’re dropped before they ever make it to trial, so it doesn’t exist. Because it’s never gotten this far.

And the fact that it does now exist means that there’s something the next time a prosecutor, the next time a DA, the next time a sheriff’s department, police department, the next time they’re just mad and they don’t want what they’ve done to get out to the public, they’ll be able to shut it down and they’ll have case law to cite. So it’ll be 10 times harder to fight it.

Matilda Bliss: So one thing that we both testified to is the fact that we’re both a lot more hesitant to report on the ground now. When I was reporting on the closure of a preschool late last year, part of that reporting was me going to the preschool and taking pictures of some abandoned playground equipment.

I’ll be honest, I was a little bit afraid about what it would mean if an officer showed up and even though I wasn’t on the property, making up some story that I was. It’s definitely a situation, especially when it comes to protests or mutual aid events, as far as us being able to be on the ground reporting on that, there’s a real hesitancy, and being able to get, get down there and know that when we assert that we’re press that we’ll be taken seriously.

Because if there’s anything that the Asheville police department has indicated in the last nearly three years at this point, arresting Veronica in 2020 and both of us in December of 2021, is that they don’t care at all.

I mean, they testified to this, that they do not care that we assert that we’re press.