By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong
The sanctions against Venezuela that the Obama Administration announced last week respond to political pressure to punish alleged human rights violators in Caracas, but they have no immediately apparent policy objective. The State Department announced that it has suspended the U.S. visas of “a number of Venezuelan government officials who have been responsible for or complicit in … human rights abuses” during protests earlier this year, which resulted in the deaths of at least 40 people, injury of hundreds more, and jailing of dozens of activists. The Department did not release a list of sanctioned individuals nor divulge the information used to compile the list, but press reports indicate that 24 officials have been targeted and include cabinet members, presidential advisers, police, and military officials. The sanctions do not affect bilateral trade or Venezuela’s place as the United States’ fourth biggest foreign supplier of oil.
U.S. condemnation of the Venezuelan government and the blacklisted officials has been strident, but there has been no public explanation of what Washington expects the sanctions to achieve. The statements of U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State John Feeley, made to a Colombian radio station and reported by El Universal in Caracas, strongly suggest the sanctions are intended to show solidarity with the Venezuelan opposition and U.S. disapproval of the government of President Nicolás Maduro. “Social protests have been a genuine war cry from people oppressed by the lack of democracy,” Feeley is reported as saying. “The [sanctions] were intended to note that the U.S. cannot allow, for the sake of its values, that a supposedly democratic government represses the legitimate expression of the people’s voice.” The State Department has not demanded, however, any particular action by Caracas to lift the sanctions, such as an investigation into the abuses, re-launching a national dialogue, or compensating victims. Feeley suggested that the governments of Colombia and Brazil – with which he said the U.S. government had “meditated” about the issue – supported the sanctions, but regional support for them has been muted at best. Indeed, the Administration had responded to last May’s House of Representatives vote in favor of sanctions by indicating that these would be counterproductive and could undermine efforts at mediation by these same countries. The one dissenting voice in the House, Congressman Greg Meeks (D-NY), explained his vote as opposing unilateralism, adding that its passage was a message to Latin American governments that we don’t care what they think.
The Venezuelan government has repeatedly and credibly asserted that a significant portion of the violence has been perpetrated by protestors rather than the state or government supporters, and a number of officials have been charged. Nonetheless, no U.S. sanctions have been brought against opposition members who planned or participated in violent actions.
Some observers have attributed the U.S. action to pique that Aruban and Dutch officials several days earlier rejected its request that they extradite to the U.S. Venezuela’s new consul in Aruba, a former chief of intelligence whom Washington suspects of trafficking in drugs with the Colombian FARC – despite Vienna Convention provisions regarding diplomatic immunity. More likely, the sanctions are a reaction to a realization that the quixotic “salida” campaign, which many in Washington somehow imagined could bring down the Maduro government only months after it had won an election, had all but petered out, leaving the opposition in disarray and the government in a renewed position of strength. Sanctions also are a bow to congressional pressure on the Obama Administration to act against Caracas, which has continued to grow even after the salida campaign has run out of gas. Just hours after the sanctions were announced, Senator Marco Rubio issued a press release taking credit for them, and other conservatives – led by the Cuban-American congressional delegation – called for even tougher measures. Without clear objectives, however, the sanctions seem to be mostly a moral and political statement – pushing relations into yet another dead end from which neither government is disposed to find a way out. Indeed, Venezuelan officials, calling the sanctions “a desperate cry from a nation that realizes the world is changing,” are turning the diplomatic adversity to domestic political advantage, just as administration officials had wisely predicted in pushing back against the Congressional saber rattling last spring.