Venezuela: Obama into the Fray

By Michael M. McCarthy

(l) President Obama, (r) UNASUR Commission Visits Venezuela. Photo Credits: Steve Jurvetson and Cancillería de Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

(l) President Obama, (r) UNASUR Commission Visits Venezuela. Photo Credits: Steve Jurvetson and Cancillería de Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

The March 9 decision by the Obama Administration to sanction Venezuelan government officials – this time freezing the U.S.-based assets of seven of them – appears to be drawing Washington into a conflict it recently viewed as a problem for Latin America to solve.  Implementing the “targeted sanctions,” the U.S. government made the determination that Venezuela’s “situation” was a threat to its national security.  Such a determination is not unique – Washington continues to declare Colombian narco-trafficking a national security threat – but the language in this case is widely seen as inflammatory because the cited source of the threat is President Maduro’s government itself.

  • The action generated a predictably exaggerated reaction from Caracas.  Maduro, who faces an economic crisis with no end in sight and has approval ratings of 22 percent, took the sanctions as an opportunity to change the conversation.  He branded them as “hypocritical,” describing Washington as the “real threat” to world order and criticizing Obama as returning to Cold War-style tactics.  On March 14 the armed forces conducted hyped-up exercises to “counter” the U.S. threat and the day after Congress granted Maduro Decree Powers through an “Anti-Imperialist Ennabling Law for Peace” that lasts through the end of the year.
  • Reactions to the U.S. measure varied greatly among opposition leaders. Governor Henrique Capriles, the opposition’s candidate in the last two presidential elections, echoed the U.S. position that the sanctions are targeted against “the corrupt government elite,” rather than the country or the Venezuelan people.  Governor Henri Falcón, a former military officer who left chavismo’s ranks in 2010 criticized them as “disrespectful.”  The Mesa de Unidad coalition stressed that Venezuela is “not a threat to any country.”  Whereas more hardline opponents are behind the scenes happy about stepped-up U.S. involvement, the more moderate camps – including Capriles’s – appear puzzled about the timing because Washington’s actions effectively moved Maduro to the safer ground of defending sovereignty.
  • The sanctions ignited strong criticism from some regional players.  Nonetheless, they renewed UNASUR’s efforts to mediate, which had gotten off to an unpromising start in Caracas on March 6.  An emergency March 14 UNASUR meeting in Quito issued two declarations – one strongly rejecting the sanctions, even calling for Obama to rescind them, and another reiterating support for the UNASUR Secretary General Ernesto Samper’s pursuit of “the most open dialogue possible” in Venezuela.

The Obama Administration’s stated reasons for the sanctions – measures similar to those proposed in the “Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Law” last year – are not surprising.  Washington has watched with dismay as Maduro has cracked down on opponents, alleged U.S.-supported coup-plotting, and hemmed in U.S. embassy personnel and even tourists with increasingly tough limitations on their activities.  With the opening to Cuba ongoing, the Obama administration may have calculated it could try to appease conservatives in the U.S. Congress and endure a hit to its regional image for imposing sanctions.  Emboldened by UNASUR’s criticism of the sanctions and Europe’s unwillingness to follow Obama’s lead, Maduro will almost certainly continue efforts to play the anti-imperialist card for a while.  The U.S. has shifted the action back into the bilateral relationship, breathing new life into a previously closed chapter in the Venezuelan crisis.

March 16, 2015

* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies.

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1 Comment

  1. Good article. I agree that the Obama administration likely is providing itself political cover for the opening toward Cuba. This is unfortunate for Venezuela-U.S. relations, but probably doesn’t alter Venezuelan outcomes. An unexpected positive consequence of U.S. sanctions would be an increased incentive for UNASUR to continue to involve itself in mediation in Venezuela.

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