U.S. Sanctions on Venezuela: To What End?

By Michael M. McCarthy

Common Cause -Embassy of Venezuela DC / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

President Obama plans to sign the “Venezuela Defense of Democracy and Civil Society Act” into law, but its lack of clear objectives seems likely to muddle Washington’s desired outcome.  The bill, approved last week by voice vote in the Senate and House, calls for punishing Venezuelan government officials involved in human rights abuses, an authority the White House already has.  It includes national security waivers that allow the President final say on which officials will have their visas revoked – denying them entry into the United States – and have any U.S. assets they own frozen.  After initially voicing skepticism about the wisdom of such measures, the Obama administration came around to supporting them.  Senators Robert Menendez and Marco Rubio and Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen pushed the bill hard in May after episodes of violent suppression of anti-government street demonstrations painted a grim picture of the human rights situation.  The Venezuelan foreign ministry’s reaction to the legislation has been strident, and President Maduro said, “If the crazy path of sanctions is imposed, President Obama, I think you’re going to come out looking very bad.”

President Obama wasn’t alone in switching positions over the bill.  Senator Bob Corker, who’s expected to become chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the new Congress that begins next month, had embraced the State Department’s earlier view that sanctions would undermine international talks engineered by UNASUR and the Vatican.  The Caracas government’s refusal to make concessions in the talks undermined that argument, however, and a three-way diplomatic dustup between the U.S., Aruba, and Venezuela over another issue – Aruba’s refusal to extradite Venezuela’s designated ambassador, a former Venezuelan army official, to the United States on narco-trafficking charges – further frustrated Washington players.  Corker asserted that the incident showed that Venezuela’s “complicity with criminal activity” could not go unchecked since it directly undermined U.S. interests.  Immediately after the extradition episode, the Obama administration imposed unilateral sanctions – travel and visa bans – on a dozen unnamed Venezuelan officials, laying the groundwork for Menendez and Rubio to reintroduce their legislation and drive it home before Congress adjourned for the holidays.  Corker endorsed the bill, although he highlighted that a “regional dialogue” remained the best option for finding a “negotiated, democratic way forward” to address human rights issues.

Other than punishing reported human rights offenders and making an example of them the new bill is unclear on how it could help resolve the deep political crisis that has given rise to the protests and subsequent abuses.  With Maduros popularity plummeting to new lows, strident rhetoric condemning U.S. intervention could give him a modest boost by bolstering his claim that Washington is part of an economic war against Venezuela.  It is far too early to tell whether that nationalistic narrative will work in the governments favor as the countrys dire shortages have become permanent and economic suffering is increasingly blamed on Maduros policies and declining oil prices.  If human rights really are the U.S. top concern, Washington might want to be more sensitive to the positions of PROVEA and other Venezuelan human rights groups, which have denounced the legislation despite its inclusion of funding for Venezuelan civil society groups. If punishing rights abusers is Washingtons way of pressing for sustainable change in Venezuela, then it needs to state the case that penalizing measures imposed since 2008 have made a difference.  Another option, contained in Senator Corker’s observation about a “negotiated, democratic way forward,” could be to renew support for talks sponsored by South American countries, as these are more likely to reduce tensions, improve rights, and give moderates space to promote electoral solutions.

December 18, 2014

Sanctions on Venezuela: Why?

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

Photo credit: NCinDC / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Photo credit: NCinDC / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.