Anger and Confusion Abound as US Sanctions Venezuela

Sympathizers of Venezuela show their support outside UNASUR headquarters in Quito, Ecuador during a meeting requested by the organization in response to the US sanctions announcement. March 14, 2015. (Rodrigo Buendia/AFP/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama’s decision to declare Venezuela a danger to the United States and impose sanctions on seven well-connected Venezuelan generals received widespread criticism. The move was largely understood to be in retaliation to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s decision to strip down the American embassy in Caracas to less than 20 functionaries and accusations the US was conspiring to promote a coup against his administration. It was probably also a political move from Obama to appease some members of the US Congress who, bothered by the opening of relations with Cuba, have turned their attention further south.

While there has been no further elaboration of how exactly Venezuela is threatening the security of the US, conditions in the South American nation do lead reasonable observers to worry. Harassment of opposition leaders, including notorious cases such as the imprisonment of Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, and open repression toward protesters, including the recent death of a 14-year-old boy, led 33 international human rights organizations to write to the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) seeking help. The organizations—many of which have been previously sympathetic to the democratizing efforts of Venezuala’s Chavismo movement—asked for support and proactive engagement with Caracas to guarantee freedom of assembly, end arbitrary arrests and abuse of pre-trial detention, strengthen the independence of the judiciary, and cooperate with regional and international human rights systems.

Venezuela’s situation has been made worse by the plunge in global oil prices, which has resulted in the national economy contracting by five percent last year; inflation that some analysts forecast may exceed 115 percent for 2015; and severe shortages of essential products such as milk, eggs, chicken, and toilet paper. To top it off, Venezuela has become one of the most unsafe countries in the world, with Caracas’ murder rate of more than 100 per 100,000 residents being higher than that of Baghdad.

However, there are few indications that the US move would in any way help resolve these crises. First, by affecting only seven specific individuals in the Venezuelan army, the sanctions’ impact on the overall situation is essentially nil. If anything, they have given Maduro a political lifeline. The government has been blaming the economic crisis on plots designed abroad and this kind of foreign intervention only makes the point stronger—even if experts consulted for this article agree that, given the central place the armed forces have in the Maduro government, it is highly unlikely there will be a successful military coup in the near future.

Obama’s decision also provided Maduro an excuse to ask the national legislature to pass a law giving him extraordinary powers to bypass Congress and govern by decree—known as “ley habilitante”—and to satisfy the anti-American sentiment of his supporters by naming one of the sanctioned generals, Gustavo González López, as his new minister of Interior, Justice, and Peace. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki’s recent statement that “as a matter of long-standing policy the United States does not support transitions by non-constitutional means” was subsequently received with incredulity and scorn in Venezuela and the wider region.

Further from this, Obama’s decree has complicated relations between the US and many other nations. As many analysts promptly noted, the US comes across as hypocritical when it condemns Venezuela but willfully ignores massive human rights violations in countries such as Mexico and Colombia with which it has friendly relations. It also erases much of the goodwill the US had created in the region with its decision to finally reopen relations with Cuba. Many countries had promised to boycott the Summit of the Americas in Panama on April 10-11 if Cuba wasn’t invited. Now, what should have been a meeting to recalibrate relations between the US and its neighbors to the south will instead be dominated by the Venezuelan case.

Following Obama’s announcement, many allies of Maduro such as Cuba, Argentina, and Ecuador promptly took to the airwaves and social media to condemn what they saw as American colonial interventionism. UNASUR also rejected the decree and called it an interfering threat to sovereignty and the principle of non-interventionism. It will be important to monitor if the tensions have an impact on the relations between Colombia and Venezuela. This is perhaps the most delicate issue of all, given the role Venezuela has in the ongoing peace negotiations between Bogotá and the FARC guerrilla group. Some observers have insinuated the decree’s real aim was to break the partnership Colombia’s Santos administration has created with its neighboring nation after many years of very tense relations when Alvaro Uribe and Hugo Chávez were in power. This seems unlikely, however, given the support the international community has given to the process taking place in Havana, where Venezuela has played a central role, and the recent appointment of US special envoy Bernard Aronson to the Colombian peace talks. In any case, it has put Santos in a very uncomfortable place, having to decide between joining the choir of Latin American nations condemning US interventionism or closing ranks behind its powerful ally.

All this is occurring against a backdrop of legislative elections supposed to take place later this year that seem to provide the most important opportunity for a change in Venezuela. For the first time since Hugo Chávez took power in 1999, the leftist United Socialist Party of Venezuela is losing in the polls. Experts agree that in previous elections there have not been major irregularities in the counting of votes or the proceedings of the elections themselves, but there have been significant problems in the pre-election process, with the opposition having limited access to resources and the government exploiting its control over the media. Vigilance will be required to ensure the upcoming process is fair and clean so that all parties accept the results.

UNASUR might be the only multilateral organization with enough credibility on all sides to guide a thorough electoral monitoring effort for the upcoming elections. However, a March 6 visit to Caracas by its representatives was widely seen as a diplomatic disaster after they decided not to meet with the opposition alliance, the Democratic Unity Roundtable, and offered what appeared to be an endorsement of Caracas’ theories of an international conspiracy against the government. The series of diplomatic faux pas culminated in UNASUR head Ernesto Samper announcing the elections would take place in September—a timeline that had not been confirmed by the Venezuelan electoral authorities and had to be retracted. If UNASUR is to lead the process of election monitoring, it will have to not only sharpen its diplomatic skills, but also partner with the United Nations and civil society organizations, as it does not have the technical expertise or resources required.

Even the staunchest supporters of Chavismo acknowledge there are serious structural problems in the system that need to be addressed immediately, from curtailing widespread corruption to addressing the exchange rate system that is central to the scarcity of goods and the problems with the Venezuelan industry. Many of these efforts will need the support of neighboring countries and the international community, which have a strong interest in ensuring Venezuela maintains the important gains of recent years, such as the lowering of poverty and inequality, and that any transition happens within a democratic framework. The US will want to be part of that effort, but there is a growing consensus that to do so effectively Washington will need to be more attuned to regional political sensitivities.

Renata Segura is the Associate Director of the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum of the Social Science Research Council.