Economic Sanctions on Venezuela: A Cure Worse than the Disease?


EspañolLast week was key in determining the direction of US foreign policy toward Venezuela. The House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee passed the Venezuelan Human Rights and Democracy Protection Act, which allows the Obama administration to impose economic and diplomatic sanctions on government officials “responsible for carrying out or ordering human rights abuses against the citizens of Venezuela.” The bill, sponsored by Cuban-American Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), will now be reviewed by the rest of Congress, and it’s not without controversy.

In recent times, economic sanctions have been one of the main tools of US foreign policy, and the Obama administration is no exception to the rule. The president has regularly resorted to economic sanctions as a favorite measure to meet the demands of those who promote an active foreign policy and seek to preserve the United States’ role as the world’s policeman.

Going back further, this is no novelty either. Some widely known historical examples include the embargoes imposed on Cuba and North Korea, lasting now for more than six decades. Similarly, sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq remained in effect for more than 10 years after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. These policies, however, have been the most resounding failures of US diplomacy.

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In an attempt to change this approach and engage countries whose policies conflict with the US government, recent sanctions have been designed to no longer apply to entire counties, but rather target specific individuals and private companies. The US government has enacted so-called “smart sanctions” against Vladimir Putin’s government over its recent military encroachment on Ukraine. It seems now that the next target will be Venezuela’s brutal dictatorship, its officials, and President Maduro himself.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio (R), one of the leading advocates of sanctions against Venezuelan government officials.

Before applauding or denouncing the sanctions, one must ask whether they will actually be effective in achieving their objective. In doing so, one must also reflect on what the goal really is: if it’s all about reasserting US hegemony in the international arena, then the answer would be yes. However, if the sanctions aim for a real impact in transforming the Venezuelan government, important questions arise, and the only certainty is that they will be counterproductive.

In fact, the United States already subjected specific Venezuelan companies to economic sanctions in May 2011. Venezuela’s state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), had sent Iran two shipments worth US$50 million containing an essential substance necessary to convert crude oil into gasoline, in violation of a US embargo on the Persian country. The policy was largely symbolic, and it did not restrict PDVSA’s subsidiaries or oil exports to the United States.

Still, then-President of Venezuela Hugo Chávez used the occasion to skillfully rant against “imperialist aggression.” The late president found in those sanctions the perfect excuse to exacerbate anti-Washington rhetoric and double down on his authoritarian behavior, while his popularity remained as high as ever.

It was no different last April when the United States imposed sanctions on 45 individuals and 18 companies linked to former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and the Russian Kremlin. Contrary to expectations, the targets of the sanctions took the announcement with laughter. Dimitry Rogozin, Russia’s deputy prime minister, suggested in a tweet that the bill proposing the sanctions had been “drafted by a prankster.”

But not everything is a laughing matter: economic sanctions are usually a prelude to war. After the act’s approval, it would not be unreasonable to think that the United States could intervene militarily in Venezuela. Although unlikely in the short term, the possibility is already there. Libya and Iraq are examples of what sanctions can later trigger.

In the case of Iraq, economic sanctions imposed after the 1990 Gulf War reinforced the Iraqi government’s grip on the country, and the only ones who suffered any economic hardships were Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi victims. Even Madeleine Albright, then US ambassador to the United Nations, suggested on the TV show 60 Minutes that the death of 500,000 Iraqi children as a product of sanctions was “a price worth paying.”

Cuba and North Korea are exemplary cases of this failure. In the country ruled with an iron fist for 55 years by the Castro family, the US embargo has only aggravated the Cubans’ already precarious situation, while maintaining the pretexts the party leadership need to justify the island’s disastrous communist experiment. A similar situation took place in North Korea during the 90s, when sanctions only worsened the devastating famine that claimed between 250,000 and 3 million lives (numbers vary sharply depending on sources, since the regime is shrouded in secrecy).

Proponents of sanctions against Venezuela would argue the punishments would not be imposed on the entire country, as in the case of the Russian officials. While it is true that the United States and the rest of the world are increasingly focused on “smart sanctions,” experts remain skeptical of their effectiveness. Daniel Drezner — professor of political science and international Law, and author of The Sanctions Paradox: Economic Statecraft and International Relationsargues that “the balance between respect for the rule of law and effective enforcement suggests that smart sanctions cannot be imposed fast enough and at the necessary degree to have a real effect.” Even if the sanctions are specific, rather than general, he contends “the targeted regime can shift its costs to domestic opponents.” Similarly, Robert Pape, professor of political science at the University of Chicago, published a report on past international sanctions, revealing that only 5 out of 115 cases in which they were applied turned out to be successful — a meager 5 percent success rate.

Undoubtedly, Venezuelans are living in hard times. One cannot help watching a government execute citizens in full daylight, jail dozens of protesters, bypass transparent judicial process, and restrict freedom of speech, without wanting to “do something” about it. But we must be careful: foreign intervention can backfire and halt the Venezuelan opposition at a time when Maduro’s popularity is at its lowest level. Economic sanctions would provide the government with the perfect excuse to account for the failures of “21st Century Socialism,” and thus reinvigorate a weakening regime.

Translated by Daniel Duarte.

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