US Slaps New Sanctions Against Venezuela: Why Now?

In this article Roger D. Harris, President of the Task Force on the Americas, explains the current political context for the United States´recent sanctions on Venezuela. Harris outlines the substance of sanctions, the response of Venezuela and the international community and how the current correlation of forces in both the US and Venezuela have resulted in increased sanctions against Venezuela that are spearheaded by the Democratic Party in the United States.


A day after President Obama announced initiatives to normalize relations with Cuba, he seemingly reversed course by enacting the latest round of sanctions against Cuba’s staunchest ally, Venezuela, on December 18. His action conclusively ended any threat of a thaw in frosty relations since the US and Venezuela withdrew their respective ambassadors in 2010. The US Senate had approved the legislation on December 8, followed two days later by the House in a bipartisan gush of unity with no debate or dissenting votes. The legislation will allow the president to deny visas and freeze assets of Venezuelan officials accused of violating the rights of anti-government groups

Response to Sanctions

During the unrest six months ago in Venezuela, the Obama administration was reluctant to push sanctions. Even the Washington Post, which is highly critical of the Venezuelan government, questioned why Obama was “balking on the [sanction] measures this year at the height of a [Venezuelan] government crackdown against protesters” yet proceeded now when “the largely symbolic act of imposing sanctions would give [Venezuelan President] Maduro a propaganda boost.”

The G77 group of 134 developing nations including China condemned the sanctions and called for their repeal. Venezuela also received the support of the Latin American regional organizations ALBA and MERCOSUR.

Venezuelan President Maduro characterized the sanctions as “insolent” and “imperialist.” The opposition-aligned human rights organization in VenezuelaPROVEA warned that sanctions will likely stoke nationalist reflexes in Venezuela in favor of the Venezuelan government and in opposition to perceived U.S. interventionism.

Diosdado Cabello, president of the National Assembly of Venezuela, highlighted the hypocrisy of the US action in a New York Times op-ed. In the intervening day between the US upper and lower houses passing theVenezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act, the US Senate report on CIA torture and illegal detentions was released. The sanctions legislation deemed “the repeated use of violence perpetrated by the National Guard and security personnel of Venezuela… intolerable.” Yet the unrest in Venezuela had petered out a half a year ago, while the streets Ferguson, New York City, and elsewhere in the US had just exploded due to responses topolice brutality.

Venezuelan Opposition Isolates Itself

Ever since the election of leftist President Hugo Chávez in 1998, the opposition in Venezuela has suffered a series of humiliating electoral defeats (except for one referendum), despite receiving over $100 million from the US government. When Chávez died in March 2013 and his successor Nicholás Madero won the presidency in a special election the next month by a narrow margin, the opposition was emboldened to tout the then upcoming municipal elections as a referendum on the Chávista project of 21st century socialism.

The December 2013 elections were a referendum… for the ruling Chávistas who swept over 70% of the municipalities. Decisively defeated in the electoral arena, a hard-right splinter from the opposition initiated la salida (the exit) which was to achieve by violence what could not be achieved democratically. Opposition guarimbas (barricades) and destruction of public property, explicitly designed to provoke an overreaction from the government, lasted from February to May of 2014 and then collapsed.

Since then Maduro’s popularity has eroded according to recent polls in the face of chronic inflation, high violence rates, and shortages of consumer goods. Yet his approval rating is higher than that of the right-wing opposition, which is more isolated than ever. Venezuela is a peculiar country where the poor celebrate their government and the rich protest. The unrest of a half a year ago was almost entirely limited to rich and middle class neighborhoods.

While the United Nations censured “all violence by all sides in Venezuela,” the US sanctions one-sidedly targeted Venezuelan government officials, but gave no recourse to the victims of the anti-government violence. According to political analyst Z.C. Dutka, “Aside from the burning of well-loved universities and hospitals, the vast majority of deaths during that time — over three dozen, including passersby, government supporters, and security officials — were caused by the protestors themselves.”

The Committee of Guarimba Victims, composed mainly of the families who have lost relatives to the right-wing violence, filled a detailed report with the Organization of American States demanding justice. The sanctions act is predicated on false assumptions about who were the perpetrators of the violence and who were the victims.

Democrats Take the Lead Promoting Sanctions on Venezuela

While antipathy to the progressive government of Venezuela has been an obsession of the Republican right in the US, the Democrats got the jump on them with these latest sanctions. Richard Menendez, Democrat from the solidly blue state of New Jersey and chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, authored the bill and led the charge.

The number two person in the State Department, Tony Blinken, had signaled the administration’s openness to new sanctions against Venezuela in November at his appointment hearings. Earlier on November 7, the Orwellian-named US Bureau of Industry and Security had imposed military end-use/end-user license requirements on Venezuela. Back in July, the State Department imposed visa restrictions against Venezuelan officials.

All these measures complement President George W. Bush’s arms embargothat has been in effect since 2006, enacted after the US-backed coup in 2002 and the subsequent corporate lock-out failed to depose then President Chávez. The US imperial project of regime change in Venezuela is a seamless bipartisan effort.

Venezuela – Threat of a Good Example

Venezuela remains on the top six list of the US National Security Agency’s “enduring targets.” In the upside-down logic of the Obama administration, Venezuela “constitute(s) an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.” In reality Venezuela is subject to US military presence inColombia to the west, US military bases to the east on Aruba and Curacao, and the US Fourth Fleet off of its coast.

The US State Department cites Venezuela along with Ecuador, Argentina, Bolivia, and Nicaragua among a group of Latin American countries where democracy suffered setbacks. Haiti, where the three-years-overdue October senatorial elections have been postponed indefinitely and the leading political party Fanmi Lavalas has been banned, didn’t make the list of undemocratic countries. Mexico, where the question regarding the disappearance of 43 students from Ayotzinapa is not the government’s culpability – that is assumed – but in which mass grave have their tortured bodies been interred, didn’t make the list of human rights violators.

Haiti and Mexico get a pass because the former under US/UN military occupation and the latter with a corrupt and compromised narco-government have taken the bitter pill of neoliberal reform to the considerable detriment of their peoples. It is no coincidence that the five states on the State Department’s list, despite their robust electoral systems, are labelled undemocratic precisely because they are among the leading resistors to neoliberal privatization and subordination to the dictates of the US.

Venezuela under Chávez and now Maduro has made substantial gains in democratic institutions, the quality of life of its populace, and in its regional leadership. Jimmy Carter deemed Venezuela’s electoral system the best in the world. The progressive government has eradicated illiteracy, halved poverty, and introduced new forms of direct democracy such as community councils. Internationally Venezuela has played a leading role in regional integration of Latin America with UNASURCERLALC, andALBA, promoted fair trade, and maintained peace with its neighbors including helping to broker the current peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC. In October Venezuela was elected to a rotating seat on the UN Security Council with the unanimous backing of its neighbors and despite the opposition of the US.

Venezuela has funded its social programs from oil revenues. Now thatinternational oil prices have plummeted below the break-even point for production, the US government has seized on Venezuela’s vulnerability. The new US sanctions are a continuation of the long-term US campaign to roll back the social advances in Venezuela, curtail its independence, terminate its international leadership, and obliterate its example of an alternative to the neoliberal world model.

Roger D. Harris is President of the Task Force on the Americas, a 29-year-old human rights organization based in Marin County, which works in solidarity with the social justice movements in Latin America and in opposition to US interference with their self-determination.