Fighting Words

Lauren Carasik explains why Barack Obama's "tough talk" in Venezuela won't work.


The United States’ announcement of sanctions against Venezuela for human rights violations and political persecution increased tensions between the two countries, which spilled into greater Latin America. The sanctions impose travel restrictions and freeze the U.S. assets of seven military and law enforcement officials. Their true aim, however, was to rebuke Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. In his announcement of the sanctions, U.S. President Barack Obama said that they were motivated by the “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States posed by the situation in Venezuela.” 

Even though this language was a prerequisite for sanctions, Obama’s hyperbole undermines his credibility: Many observers question whether the sanctions will isolate Maduro internationally and fracture his domestic support, or will serve to strengthen the beleaguered president’s hand by unifying Venezuelans and regional leaders against Washington’s interference.

Maduro denounced the sanctions, calling them “[…] the most aggressive, unjust and poisonous step that the U.S. has ever taken against Venezuela.” Regional and international groups and leaders rallied behind Caracas, reproving the sanctions as illegitimate. The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which includes each nation in the hemisphere except the United States and Canada, condemned the unilateral measures, which it said contravened international law, calling for dialogue premised on “principles of respect for sovereignty and noninterference in the internal affairs of other states.” The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) “rejects any external or internal attempt at interference that seeks to disrupt the democratic process in Venezuela.” The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) called on Washington to “immediately cease the harassment and aggression against the government and people of Venezuela, as that policy encourages destabilization and the use of violence by a section of the Venezuelan opposition.” And the G-77 and China, a multilateral UN coalition of 134 states, categorically rejected the move, calling on Washington to repeal the sanctions based on “international principles of respect for sovereignty and national determination.”

Bad Neighbor Policy

Opposition was not limited to Venezuela’s left-leaning allies. Colombia, the United States’ closest ally in South America, which has moved closer to its left-leaning neighbors in recent years, joined the chorus rejecting Washington’s sanctions. Although Maduro is increasingly unpopular at home, polls show that a strong majority of Venezuelans are opposed to outside intervention. Even the main opposition group Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) rejected the unilateral move as intrusive, saying “Venezuela is not a threat to anyone.” Obama’s executive order was required harsh language as a legal prerequisite to action. But it gave Maduro a prime opportunity to frame it as imperialist rhetoric and bolster national support—an area in which his presidency has faltered since assuming office after former President Hugo Chávez’s death in 2013.

Washington’s lingering resentment toward Caracas likely emanates, in part, from the country’s promotion of hemispheric multilateralism—policies that undermine U.S. influence in the region. Chávez galvanized efforts to advance regional integration and to assert independence from Washington’s economic and political priorities. Subsequent U.S. administrations have grown frustrated by increasing regional autonomy and the diversification of South American commercial and political alliances. The sanctions, therefore, cannot be seen in isolation from Washington’s interest in reasserting its regional influence.

The sanctions prompted allegations of U.S. support for regime change within Venezuela. Washington, as it usually does, derided those claims. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki recently dismissed Caracas’ claims of a U.S. role in a possible coup attempt this past February, stating that, “As a matter of long-standing policy, the United States does not support political transitions by non-constitutional means.” While Maduro has not presented uncontested evidence of a U.S.-supported coup attempt, his allegations cannot be summarily dismissed. Psaki’s comments ignore Washington’s well-documented and lengthy history of heavy-handed intervention in the region: The United States supported a short-lived coup against Chávez in 2002, when by its own admission, the State Department “provided training, institution building, and other support to individuals and organizations understood to be actively involved in the brief ouster,” and has engaged in ongoing destabilization efforts that funnel cash to the opposition. As the Middle East writhes in turmoil, Venezuela’s position atop the world’s largest oil reserves cannot be inconsequential to U.S. interests.

No Love Lost

In 2013, Washington again displayed its antipathy toward Venezuela when Secretary of State John Kerry stood virtually alone in refusing to recognize Maduro’s victory in an election process that even Jimmy Carter called the best in the world. The results of the presidential election were further vindicated during municipal elections later that year, where Chávismosolidified its hold.

The United States’ recent interest in influencing Venezuela’s future was confirmed by White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, who indicated that the Treasury and State Departments are “considering tools that may be available that could better steer the Venezuelan government in the direction that they believe they should be headed.” In part, Obama’s desire to act could have come from his assessment that Maduro’s perceived weaknesses represent an opportunity too good to miss. Maduro is considered less charismatic and politically adept than Chávez, and he has not responded nimbly to economic trouble, nor has he adequately confronted its underlying causes—an untenable exchange rate system, spiraling inflation, reliance on oil export income that renders the economy vulnerable to fluctuations in price, and national dependence on imported goods. Mismanagement and corruption have impeded Venezuela’s transition from a neoliberal model to a sustainable redistributionist one, but domestic and international interference—including hoarding and economic meddling—have also taken a toll on the nation’s stability.

It is not up to Washington, but to Venezuelans, to determine the kind of economy and polity they want. Endemic corruption and violence must be confronted either way, but these challenges are hardly unique to Venezuela. Despite current hardships, many Venezuelans are more empowered and better off than they were before Chávez was elected. Both poverty and extreme poverty are down by 50 percent and 75 percent respectively, inequality has waned, and there have been advances in education and health care—facts that explains Chávismo’s consistent electoral victories over the last 15 years. 

Double Standards

The United States claims that the sanctions are compelled by its unwavering commitment to human rights and democracy, yet by pointing to ongoing protests as evidence of abuse, the United States misapprehends the origins and victims of Venezuela’s unrest. The image of brutal repression against organically driven, peaceful student protests obscures credible evidence that opposition leaders, frustrated by their inability to defeat Chávismo at the ballot box, latched onto student discontent as a vehicle to incite undemocratic regime change. The ensuing violence that led to 43 deaths did not only target the protestors: among the dead were also government supporters and state security forces. More recently, Caracas acted swiftly to arrest a police officer for the death of a 14-year-old student protester in February. 

Repression and the erosion of civil rights have elicited concern from all sides of the political spectrum. Punishing those who foment an anti-democratic overthrow of Venezuela’s government is a legitimate exercise of state power, but criminalizing dissent is not. It is not clear what evidence the government is prepared to level against Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma after arresting him for sedition in February. Imprisoned opposition leader Leopoldo López participated in the 2002 coup, and has made no secret of his support for Maduro’s departure outside the electoral process through his leadership in the “exit now” campaign that animated last year’s protests. Maduro must demonstrate respect for civil rights, and those arrested in connection with the violent protests or involvement in coup attempts should be charged and tried in accordance with due process standards or released. Venezuela’s National Assembly granted Maduro the right to rule by decree until the end of 2015, which admittedly is cause for concern, but how this measure plays out remains to be seen.

The timing of Washington’s sanctions cannot be isolated from considerations about domestic pressure to act. Two months after announcing a rapprochement with Cuba, Obama still faces virulent opposition from the hardline Cuban-American lobby led by Senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Robert Menendez (R-NJ), the latter now indicted on corruption charges. Rubio and Menendez penned the Venezuela sanctions bill, and Obama signed the bill authorizing sanctions a day after the announcement of a diplomatic breakthrough between the United States and Cuba.

Spoiling the Party

The move dulled visions of a celebratory Summit of the Americas next month—though it will likely be more unified in reaffirming the emerging realignment of hemispheric power. Washington’s hopes for renewed credibility and respect after rapprochement with Cuba will now be overshadowed by its actions against Venezuela. Ecuador President Rafael Correa observed that “It ought to be a joke in bad taste that reminds the U.S. of the darkest hours of our America, when we received invasions and dictatorships imposed by the imperialists.” Correa continued, “Can’t they understand that Latin America has changed?” 

Washington’s purported concern for human rights in Venezuela is belied by its lack of attention to far graver abuses in Colombia, Honduras, and Mexico—all of which are U.S. allies. In Mexico, one deadly consequence of corruption was the apparent collusion of gangs and state leaders in the disappearance of 43 students from a rural school in Ayotzinapa. This tragedy, however, failed to elicit condemnation from the Obama administration. Despite the 1000,000 deaths and the disappearance of 42,000 Mexican citizens since its “War on Drugs,” the United States has allocated nearly three billion dollars in military aid to Mexico through the Mérida Initiative and other assistance programs. Colombia’s human rights record is similarly abysmal, with nearly six million people internally displaced. Bogota, however, has received more than eight billion dollars in U.S. military and police assistance since 2000. Honduras, known as the world’s murder capital, also escapes Washington’s vitriol for human rights violations, and continues to benefit from U.S. military and economic assistance. The nation is in line to get a share in the one billion dollars in proposed American aid Obama has requested as part of the Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle. Outside of the Americas, the United States turns a blind eye to human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two states that serve as key Washington allies.

Washington’s selective, unilateral actions are counterproductive to resolving the crisis in Venezuela, and damage the United States’ regional credibility. If Washington wants to champion democracy, uphold human rights, and curtail accusations of hemispheric imperialism, Obama should allow Venezuelans to control their own destiny without interference from abroad. Any outside mediation in Venezuela should be multilateral and led by its Latin American neighbors. The balance of power in the Americas has changed, and the United States could better advance its goals and democratic ideals by accepting this new reality.