This piece was originally published before the US Treasury department announced sanctions against President Nicolas Maduro on July 31.
The Trump administration extended current economic sanctions against Venezuela last week, adding 13 more Venezuelans to the list of sanctioned individuals. Such sanctions have always been of dubious legitimacy and legality, to put it mildly.
Under U.S. law, the president’s executive order has to state an obvious falsehood, that there is “a national emergency with respect to the unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security” of the United States caused by Venezuela. And the sanctions clearly violate the Charter of the Organization of American States (Chapter 4, Article 19), as well as other international treaties to which the U.S. is a signatory.
But the real danger is what comes next, as the Trump administration has threatened to impose vastly more severe sanctions on the Venezuelan economy, which is already mired in a deep depression and plagued by shortages of food and medicine.
On Friday, a group of members of Congress published a letter opposing the threatened sanctions. It began, “We write to express our deep alarm regarding the escalating political, economic and social crisis in Venezuela and urge you to work with our regional partners to help prevent a civil war. We strongly recommend that you support negotiations mediated by respected external actors such as Pope Francis, who enjoys credibility with broad segments of Venezuela’s government, opposition, and civil society. We further encourage you to abstain from implementing unilateral economic sanctions, which could deepen the country’s economic and political crisis and undermine any movements toward dialogue and negotiations.”
Venezuelans rejected sanctions by an overwhelming margin in a poll last week, with 63 percent against and only 26 percent supporting them. Even among supporters of the opposition, a majority were opposed to the sanctions. (The poll was carried out by Datanalisis, the most widely cited polling firm in the international media.)
The Trump administration threatened to impose the new sanctions in order to force the Venezuelan government not to hold a planned election yesterday. The election, which the opposition boycotted, was to choose an assembly of representatives that would draw up a new constitution. The pretext for the sanctions is that the new Constitutional Assembly will essentially carry out a coup d’etat, abolishing the National Assembly — which the opposition won by a wide margin in December 2015 — and allowing President Nicolás Maduro to cancel presidential elections, which are due next year.
While it is possible that the Constituent Assembly could attempt to abolish the National Assembly, it will not happen automatically as a result of this Constituent Assembly election. Therefore, even from the point of view that Washington has the right to decide on the constitutionality of a foreign government’s decisions — a premise that most of the 7.4 billion people on Earth consider abhorrent — it does not make sense that the sanctions should be triggered by the election itself.
Most academic research shows that sanctions are generally ineffective, especially when they are being used to coerce another government to change its behavior. A recent study by Thomas Biersteker of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva found that sanctions were effective in such cases just 10 percent of the time. This is not surprising since most governments don’t like to be seen as being pushed around by foreign states.
There is little doubt that the types of sanctions under consideration would plunge the economy of Venezuela, where imports have fallen by about 80 percent since 2012 and inflation has risen by about 600 percent over the last year, into further chaos and collapse. A former top State Department official predicts “a default on their bonds and a collapse of internal investment and oil production … civil unrest, refugee flows across their borders, and a cutoff of Venezuelan financial support to Cuba and Haiti that could lead to migration flows to the United States.” Gasoline prices in the U.S. would also go up.
While the Venezuelan people, who will suffer from worsened shortages of food and medicine, do not want these sanctions, some of the more extremist opposition leaders do. And it is their allies in the United States, like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who are lobbying for the sanctions. These right-wing U.S. politicians — with much cooperation from all of the U.S. administrations of the past 15 years — have consistently fought to overthrow the Venezuelan government. This is all they can think about, regardless of the consequences of escalating violence, increased suffering, or even civil war.
Venezuela remains a polarized country, despite its current state of economic collapse and President Maduro’s 20 percent approval rating. There are millions of Venezuelans associated with the government or its political party or social movements, who have reason to fear persecution or repression from an opposition government — especially one that comes to power outside of the electoral process. After the short-lived 2002 military coup against the government of Hugo Chávez, a roundup of government officials had begun, and dozens of people were killed during the first 36 hours.
The Venezuelan army has more than 100,000 troops, and there are hundreds of thousands more within government militias. And as in the U.S., many Venezuelans have guns. If violence continues and there is no legitimate authority that is accepted by all sides of the conflict, a bloody civil war could result. Maduro has promised to hold the constitutionally-mandated presidential elections in 2018. But for these elections to resolve the conflict, all parties will have to trust that they will not be subject to political repression or reprisal if they are on the losing side. This can only happen through negotiations, and both sides will have to make significant concessions.
Fortunately, as members of Congress pointed out, there have been international mediators, including the Vatican, and former heads of state such as José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of Spain, Leonel Fernández of the Dominican Republic, and Martín Torrijos of Panama, who have credibility with both sides. Their efforts failed last year because neither side was willing to compromise. But more recently, international mediation helped with the release on July 9 of opposition leader Leopoldo López, who was transferred from jail to house arrest. In their letter last Friday, members of Congress argued that this “is the most viable path toward a peaceful solution.”
The U.S. strategy of “regime change” has contributed to the death of hundreds of thousands of people — mostly civilians — in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Afghanistan. It has also had a hideous history in the Americas. Hopefully something has been learned from these crimes and tragedies.
Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. and president of Just Foreign Policy. He is the author of the 2015 book “Failed: What the ‘Experts’ Got Wrong About the Global Economy,” published by Oxford University Press.