Alexander Main is Director of International Policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) in Washington, DC, where he monitors economic and political developments in Latin America and the Caribbean. His analyses have been published in a variety of outlets including The New York Times, Foreign Policy, The Los Angeles Times, NACLA, and Le Monde Diplomatique. In this interview, we talk about the impact of the sanctions on Venezuela’s economy and its politics.
In recent years, the US has displayed a particularly aggressive stance promoting “regime change” in Venezuela. How would you characterize the policies of the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations – their similarities and differences – in regards to Venezuela?
First of all, it should be noted that there was an even earlier administration, the Bush administration, which was also heavily committed to a regime change policy targeting Venezuela. In fact, it supported a short-lived coup against Chávez in April of 2002 and it subsequently supported serious destabilization campaigns in Venezuela, including the 2002-03 oil shutdown which, as Richard Nixon would say, “made the economy scream.”
The oil shutdown pushed the Venezuelan economy into a very deep recession, although the Chávez administration overcame it, and subsequently the economy recovered. In other words, during the Bush years, the US government was also pushing for regime change very aggressively, and I would say it came as close as it’s ever come to reaching its goal.
In the early days of the Obama administration, there were signs of a willingness to engage in dialogue and have a more normal, respectful relationship with the Venezuelan government. However, that didn’t last long. It soon became quite clear that the Obama administration wished to undermine the Chávez administration at every opportunity. It also tried to isolate Venezuela internationally and prevent it from having a regional influence. The strong-arm tactics that the US engaged in to pressure Latin American countries to oppose Venezuelan regional initiatives, even when those countries stood to benefit from them, are described in some detail in many of the classified US diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks,
They weren't successful in their attempts to undermine and isolate the Venezuelan government, but they were doing it quite aggressively. So I would say that there was a softer policy towards regime change under Obama: a less overt policy than under Bush that consisted in jumping on opportunities – such as supporting anti-Chávez protests even when they turned violent – rather than necessarily initiating regime-change processes, though of course much of what the US has been up to in Venezuela remains deeply classified.
The US was perhaps not the primary agent behind destabilization campaigns in Venezuela during this period, but when those campaigns took place, as was the case during the violent protests following Maduro’s election in 2013, or the 2014 “la salida” [“the exit”] protests that tried to force Maduro out of office, the Obama administration was very quick to provide diplomatic cover and international legitimacy for the more radical elements of the opposition that supported the removal of the government via unconstitutional means.
Trump was much more overt: he had a very public hard line when it came to Venezuela. Within a few months of his administration, in the early summer of 2017, Trump was openly toying with the idea of military intervention in Venezuela. That was followed by the first broad financial sanctions on the country.
Of course, targeted sanctions had been imposed previously by the Obama administration, responding to what they alleged to be human rights violations committed by the Maduro government. Those sanctions targeted high-ranking officials or people close to the government that the Obama administration accused of being corrupt or involved in human rights violations.
Obama’s sanctions, which came after his decree declaring Venezuela “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States,” were targeted sanctions. They went after individuals and their assets, but did those have a broader impact on the economy?
Yes, a number of those sanctions appeared to selectively target senior ranking officials that were in charge of key security institutions in Venezuela. In any case, those sanctions were fairly benign compared to the sanctions that were imposed under the Trump administration, starting in August of 2017. They did, however, make the Venezuelan government as a whole more radioactive in the eyes of foreign investors and trade partners.
The 2017 sanctions under Trump had far more impact. They locked Venezuela out of a lot of the international financial markets and made it very difficult and onerous for the Venezuelan government to borrow at a time when the country needed a lot more external help because it was facing a major economic downturn.
Venezuela lacked the financial resources it needed to carry out an effective economic recovery program at that time. In a normal context, a country in that position would be able to borrow more money and issue more sovereign debt to get an economic stimulus plan going and hasten economic recovery. However, the Trump administration very actively prevented Venezuela from doing this with the 2017 sanctions and the others that followed.
There are many layers of sanctions in place now, but the most impactful sanctions were probably those of 2019 targeting the oil sector directly. In fact, those sanctions have impeded Venezuelan oil exports not only to the US – traditionally the main client for Venezuelan oil – but have also enormously reduced oil exports to other countries as well, as a result of secondary sanctions. The way it works is that when companies import Venezuelan oil and byproducts, they risk being sanctioned by the US. Of course, the mere threat of being sanctioned has led many foreign companies to avoid purchasing Venezuelan crude and had a dire effect on the Venezuelan economy, since it came on top of the already grave situation in a country where oil has been the primary source of revenue for a very long time.
The sanctions have been very harmful. They have contributed enormously to Venezuela’s economic decline, and have contributed to extreme human suffering.
As it is, Venezuela doesn't have the resources – namely the necessary foreign exchange that it would normally obtain through the sale of oil products – that it needs to import all the food and medicine required by the population. That means that essential goods became more scarce, more difficult to access for ordinary people, and when they are available at all they become very, very expensive.
This, of course, had huge effects on the health and on the state of nutrition of many Venezuelans. The fact that sanctions are a key factor contributing to this dire situation has been generally ignored by the media during the last few years. Certainly, in the media coverage of Venezuela, there is little reference to sanctions.
Economist Francisco Rodríguez estimated in a 2020 study that the damage of the financial sanctions to the Venezuelan economy between 2017 and 2019 added up to some 17 billion dollars lost in revenue annually, which is an enormous amount for the size of Venezuela's economy.
So that's part of what happened under Trump. Then, of course, the regime change drive became even more overt in early 2019, when the US government openly supported self-appointed president Juán Guaidó and simultaneously made calls for the Venezuelan military to rebel against the Maduro government. It did this repeatedly, and there appears to have been some level of coordination between dissident Venezuelan military sectors and people in Washington (either in the Trump administration or close to it).
All this eventually led to the unsuccessful coup attempt on the early morning of April 30, 2019, when Guaidó and opposition politician Leopoldo López, accompanied by dissident officers, held a press conference saying essentially “This is the big day.” It was an open military coup attempt, and the US actively supported it from the beginning. People in the Trump administration and people in Congress, such as Senator Marco Rubio, expressed their strong support.
The phase of regime change which includes sanctions, support for a parallel government, and attempts to provoke a military coup is still alive and well. There was some expectation that this rather disastrous and completely unsuccessful policy – certainly unsuccessful from the point of view of those who want to trigger regime change – would be abandoned by President Joe Biden.
Unfortunately, so far, everything remains in place. That sums up what we can say about the Biden administration: so far there is no public evidence that they are going to change the destructive and counterproductive policy that they inherited from Trump.
The only difference is that the Biden administration has not generated new sanctions against Venezuela. They haven’t added new layers to those that are already in place, and they haven’t engaged in strident calls for regime change. In this regard, they have not completely echoed the stances of people like Senator Marco Rubio and some rabidly anti-Venezuelan sectors here in Washington, DC.
You mentioned the economic impact of the sanctions. The study by Jeffrey Sachs and Francisco Rodríguez that you mentioned shows that the sanctions have provoked 40,000 lost lives. The impact of the sanctions on Venezuelans’ daily life is very evident, but it’s also important to think about the impact of the sanctions in terms of Venezuela’s sovereignty.
This is something that is commonly overlooked when it comes to sanctions. The economic and financial sanctions perpetrated by the US are unilateral, although they are often presented as part of a multilateral effort. The US lobbied a number of governments so that they would recognize Guaidó, and it succeeded. Now, however, that support is falling away. Today, the US remains one of the very few governments that actually publicly recognizes Guaidó as president of Venezuela. And Trump’s team was never successful in getting other governments to impose the same sort of sweeping sanctions that the US did, although certainly, some other governments have engaged in narrower sanctions such as the freezing of Venezuelan assets in their country (including over a billion dollars of Venezuelan gold held by the Bank of England).
Another aspect of US unilateral sanctions that's often overlooked is their illegality. Generally, under most interpretations of international law, for sanctions to have some veneer or some pretense of legality they need to be approved by the UN Security Council. That's obviously not the case with the sanctions against Venezuela (and a number of other countries including Cuba and Iran). When you look at much of the legal literature on sanctions you’ll see that there is near consensus among experts that US unilateral sanctions are a violation of international law. They certainly appear to violate the principles of the Organization of American States Charter which, in Article 20, states that “no state may use or encourage the use of coercive measures of an economic or political character in order to force the sovereign will of another state and obtain advantages of any kind.” The US is a signatory to this charter and is clearly violating that article.
And broad sanctions are of course a clear violation of a country's sovereignty. Among other things, sanctions mean that Venezuela can't really carry out an independent economic policy, since it’s in a straight jacket. Venezuela is blocked from a great deal of international trade, financial markets, and it doesn't have access to its own assets outside of the country! Billions of dollars of assets have been hijacked in the US alone, namely through the blocking of the assets of Venezuela-owned company CITGO (though some of these assets have been selectively made available to the Guaidó-aligned opposition).
Independent and sovereign countries have access to all those things. So, yes, it's fair to say that Venezuela's sovereignty has been violated through the sanctions.
How do the sanctions impact Venezuela’s democracy?
In political terms, it is extremely difficult for a country to have a stable political environment and a thriving democracy when it is effectively under siege. When there are, in the words of the OAS charter, coercive economic measures that are being imposed in order to force a political agenda on a country, that doesn't really allow for the democratic self-determination of its people. US sanctions are in part responsible for the political crisis that Venezuela has endured these last few years. I think there's no doubt about that.
US targeted sanctions against individuals have also played a role in the country’s political crisis. When you have a situation of total polarization where there is minimal dialogue between political actors, when the political actors that do engage in dialogue end up getting punished (as we've seen when some opposition leaders have decided to engage with the Maduro government or have participated in elections, and as a result, they get sanctioned by the US), it's very difficult to advance toward the normal functioning of democratic institutions.
If a functional democracy requires political dialogue, then it also needs to have actors that recognize one another as legitimate. Over the last few years, there have been attempts by the government and sectors of the opposition to engage in dialogue, but those sectors of the opposition have been literally attacked – sanctioned or threatened with sanctions by the US – for doing so. Of course, some of the responsibility [for the failure of dialogue] belongs with political actors in Venezuela, but the US administration has a great deal of responsibility as well. I think that sanctions – economic sanctions and individual sanctions – are the number one destabilizing factor in Venezuelan politics today.