David Smilde: Sanctions on Venezuela would be counterproductive

May 19

David Smilde is the Charles A. and Leo M. Favrot Professor of Human Relations at Tulane University and a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America.

Over the past three months, Venezuela has seen significant street protests against the government of Nicolás Maduro and its failures to address crime, inflation and food scarcities. The government’s use of force against protesters has added fuel to the fire, sparking a wave of mobilizations that has not subsided. At least 41 people have died. Congress is considering legislation to impose sanctions on Venezuelan government officials responsible for human rights abuses.

There is no doubt that the government’s response has been excessive and that the international community has a role to play in ensuring that human rights are respected. But lawmakers would be wise to vote against sanctions, which will only be counterproductive.

In a recent Senate hearing, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson — no fan of the Venezuelan government — argued that sanctions at this time would be unhelpful. Even targeted “intelligent” sanctions would short-circuit dialogues in recent weeks between the Venezuelan government and the opposition.

The dialogues have not been easy. Nonetheless, they represent the most significant negotiation between the two sides in 10 years and have substantial support among the Venezuelan population and important regional actors.

Critics are right to suggest that it is not clear that the Maduro government is committed to these dialogues. Indeed, the opposition coalition recently put its participation on hold to protest a lack of progress. But keeping the dialogue process going is critical to resolving the ongoing political crisis in Venezuela.

This dialogue process is the product of a high-level delegation from the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) at the end of March. In their visit, the foreign ministers of UNASUR countries spoke with the Maduro government, opposition leaders and human rights groups. They managed to get the two sides to agree to terms and sit down face to face in mid-April. After a first, nationally televised debate between the government and opposition leaders, working groups were formed and three more meetings have been held.

This was certainly not the response the Maduro government had in mind from UNASUR. Maduro clearly would have preferred an unqualified letter of support. But UNASUR’s independence should be no surprise. While UNASUR includes clear Venezuelan allies such as Bolivia and Ecuador, it also includes U.S. allies such as Chile, Peru and Colombia. Indeed, nobody has worked harder to make this dialogue happen than Colombian foreign minister MaríaÁngela Holguín Cuéllar. Also involved in the dialogue is Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, who was the Vatican nuncio, or diplomatic representative, to Venezuela for five years before being elevated to his new position by Argentine Pope Francis. They both maintain a significant interest in Venezuela.

Supporters of sanctions have argued that they would provide motivation for the Maduro government to take the dialogues seriously. That seems unlikely in this case. It is true that sometimes sanctions work: In the 1980s, sanctions against South Africa clearly contributed to the demise of apartheid. In that case, the South African government considered itself an outpost of the West in Africa. To have other Western countries boycotting it was an affront difficult to digest and difficult to explain to the population.

But just as often, sanctions fail. It is clear that more than 50 years of various U.S. sanctions have done little to change the Cuban government. Indeed the evidence suggests that sanctions have contributed significantly to the Castros’ permanence in power.

The same would happen in Venezuela. Like Cuba, the Venezuelan government is based on a Marxist ideology that portrays the United States as an imperialist power conspiring to undermine its revolutionary government. In this view, the United States wants to undermine Venezuela not only to control its oil, but also because it feels threatened by the success of its socialist alternative.

U.S. sanctions would allow the Maduro government to back away from the dialogues, saying it cannot negotiate while it is being sabotaged by the United States. Any kind of sanctions would effectively be used to turn what should be a conflict between the Venezuelan government and its opposition into a conflict between the Venezuelan government and the United States. That would allow the Maduro government to distract attention from its own shortcomings and deflect the legitimate grievances that have driven the protests. Perhaps worse, it would disarm UNASUR’s ability to keep the Maduro government at the negotiating table.

In this case, U.S. unilateral sanctions would undermine UNASUR’s regional approach to problem-solving, will harden the Maduro government and could result in an end to dialogue between Maduro and the opposition. This is probably not what members of Congress want, but if they don’t think twice about this sanctions vote, it is likely to be what they get.

David Smilde is the Charles A. and Leo M. Favrot Professor of Human Relations at Tulane University and a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America.

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