The Caracas Context

Venezuela Sanctions Prompt Cold War Memories

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro speaks during a meeting against imperialism in Caracas, in this March 25, 2015 handout picture provided by Miraflores Palace. Miraflores Palace / Reuters

If there is any lesson that the United States should have learned from its relationship with Venezuela over the past 16 years, it’s that words matter. It was former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s seductive rhetoric—backed by his nation’s unprecedented oil boom—that kept his battle against U.S. influence alive until his death in March 2013. Washington’s occasional efforts to fire back rarely achieved much, making Venezuelan relations even more of a headache.

President Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s handpicked successor, lacks his mentor’s charisma, political skills, and money. Maduro has little to show for his first two years in office: he is unwilling or unable to deal with Venezuela’s world-leading inflation, shortages in basic goods, and rampant violent crime that is virtually unchecked by the nation’s police forces. He did, however, take advantage of Washington’s misstep this past March when U.S. President Barack Obama signed an executive order implementing sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials for human rights violations during protests in 2014. The order, which prohibits those officials from travelling to the United States and freezes their assets in the country, referred to the officials’ human rights abuses as an “extraordinary threat to national security.” This language, when used against members of a government with which relations are often precarious and within a region that has lingering, bitter memories of Cold War–era human rights abuses committed with U.S. support, provides ample opportunity for fierce reaction.


As expected, Maduro relished Washington’s gift, using Obama’s statement to galvanize his Chávista base against “imperialist aggression.” Venezuela’s National Assembly provided Maduro with emergency powers shortly thereafter, to “prepare the country for any eventuality” by granting him the ability to rule by decree until the end of 2015—after this year’s parliamentary elections. Maduro’s latest gambit is a campaign to collect ten million signatures in Venezuela against the sanctions. Obama’s executive order had the unintended

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