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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 effect of providing a weak president facing eroding support and mounting questions within his own base about his revolutionary bona fides, with political oxygen. A March 24 Datanalisis poll shows that Maduro’s popularity rose from 22 to 25 percent last month, although it is unclear how much of this modest bounce can be attributed to Washington’s sanctions rhetoric, and how fleeting this bounce might prove to be.
Even Venezuela’s opposition, which seeks to take advantage of Maduro’s severe vulnerabilities to build momentum ahead of elections later this year, was put on the defensive by the sanctions controversy. The Mesa de la Unidad Democrática coalition, Maduro’s main political opposition, did not want attention diverted from the country’s internal crises toward U.S. policy discussions, and it released a statement that reaffirmed that Venezuela is “not a threat to any country.” It underscored that their country’s deteriorating situation needs to be addressed by Venezuelans and not by external intervention.
Regional reactions to the sanctions’ language were swift and strong, with many condemning the executive order. Most Latin American nations, although uniformly opposed to the relatively limited sanctions, were particularly upset about the wording of Obama’s executive order, which harked back to Monroe Doctrine–era interventionism in the region. More than anything else, Latin American leaders were perplexed by the exaggerated rhetoric, especially since they had just applauded Obama’s bold, fundamental policy shift on Cuba. The tone of the executive order on Venezuela struck many as being sharply at odds with the celebratory announcement made simultaneously by Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro on December 17, 2014.
Predictably, the normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations overshadowed Obama’s signing of the Venezuela sanctions bill, which occurred the following day. The relatively muted reaction led Obama administration officials to believe that its impact was minimal when the moment eventually came for the president to sign the executive order implementing it.
Many observers saw Washington’s maneuvers on Cuba and Venezuela as politically shrewd and strategically wise, reflecting an administration that was prepared to jettison a policy that had not worked for half a century while at the same time demonstrating a tougher stance on human rights abuses against a regime with questionable democratic practices. In that way, the Venezuela decision helped offset criticism from some in the U.S. Congress, including influential Cuban-American Senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who asserted that Obama was being too soft on an unrepentant Cuban government. In response, the Obama administration could point to its support of individual, targeted sanctions on Venezuelan officials who cracked down on protesters as a sign of its commitment to human rights and democracy in the region.
To its credit, the Obama administration had largely avoided aggressive rhetoric aimed at the Venezuelan government before the sanctions statement, knowing full well that it would be counterproductive. The pressure to react, though, mounted as the country’s human rights situation worsened: protests in 2014 claimed 43 lives with thousands detained, and an estimated one hundred are still behind bars. The unlawful arrest of opposition leader Leopoldo López at a protest in February 2014 led the U.S. Congress to urge for his release or, failing that, better treatment in prison. In March, opposition congresswoman María Corina Machado was expelled from the National Assembly after reporting on human rights violations in a speech at the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington, D.C. She was later indicted for conspiracy, accused of a plot to assassinate Maduro. Disrupting Venezuela’s commercial relationship with the United States—oil sales have continued uninterrupted throughout the political tensions—was not on the table. This environment limited Washington’s opportunity to act, leaving targeted sanctions as one of the only options to send Caracas a message without inflicting undue pain on Venezuela’s poor.
And so we now live in a world where Washington’s relationship with Havana is thawing and its relationship with Caracas has become as frosty as ever. After Obama signed the sanctions into law this past December, Maduro’s crackdown on his government’s opponents intensified. On February 19, the mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, was arrested on sedition charges. A few days later, a 14-year-old boy was killed by a police officer during a protest in the city of San Cristóbal. Maduro also ordered the U.S. embassy in Caracas to reduce its staff by some 80 percent (which would, in effect, close the embassy).
The row is affecting relationships with the rest of the region. Washington has called on the Maduro government to release political prisoners and respect human rights, but few of Venezuela’s neighboring states have done the same. The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Organization of American States (OAS) have been largely ineffectual in responding to setbacks in democratic rule. A few highly respected Latin American voices, including former Chilean President Ricardo Lagos and former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso have spoken out against both the Maduro government and the region’s feeble reaction. Recently, former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe González has become involved in the Venezuelan situation by defending López and Ledezma as their counsel. Still, given the gravity of the crisis, it is hard to defend the lukewarm regional efforts to date.
Before Obama signed the executive order on Venezuela, it seemed like the sole theme of the Summit of the Americas in Panama City on April 10–11 would be the long-anticipated rapprochement between Washington and Havana. The language of the executive order on Venezuelan sanctions, however, has injected a sour element into what was shaping up to be a grand celebration of a policy breakthrough. The Obama administration has made an effort at damage control, assuring Latin American governments that the terms were legally required and that Washington is mostly concerned about Venezuela’s continued decay and its regional effects.
Even if Maduro is now reaping some domestic political benefits, they are likely to prove evanescent. Anything can happen in Venezuela, but the country’s problems are profound and will not resolve themselves. Attempts at distraction, however skillful, have their limits. Eventually, attention will turn back to where it belongs—on the hemisphere’s most serious crisis and what others outside Venezuela can do to help.