Why US needs more than its own sanctions to sway Venezuela's Maduro

The US moved quickly to sanction Nicolás Maduro. But sanctions are especially difficult to wield effectively in divided Latin America, some experts say, noting they are more likely to succeed as part of a broader carrot-and-stick solution.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin (L) and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster address sanctions on Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro at the White House daily press briefing in Washington on July 31, 2017.

After promising “strong and swift actions against the architects of authoritarianism in Venezuela,” the Trump administration went right for the top Monday – slapping sanctions on President Nicolás Maduro.

And more sanctions are likely to follow, perhaps even on Venezuela’s crucial oil industry, as Mr. Maduro pursues a rewrite of the constitution that the United States considers the final step in the country’s slide into “dictatorship.”

For starters, the US is threatening to impose targeted financial sanctions on anyone who participates in the Constituent Assembly resulting from Sunday’s elections. Those electors are almost certain to include Maduro’s wife and son.

But are all the punitive measures likely to alter Venezuela’s course?

History suggests they can, some experts in sanctions say, provided those sanctions are just one piece of a multifaceted and multilateral policy.

“Sanctions must not only enrage the target but engage the target,” says George Lopez, an international sanctions expert and professor emeritus at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. “Unfortunately, this administration is falling into the trap of letting the sanctions become the policy,” he adds, “instead of a tool in a larger diplomatic effort.”

But some experts in Latin America’s political history remain dubious that sanctions will ever coerce Maduro into altering his march toward a one-party political system inspired by Cuba and Hugo Chávez. The late Venezuelan president, whose own ruling style was decidedly authoritarian, initiated the country’s leftist-populist revolution.

“Sanctions don’t have a very good track record of achieving their goal, and they certainly don’t in Latin America where there are such regional divisions and always someone to offset the sanctions’ impact,” says Eduardo Gamarra, a professor of political science specializing in Latin American democratization and populism at Florida International University in Miami.

A region divided

Noting the regional and indeed international divide on display following Sunday’s Constituent Assembly election, Dr. Gamarra says the international disunity will only fuel Maduro’s ambitions. The US, Canada, Spain, and a number of Latin American countries including Mexico and Argentina condemned the vote on one side, while Russia joined Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, and most Caribbean countries in support of the election on the other.

“Those two camps are basically the same camps we’ve seen forever,” Gamarra says. “Cuba always had the financial and [moral] support to resist decades of US sanctions, and Maduro will probably benefit from the same divide.”

Latin America is not the best place to look for successful sanctions implementation, Dr. Lopez acknowledges. But he says the region – and the Trump administration for that matter – could learn something from experiences in other places, notably Africa and the Middle East.

A united African Union, usually with broad international backing, has stepped in successfully more than a half-dozen times in recent years “when there was an illegitimate transfer of power or illegitimate claim to power” in an African country, he says. A combination of aggressive diplomacy and coercive measures (or the threat of coercive measures) resolved the political crises, Lopez says.

Lessons from Libya

Many experts point to the role sanctions played in bringing Iran to the negotiating table over its nuclear program. But Lopez highlights the case of Libya and the successful combination of carrots and sticks – sanctions, but also the promise of economic benefits as part of a diplomatic solution – that got Muammar Qaddafi to negotiate with the US in President George W. Bush’s second term.

Mr. Qaddafi gave up his nuclear infrastructure and turned over suspects in the Lockerbie airliner bombing as part of a deal allowing him to emerge and attempt to play a larger leadership role in Africa.

Crucial to the success of those cases was the broad international backing the efforts enjoyed, sometimes underpinned by multilateral sanctions. But if sanctions on Venezuela remain largely a US action, experts say, chances of success dwindle.

“What history shows us is that multilateral sanctions are much more effective than unilateral sanctions,” says Michael Camilleri, director of the rule of law program at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

“That’s especially true in the case of the US and its efforts to use sanctions to try to bring about change in Latin America,” says Mr. Camilleri, who was director for Andean affairs on the National Security Council under President Barack Obama.

If anything, the US acting alone is the perfect foil for Maduro, who rails against the “imperial power” much the same way Fidel Castro used US sanctions to his benefit.

The Organization of American States, the regional body charged with promoting the hemisphere’s democratic governance and political stability, has so far been unable to present a united front for addressing Venezuela’s crisis.

Risks of broader sanctions

In the continuing absence of a robust multilateral effort to dissuade Maduro from his chosen path, the US could choose to move beyond targeted individual sanctions to broader economic sanctions, Camilleri says, but he calls such a move “risky.”

Not only would it be likely to weaken what multilateral support the US has for condemning Venezuela’s direction, he says, but it could also provoke an even sharper humanitarian crisis in a country already suffering from scant food and medical supplies and an exodus to neighboring countries.

Moreover, he says, such a turn by the US could prompt other powers, particularly China and Russia, to “change their calculations” and see an opening to make “a strategic investment” in America’s backyard.

Venezuela is already behind in paying off $62 billion in loans from China. Just last year Russia’s largest oil company made a significant investment in Venezuela’s state-run oil company – which manages the world’s largest oil reserves.

Neither China nor Russia has an interest in seeing Venezuela collapse into a failed state, analysts note. But some add that neither country is focused on preserving democratic governance, and they underscore what they see as the dangers of a US neighbor (still the third-largest supplier of crude oil to the US market) becoming increasingly indebted to global powers that do not necessarily share US interests.

Where is the middle class?

Some members of Congress are encouraging the Trump administration to shift immediately to broad economic sanctions, hitting the state oil company and blocking the Maduro government’s access to the US financial market. The US oil industry largely opposes such a move, however, saying it would harm US businesses and consumers but bring no guarantee of influencing Maduro.

In the absence of a united international strategy “and any real leadership” to confront Maduro, Gamarra says he fears efforts to influence Venezuela’s trajectory “will remain a spectator sport” and the world will be left to watch the country’s slide.

“People say the middle class will rise up and stop the Maduro government from doing exactly what they want to do, but those people forget that Venezuela’s middle class has largely fled, to Miami and Panama and a dozen other places,” Gamarra says.

“Cuba had the largest middle class in the region after Argentina at the time of the revolution, but then most of them left,” he adds. “The Cubans who stayed have survived 58 years under sanctions and without access to everyday goods, and unfortunately it looks like the Venezuelans are going to do the same.”

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