- By José R. CárdenasJose R. Cardenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.
When President Obama announced human rights sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials on March 9, a number of Latin Americanists and others criticized the measure, arguing that the president just handed beleaguered Venezuelan Nicolas Maduro a huge propaganda victory. The thinking went that Washington’s heavy-handed interference in Venezuela would allow Maduro to rally his base, deflect attention away from their dire economic predicament, and otherwise strengthen his teetering government.
Today, three weeks later, is as good a time as any to see whether Maduro has benefited in any way from U.S. sanctions. According to recent polls, the answer is a resounding no.
According to a recent poll by the Venezuelan firm Datanalisis, for all Maduro’s bombast since the sanctions were announced, his already low popularity barely budged from 23 percent to 25 percent, likely within the margin for error; in other words, there hasn’t been any measurable improvement. This is all the more insignificant when you realize that Maduro’s overall approval rating has dropped by 32 points since taking over the presidency in 2013.
Another recent poll by Keller & Associates, a Caracas based firm, found that by a 60 to 37 percent margin Venezuelans disagreed that the United States had anything to do with the country’s parlous situation and just 26 percent (to 65 percent) believed Maduro was capable of resolving the crisis.
That Maduro would enjoy some sort of political renaissance in the wake of U.S. sanctions was never likely — for a number of reasons. First, Maduro is not Hugo Chávez, who retained an almost mystical bond with Venezuela’s historically marginalized (although Chávez never had to test his leadership skills against Venezuelan oil trading internationally at $44 per barrel). Maduro has neither the charisma nor the wiles of his predecessor and mentor. Moreover, his attempts to imitate Chávez come off poorly and his repeated attempts to blame others for Venezuela’s difficulties flat.
Secondly, the Venezuelan economy is a horror show that is impacting the poor and working poor that serve as the base for chavismo the most. In short, due to centralization, corruption, and mismanagement, Chávez’s vaunted “21st century socialism” is a shambles. According to the website Quartz, “By many measures, Venezuela’s economy is the most sickly in the world. From the value of its currency (sinking), to its inflation (scorching) and GDP (shrinking), Venezuela ranks at or near the bottom of just about every important financial indicator out there, performing worse even than Argentina, Greece, or Ukraine.
On top of that, Venezuela under chavismo remains one of the world’s most dangerous countries, with skyrocketing crime and a homicide rate last year at 82 per 100,000, a total exceeded only by Honduras.
What all this means is that life for the average Venezuela is turning ever more nasty and brutish. When not dodging violent street crime, citizens’ daily life is being consumed by plaintive searches for basic foodstuffs, household items, and medicines. The idea that their attention could be “deflected” by endless government remonstrances about invasions, coups, and assassinations that never take place is just wholly disconnected from Venezuelan reality.
Still, there is concern the Obama administration will vitiate the impact of the sanctions by making them a one-off event. As it stands now, they have sent a powerful signal throughout the Venezuelan bureaucracy that individuals will be held accountable for their actions that violate the rights of their fellow citizens. The sanctions are not targeted solely at chavistas, but also civil servants who may find themselves caught between their orders and their consciences. Who wants to be the last Venezuelan put on a U.S. blacklist for a collapsing government? That sows doubt and uncertainty. As such, the imperative is that the circle of the sanctioned must continue to broaden.
Many critics of Venezuela sanctions more likely believe that there is never a legitimate reason for the U.S. to ever act in its interests in Latin America (humbling itself before Cuba is another story). The fact is that the United States has every right to deny privileges for those who perpetrate violence against fellow citizens exercising their rights to protest in the streets, especially since the administration’s attempt to get others in the region to intervene has proven fruitless.
No one is expecting that denying visas and freezing bank accounts is going to resolve Venezuela’s ongoing nightmare, but they send an important signal, and if they succeed in forestalling another death among Venezuelans petitioning for a better future then they will be worth every criticism.
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