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Busting Myths About the Latest U.S. Sanctions on Venezuelans

A few weeks ago, the United States imposed economic sanctions and travel restrictions on seven Venezuelan government officials. They were singled out for allegedly participating in human rights violations against opposition activists as well as engaging in “significant” acts of corruption. Since then, President Nicolás Maduro seems to talk of nothing else. The Venezuelan government ...

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A few weeks ago, the United States imposed economic sanctions and travel restrictions on seven Venezuelan government officials. They were singled out for allegedly participating in human rights violations against opposition activists as well as engaging in “significant” acts of corruption. Since then, President Nicolás Maduro seems to talk of nothing else.

The Venezuelan government has made this issue its hobbyhorse. It has plunged into a massive signature drive to petition President Obama to repeal the Executive Order imposing the sanctions, and has even staged televised, unintentionally comical military exercises to repulse an unlikely American invasion. (The photo above shows people in Caracas signing a government petition.)

This has prompted a significant number of cognoscenti to label the sanctions as a “mistake,” one that is likely to embolden Maduro instead of weakening him. “[F]ar from provoking cracks in the [Maduro] regime, as the administration hopes, the sanctions are likely to solidify it …” wrote The Economist’s influential Bello column. A recent New York Times editorial called sanctions “a gamble” that could “backfire” on the US. The conventional wisdom seems to be that this was a U.S. blunder.

Don’t believe it. There’s zero evidence that the sanctions are helping Maduro in any way. If anything, they’re hurting him.

Part of the uproar over the Executive Order has to do with its harsh language. The document calls the situation in Venezuela “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States,” and declares “a national emergency to deal with that threat.” This was done in order to invoke the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, the legal instrument that allows the White House to impose sanctions on individuals.

This tough wording did not sit well with Latin American governments. Most of them have expressed support for Venezuela and called for the order’s repeal. Maduro is hoping to make this a major issue at the upcoming Summit of the Americas (to be held April 10 in Panama). He has embarked on a drive to collect signatures for a national petition protesting the U.S. measures, and is vowing to present the petition to Obama personally at the summit. (The Venezuelan president claims that he will have collected ten million signatures by then.)

But the frenzied objections from Caracas are just hot air.

Judging by his overreaction, Maduro is terrified of further sanctions. He’s doing his best to convince everyone that sanctions are making him stronger, and attempting to dissuade the international community from imposing further penalties on corrupt members of his clique.

The sanctions target six of the lesser-known members of the military in charge of cracking down on last year’s anti-government protests, along with one influential but little known public prosecutor. None of the seven were household names when they were singled out. By making life hard on the folks in the middle reaches of the Venezuelan government — those in charge of implementing orders from above, and who also happen to be the people least likely to have taken precautions to protect themselves — the sanctions may well cause serious cracks in the governing coalition.

There is scant evidence to support the assertion that the sanctions have helped Maduro. The only credible poll that has come out recently puts his approval rating at 25 percent, slightly above the 22 percent he registered a few months ago (and within the margin of error).

Venezuelans don’t seem to be buying into Maduro’s hysterics because they have more serious problems to worry about. A toxic combination of recession, inflation, scarcity and crime means they have little time to think of lofty issues such as U.S. foreign policy.

This has not stopped the government’s hype machine. The signature drive has been massive, and there have been numerous reports of people being coerced to sign. Public servants are being forced to do so, as are schoolchildren. People are being asked to sign when they exit public offices, and the Spanish daily paper ABC reports cases in which signatures are being demanded by chavista activists in exchange for hard-to-find items, such as chickens sold at government grocery stores. Diosdado Cabello, the country’s second most powerful official, has even hinted that anyone who refuses to sign could be considered a “traitor” to the homeland.

Part of the government’s campaign is to label the Obama Administration’s measures as “sanctions on Venezuela.” In fact, though, the sanctions target seven individuals, not the country as a whole. They do not affect ordinary Venezuelans in any way. Undeterred, the government desperately persists in trying to link the sanctions to Venezuelans’ daily lives. As high-ranking chavista Freddy Bernal recently blustered, “the fact that sanctions affect each and every Venezuelan is not even up for discussion.” He didn’t trouble to explain why, of course.

If the sanctions were a boon to the Venezuelan government’s standing with its own population, you’d think that it would have been happy about the announcement from Washington. Yet this doesn’t explain why Venezuelan officials spent months lobbying against the implementation of the sanctions.

Last fall, Citgo — a wholly-owned subsidiary of Venezuela’s state oil company — convinced then-Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu to block the bill calling for sanctions making its way through the Senate. According to Politico, Landrieu used the excuse that the bill would hurt jobs in her home state, where Citgo has refineries. She subsequently lost her seat, and the bill passed.

Maduro is bluffing, trying to scare Obama from going any further. He has even said that, if the sanctions go away, Venezuela stands ready to work with the U.S. In the meantime, the government has quietly freed some lesser-known political prisoners, although bigwigs such as Leopoldo López and Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma remain behind bars.

There is no basis to conclude that sanctions are helping Maduro. If they were, he’d be welcoming them. Instead, he’s acting like a man under siege, doing his best to bully Obama into repealing them. That is a clear sign that they’re hurting.

Photo credit: FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images

 Twitter: @juannagel

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