U.S. Ramps Up Pressure on Venezuela, But Maduro Keeps Hanging On

The United States has announced new sanctions on Venezuela and may threaten further action—but there’s little sign that will bring the regime down anytime soon.

A health worker shouts slogans demanding fair and higher wages during a protest of the lack of medical supplies and poor conditions in hospitals, in front of a line of police  in Caracas on Aug. 16. (Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images)
A health worker shouts slogans demanding fair and higher wages during a protest of the lack of medical supplies and poor conditions in hospitals, in front of a line of police in Caracas on Aug. 16. (Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images)

Venezuela jumped back into U.S. crosshairs this week, with a slate of fresh U.S. Treasury Department sanctions on top Venezuelan figures, new Senate legislation aiming to further isolate the Venezuelan regime, and tough talk of even harsher measures from U.S. President Donald Trump at the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York.

The drumbeat of mounting economic and diplomatic pressure comes atop a raft of U.S. sanctions, and with the Venezuelan economy in utter free fall as oil production plummets and inflation and shortages skyrocket. But, given the country’s divided opposition and a mostly loyal military, even that ramped-up U.S. pressure is unlikely to be enough to end the rule of President Nicolás Maduro anytime soon.

“You can create a storyline that says Washington is amping up the pressure, and I think that is accurate, but I’m not sure that this becomes a tipping point,” said Eric Farnsworth, a Venezuela expert at the Council of the Americas. “They will continue to raise the costs of corruption and show disapproval by the United States, but I don’t think they’re going to create significant changes on the ground.”

On Tuesday, the United States announced sanctions on four current or former officials: Maduro’s wife and former attorney general Cilia Flores, Vice President Delcy Rodríguez, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino, and Communications Minister Jorge Rodríguez. The new sanctions raise the total to around 88 individuals, including Maduro, who are designated for alleged corruption and drug trafficking. The sanctions are meant to both send a signal to regular Venezuelans that corrupt elites can’t keep their ill-gotten gains and to signal that Maduro’s inner circle isn’t abandoning him, meaning any possible regime change will have to come from another quarter, said Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuela researcher at the Washington Office on Latin America.

The strategy “relies on on the idea of some kind of internal insurrection, probably led by more lower ranking figures within the armed forces,” Ramsey said. But elements of the army, including plenty of lower-ranking figures, have already tried and failed to topple Maduro. Most recently, high-ranking officials and an opposition lawmaker were detained on suspicion of being behind the attempt to kill Maduro with a drone at a military parade on Aug. 4.

“This strategy ignores the fact that there have been coup attempts within the past year, and they’ve all failed,” Ramsey said.

But the Treasury Department sanctions come right on the heels of new pressure from Congress. Top lawmakers, led by New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez, introduced new legislation likened to a smaller version of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which sharply ramped up pressure on Fidel Castro’s Cuba. The proposed legislation would tighten U.S. economic sanctions, boost humanitarian aid, and help regional allies squeeze Venezuela.

Some of those regional players are already taking steps. Canada, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay, and Peru officially referred Venezuela to the International Criminal Court on Wednesday, on allegations of torture, arbitrary arrests, politically motivated imprisonment, over 8,000 extrajudicial executions, and forced disappearances. (But the ICC is an unlikely avenue for U.S. cooperation—National Security Advisor John Bolton recently stated “for all intents and purposes, the ICC is already dead to us.”)

Trump added to the pressure Wednesday from the U.N. meetings in New York, where he appeared to allude to a U.S. military intervention of the sort he had previously reportedly broached with advisors.

“All options are on the table. Every one. The strong ones and the less than strong ones. Every option—and you know what I mean by strong,” Trump said, adding that the regime could be “toppled very quickly” by its own military if they so chose.

Trump’s remarks likely don’t indicate a military intervention anytime soon, Farnsworth said. Rather, he could be laying the groundwork for even harsher U.S. sanctions—such as a ban on U.S. oil exports to Venezuela or preventing the U.S. purchase of Venezuelan crude, either of which would be a body blow to Caracas.

“He’s creating political space, so that when the U.S. takes actions like sanctions, they seem to be quite reasonable,” Farnsworth said.

Elizabeth Miles is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @e_a_miles

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