Analysis of the EU’s Venezuela Sanctions

AP Photo/Fernando Llano

On November 13, the 28 nations of the European Union (EU) announced that they would create a legal framework for eventual targeted sanctions against Venezuelan officials and impose a collective ban on the transfers of arms and “related material that might be used for internal repression” to Venezuela. The latter presumably refers to riot gear and other law enforcement equipment associated with the repressive response to protests earlier this year, in which security forces (mostly affiliated with the National Guard) are alleged by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to have killed 46 individuals, and to have arbitrarily detained 5,051. While the full effect of the announcement has yet to be seen, a few comments can be made.

1. The rollout and accompanying framing were strategic

The EU’s statement on the arms/repressive material ban and eventual sanctions differ from the rollout of U.S. sanctions. The European bloc emphasizes that these measures will be “used in a gradual and flexible manner,” with room for expansion but also for reversibility. The EU also takes pains to say that the measures are designed not to harm ordinary Venezuelans, and ties the sanctions to specific conditions, including: credible and meaningful negotiations with the opposition, respect for democratic institutions and an electoral calendar, and the release of political prisoners.

By contrast, U.S. sanctions have simply been framed as punitive, with less of an emphasis on how the measures could be lifted due to changes in behavior. Neither the various targeted sanctions against officials (the most recent of which was announced by the Treasury Department on November 10)  nor the August 27 announcement of the U.S. debt sanctions, for instance, contain any explicit mention of how they could be reversed. While in private U.S. officials maintain that Venezuelan authorities can be removed from sanctions lists by distancing themselves from being complicit, this has not been publicly communicated.

In fact the closest thing to an “escape hatch” that has been clearly offered by the U.S. government is the Treasury Department’s clarification that it would approve new debt deals that were ratified by Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly.  Yet even this—which has been posted on the Treasury website’s sanction FAQ section—has not been publicly stressed by the Trump administration, and the degree to which the U.S. government is advocating such a compromise is unclear.

2. They send an important signal, but will likely have a limited impact on Venezuela’s security apparatus

As the first ban on transfers of arms/repressive material to Venezuela, the EU announcement is historic. It sends a message that, not only is the international community alarmed by the situation in Venezuela and pressing for a peaceful solution, it is also specifically concerned about the behavior of Venezuelan security forces and the potential for further violence to break out. As the crisis deepens, the fact that the EU has taken this step may well pave the way for non-EU countries to follow suit.

However, the announcement will not have much of an impact on Venezuelan security forces’ ability to arm and equip themselves. Data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which has compiled an extensive database on global arms transfers, suggests the impact will be pretty minimal. In order to compare arms shipments using a common unit, SIPRI measures the volume of transfers according to a calculation based primarily on the weapons’ production costs known as the trend-indicator value, or TIV.

A look at SIPRI data shows that, since Hugo Chavez took office in 1999, China and Russia have accounted for 82 percent of arms transfers to Venezuela, as expressed in TIVs. Over that same time, current European Union countries (Austria, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Poland, Spain, and Sweden) have only provided 11 percent of arms transfers.

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Studying how these arms transfers have changed over time reveals some interesting outliers. For instance, the United States transferred weapons to the Venezuelan military as recently as 2015, when it sent training helicopters to the Venezuelan air force and navy. Ironically, the same year the United States delivered the 16 Enstrom 420B helicopters, the Obama administration had already levied sanctions against 7 officials in the Maduro government and declared Venezuela an “unusual and extraordinary threat” to U.S. national security and foreign policy.

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The EU ban’s impact will also be limited because Russia and China are not the only non-EU providers, particularly with regard to repressive law enforcement equipment.

While data is hard to come by, anecdotal reports during the April-July protests suggested that much of the tear gas canisters fired against demonstrators were manufactured in Brazil. Because of this, as other countries weigh whether or not to impose a similar ban, Brazil may be particularly well-suited to do so. In fact, the Brazilian government has already demonstrated a sensitivity to being seen as complicit in repression. Last June, when RunRunes presented evidence that Venezuela’s military had ordered 78,000 canisters of tear gas from a Rio-based firm, the Brazilian government blocked the purchase days later, though few details were provided on the decision.

3. The Maduro government was unsuccessful in using negotiations with the opposition to shield itself from EU action

In the months prior to the EU’s announcement, Venezuela’s government responded to the looming threat of European sanctions by pointing out that it was then engaged in preliminary talks with the opposition. In a September visit to several European countries, Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza reportedly attempted to point to these talks in an attempt to dissuade the bloc from issuing sanctions, as El Pais reported at the time. Venezuela’s government also highlighted the contested October regional elections as proof of its commitment to democracy, attempting to use them to gain international legitimacy.

The EU’s announcement on November 13 proves that this strategy failed, as the government and opposition began negotiations anew on December 1 and 2 in the Dominican Republic. But the EU has not lost its leverage. By emphasizing that future sanctions will be implemented gradually, the EU has retained an incentive for the government to negotiate in good faith. Whether it will do so remains to be seen.