In and Around my Op Ed

[Correction: in the first version of this piece I incorrectly stated that the data Francisco Rodriguez was referring to was on economic sanctions in general. It is actually specifically on the “debt sanctions.” -DS]

Writing an op ed is always an exercise in frustration. It is difficult to address complex issues in 1100 words and what gets published is always a negotiated compromise. The NYT Opinion editors are good at what they do and seek to take a piece of expert analysis and make it into something that is engaging to a broader public and does not get into the weeds. The result is not a journal article, but a brief opinion intended to generate needed discussion.

Of course, authors rarely get to pick their titles on op eds. My original title for this piece was “Venezuela is not Panama.” The NYT editors came up with the not inappropriate “Should the US Attack Venezuela?” I agree with Greg Weeks that is depressing that we need to even ask this question. I personally think a military intervention in Venezuela is a bad idea morally, strategically and politically. But I think it is absolutely essential to take the threat of military intervention seriously.

I was one who, back in 2002, thought the stories of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were so transparently phony that they shouldn’t be taken seriously. But once that ball got rolling downhill it agglomerated so many interests that it swept with it government officials like Collin Powell, politicians like John Kerry, journalists like Judy Miller, and many others who knew better but decided it was better to not try and stop a steamroller. Thus it is essential to confront the US war machine as soon as it starts kicking on.

One way of doing so is to emphasize the complications and the costs of war for the US and point to alternatives. Recent decades have made clear that the US is “addicted to war” and systematically underestimates the complications of armed conflict. Iraq was supposed to quickly fall like a “house of cards,” in Dick Cheney’s words. But it ended up taking over five years, costing at least $2 trillion and ending over 4,000 American lives.

The other way is by pointing to the effects on the local population. My original piece suggested that the Iraq war would be a better comparison than the invasion of Panama. The Iraq War caused at least 100,000 Iraqi deaths directly, and over a half a million deaths if the impacts of destroyed infrastructure and healthcare are taken into account. I covered the Panamanian invasion in 1989 for a small newspaper, and visited a couple of months later. What I saw there I will never forget: flattened neighborhoods, mentally ill people roaming the streets shouting about bombs, and signs of violence everywhere.

The Venezuelan military probably would not put up much of a fight. Neither did Iraq’s. But most of the casualties in the Iraq War actually came in the battle against the insurgency after Sadaam Hussein was overthrown. The same thing could happen in Venezuela. An insurgency does not require a huge number of people and is not that difficult to carryout. This, of course, means it is extraordinarily difficult to control.

There was some discussion in Twittersphere of the position I am promoting on sanctions and suggestions that I somehow changed my view. Actually, it has been quite consistent. My opposition to sanctions has never been from the perspective of the anti-imperialist left which is oriented toward fighting US foreign policy worldwide, opposes any pressure from the US or Europe, and supports an unexamined reification of “sovereignty” (at least among countries that are at odds with the US—“enemy of my enemy is my friend”). That has never been my perspective (well, at least not in the past 25 years).

In fact I am quite impatient with activism that uses the struggles of populations in the global South as media for political struggles in the global North. Even when this activism is supposedly intended to protect populations in the global South in the abstract, in concrete cases it easily becomes uncaring vanguardism that papers over people’s suffering when it is politically inconvenient. In my view, the people of every context have to be viewed as ends in themselves, not as media for a larger global struggle.

I am not in principle against the US foreign policy establishment using discourses of human rights and democracy promotion. But I am in principle suspicious of them. It is quite clear that human rights and democracy often end up being code words for US interests, and are selectively used to justify aggression against US competitors and foes, and selectively forgotten to facilitate back-slapping with US allies.

But that does not mean they are to be thrown out upon some pseudo-Marxist delusion that the world we better off if all pretenses of morality were simply cast off and things could be seen as they “really are.” To the contrary, the rise of democracy and human rights as standards for international relations represents a significant improvement beyond straightforward gunboat diplomacy and should be cultivated, engaged and honed to use against chauvinistic and or realpolitik foreign policy.

All of this goes for sanctions as well. I am not in principle against them, but I am in principle suspicious of them. The research is clear. Sanctions don’t work most of the time. They are very popular because, first, they are a way for countries to conflict without engaging in straight-forward violence. Second, they are a way for politicians to show they are doing something. For these politicians, whether they work or not is largely irrelevant. One could even argue this can be a virtue for their proponents. In the case of Cuba, for example, the fact that sanctions have not worked and have even strengthen leaders like Fidel and then Raúl Castro, has been a rather nice side-benefit for South Florida legislators, giving them a reliable campaign issue for decades.

In service of our overall goal of defending and expanding human rights in Venezuela, at WOLA we have sought to oblige the discussion to engage the actual results of sanctions (see here and here). Research consistently shows that sanctions are more likely to be effective: if they are multilateral versus unilateral, if they can be lifted in response to a change, and if they are accompanied by a clear communications strategy. In addition, successive ratcheting up of sanctions should not always take place through a logic of “broadening.” Rather a logic of deepening is often better. But of course, broadening makes for much better soundbites and press releases and usually carries the day, despite deadening the effect of sanctions.

It is still my position that the sanctions rolled out by the Obama Administration in March 2015 were counter-productive. By any measure they did not reinforce democracy, rule of law or human rights. To the contrary they accompanied a vertiginous breakdown of democracy and human rights in a way consistent with what we predicted. The sanctions and the obnoxious statement of Venezuela as a threat to US national security pushed back regional involvement in Venezuela by about a year. While there is evidence that avoiding sanctions led Venezuela’s Chief Prosecutor Luisa Ortega to peel off from the Maduro government, there is even stronger evidence that sanctioned officials from the Vice President, to Supreme Court, to the Electoral Authorities followed their sanctioning with unabashed participation in Maduro’s concentration of power. In all of these cases, in the classic Dahlian formulation, sanctions raised the costs of moderation while not really impacting the costs of repression.

The increasingly multilateral character of these targeted sanctions makes them less bad and potentially positive. Canada, and the European Union have adopted aspects of these targeted sanctions. Mexico, Panama and Colombia have expressed the intent of doing so. This increases their impact. It effectively makes officials realize that they could end up being persona non grata around the world. It is also makes them much more difficult to spin as a US conspiracy.

In other words, while they still raise the costs of moderation, they perhaps raise the costs of repression even higher. One thing that could make them more effective would be to present a clear pathway for how officials who are sanctioned can get out from under those sanctions. That would effectively reduce the costs of moderation.

The debt sanctions rolled out by the Trump administration in August are actually pretty well thought out. They impede US citizens and institutions from issuing or buying new Venezuelan debt. This not only prevents the Venezuelan government from continuing to mortgage Venezuela’s assets to maintain an unsustainable model. It also has an escape hatch. The government could issue new debt and get around sanctions if it gets the National Assembly to sign off on it. That would require recognition of the National Assembly.

It is these sanctions that have brought the government to the negotiation table in the Dominican Republic. Despite being a US program these sanctions are defacto multilateral since most every major investment bank runs through New York and they have to abide by them even if their own governments have not endorsed them. However, these sanctions would clearly gain some legitimacy if other countries, such as Canada and members of the EU, signed on, even if that did not expand their reach.

Francisco Rodriguez has provided a cogent critique of these sanctions, suggesting that: they are hurting the Venezuelan people, the Venezuelan people oppose them, and they thereby complicate the opposition. I disagree with these this arguments for the following reasons. First, the polling data that shows people disagree with them is in response to a straight-forward question about “economic sanctions.” In Venezuela this is understood to mean a general boycott as the US has had against Cuba for decades. This is a much more selective instrument and very specifically leaves out broader commercial boycott or oil embargo. I think a more refined poll question would need to be asked for this argument to be made. I, for one, am against general economic sanctions or an oil embargo, but think this instrument is the only thing impeding the Maduro government from quickly consolidating its dictatorship.

Second, tThinking about the opposition’s popularity at this point is really secondary. The government no longer wins elections by running circles around an opposition that fails to engage the broader public with a plausible platform. It wins them with a discredited electoral council that generates abstention, allows the governments “Puntos Rojos” to check that state employees and government beneficiaries have voted, and commits outright fraud if necessary (as it did in the July Constituent Assembly elections and in Bolivar State in the October governor’s elections). We are simply in a different institutional context in which popularity is not what is at issue. The same polls that consistently showed Chavez with 55% or more support now show the great majority of Venezuelans revile the Maduro government. But the electoral system has lost its ability to actually measure public sentiment.

However, it is undoubtedly true that these sanctions negatively impact average Venezuelans. If the government was able to secure new loans it would be more likely to avoid default (although it is not exactly clear who would lend to them). That would give them more cash flow and allow them to import more goods. I just returned from Venezuela and the deterioration of well-being between August and now is clear.

But it would be inaccurate to think that somehow these sanctions prevented or are preventing the Venezuelan government from engaging in economic reform. Since 2013 Maduro has consistently marginalized every government official around him pushing for a change in economic policy. And in 2016, they completely ignored the very reasonable Unasur plan for reforming the economy. This is because there are stakeholders in the government who are benefitting from the economy’s dramatic distortions and who will continue to impede change. New loans would be on highly unfavorable terms, essentially mortgaging Venezuela’s assets for generations to come, all to feed the corruption of the current government. Only a minuscule percentage would reach the people.

In the end the suffering of the Venezuelan people is on the Maduro government, its economic policies, and its decision to impede the people’s ability to change their government. But being responsible means being clear-eyed about the impacts of the policies you advocate, and the suffering of the Venezuelan people, short-term and long, has to be foremost in our consciousness and guide our advocacy. Put differently, this is an issue that needs to be continually revisited.