More on the Effects of Targeted Sanctions

David Smilde

Yesterday analyst James “Boz” Bosworth argued that the success of targeted sanctions on Venezuela should not be assessed by whether they strengthen or weaken President Nicolas Maduro’s government. Rather they should be judged on their effects.

The Obama administration and Congress should talk about how they will measure the effectiveness of these Venezuela sanctions. The effect that we should want to see is
1) a reduction in politically-motivated violence and
2) a reduction in political persecution against peaceful protesters and political opponents.

We should look at these metrics at the end of 2015 and judge the sanctions’ potential renewal or revision in 2016 based on whether these sanctions have had a positive or negative effect on those two specific issues and the human rights situation in Venezuela in general.

Boz’s comment is helpful in pushing the US government to define the actual goals that sanctions are intended to achieve and just how they will be measured.

However, I would take issue with two elements of Boz’s argument.

First, the argument that we should focus on the effectiveness of sanctions rather than on whether they strengthen or weaken the Maduro government, suggests that that these two factors are independent from each other. That is clearly not the case. Those of us who think targeted sanctions will be counter-productive argue precisely that they will strengthen the Maduro government in a way that will in fact worsen human rights. This is why PROVEA, Venezuela’s leading human rights group and a strong government critic has spoken out against the bill.

The issue is not so much the strength of the Maduro government per se but what kind of strength. I would be happy with a popular and strong Maduro government if that strength derived from good economic, social and political policies.

But these kind of targeted sanctions will strengthen the Maduro government in the wrong direction. They will allow it to distract attention from its poor performance. They will undermine what little diversity exists within Chavismo. They will solidify the allegiance of those officials targeted by the sanctions. They will put the opposition on the defense. And they will make regional allies even more uncritical in their support of Maduro.

All of these effects will produce a net reduction of democratic space.

Secondly, Boz’s emphasis on political violence and persecution unduly restricts our focus. Human rights means more than a lack of political violence and persecution. Freedom of the press, the right to fair elections, the right to a fair trial are all essential to democracy and each of these are very concretely at play in contemporary Venezuela.  

Crimping Venezuela in a way that pushes the Maduro government in non-democratic directions could conceivably reduce political violence and persecution by reducing democratic space not increasing it. Thus I would suggest looking at the effects of sanctions on “the human rights situation in Venezuela in general” as the more important priority.

But of course, such effects are hard to measure and require counter-factual analysis, making general agreement difficult. The same people who have sponsored this Venezuela sanctions bill also insist that fifty years of sanctions on Cuba have been effective. They will undoubtedly do the same with Venezuela, regardless of the evidence. This type of legislation inevitably creates a political inertia that is hard to stop once it gets rolling.