Notes on New US Sanctions of Venezuelan Supreme Court Justices

Given today’s announcement of sanctions on eight Venezuelan Supreme Court judges, this is a good moment to link back to my testimony to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee in March. There I argue that unilateral, targeted sanctions on Venezuelan leaders would be counterproductive for three reasons.

First, they allow Maduro to play the anti-imperialist card, presenting his government as the victim of US conspiracies and aggression. Of course he and other government officials do this every day, no matter what the US does. But when the US takes high profile unilateral measures intended to “send a message,” they do just that. They tell people that perhaps Maduro is not making it all up after all and really is the target of an imperial conspiracy.

However, at Maduro’s currently very low level of popularity, this is probably the least important reason that targeted sanctions are counter-productive.

More important is that any US unilateral action makes other countries in the region less willing to pressure Venezuela. Even centrist Latin American leaders are loath to look servile to US interests or like collaborators to aggressive US foreign policy. When the Obama Administration rolled out sanctions in March 2015 it was notable how quick Latin American countries were to rally for Maduro.

The past two months have seen an emerging regional consensus regarding Venezuela—today even Ecuador’s Rafael Correa suggested the way out of the conflict is elections. One key element of this positive development has been the willingness of the US government to work with regional partners and let others, like Mexico, Peru and Argentina, take the lead. This unilateral action will certainly test this new-found regional resolve.

Much will depend on how much chest-beating US government officials and legislators engage in. The 2015 sanctions fiasco was facilitated by an obnoxious executive order stating that Venezuela was a “national security threat” which President Obama was forced to walk back in the following weeks. So far the announcement of new sanctions is confined to a discrete Treasury Department announcement. Let’s hope it doesn’t go beyond that.

The most important reason that these sanctions will not likely work is that with no “escape hatch,”–i.e. possibility of being lifted for changed behavior–they raise sanctioned officials exit costs and thereby increase their loyalty to the regime. The evidence regarding the 2015 sanctions is clear. All seven sanctioned officials were rewarded with important positions in the security apparatus or lucrative positions in state industries (see pp.4-5).

On this impact of sanctions I would recommend looking at Shannon O’Neill’s testimony as well as Mark Feierstein’s from the same hearing. Both of them supported targeted sanctions. However, O’Neill frankly suggested that they would not improve the political dynamic on the ground. “If anything, [they] will lead the individuals to refuse to negotiate or compromise, given that a change of government could affect their own personal freedom.” Mark Feierstein suggested the Trump Administration should support some sort of guarantees to Venezuelan officials who facilitate a return to democracy. This type of “transitional justice” has so far been absent from US actions, although certainly not from policy debates.

None of this is unique to Venezuela. Research consistently shows (see footnotes 1-8) that sanctions, even targeted sanctions, do not usually work and often are counterproductive. They are most likely to be effective when they are multilateral, have some sort of escape clause, and come in a relationship which the sanctioned care about their connection to the sanctioners (think US sanctions against apartheid in South Africa).

There are a couple of other arguments that should also be considered. It is frequently said that sanctions should be implemented for moral reasons, regardless of consequences. As I said in my Senate testimony, I have no argument against a stance based on ethical principles. However, if that is the reasoning, it should be identified as such. More often such a stance is used in a  bait-and-switch. When confronted with the scarce evidence for the effectiveness of these sanctions, proponents say the reasoning is actually moral. When the argument ends, they then go back to suggesting they are intended to help the Venezuelan people.

Finally, it is often responded that these measures are “legitimate.” The US is a sovereign nation and can decide who can come in and out and can even freeze assets. I agree and think suggestions that such sanctions are violations of international law or violation of Venezuela’s sovereignty are silly (although there is a sticky issue of lack of due process and right to defense). The issue I am touching on is not one of legitimacy but of strategy.