Obama Renewal of Targeted Sanctions on Venezuelan Officials Makes Waves but Doesn’t Change the Tide

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David Smilde and Hugo Pérez Hernáiz

On Saturday, March 12 the Maduro government held an “Anti-imperialist March” rejecting the Obama Administration’s renewal of the Executive Order declaring a national emergency with respect to Venezuela. Earlier in the week Maduro called on grassroots and social movements to march against the executive order. “We need to respond in the streets. We need to respond with unity, we need to answer.”

While the turn-out was modest compared to marches and demonstrations in the past, it was the most significant pro-government mobilization since the December 6 legislative elections, and rivaled the opposition’s march in the East of Caracas. A good segment of the marchers, were, of course, public employees.

On March 9, Maduro announced he was recalling Charge D’Affairs Maximillien Arveláiz from the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington. In an event held in the National Pantheon, resting place of Simón Bolívar, Maduro suggested this would be the first of several measures, including the naming of March 9 Bolivarian Anti-imperialism Day.

[The Foreign Minister] has precise instructions for the coming weeks to take steps, from the Foreign Ministry, to defend the Fatherland, our honor, our decorum, our dignity, and take the measures which will be announced in their due time, to respond and reject the announcement of the renewal of this aggression…How I would like it if a door would open for the US Embassy to stop its economic, political and military conspiracies against Venezuela. Better times will come. But for the times to come to improve, Venezuela has to be on its feet. And Venezuela will be on its feet if there is a people on its feet, mobilized and conscious, and if there is a president like this one right here, son of Chávez, Nicolás Maduro Moros in charge of the Fatherland, the Republic, and who continue to be [in charge], in the coming years. It’s the only guarantee that we will be respected sooner rather than later, by this aggressive and murderous empire. That’s why I pronounce today, the 9th of March, first anniversary of the infamous decree, and the first commemoration of Bolivarian Anti-imperialism Day.”

This meeting followed a number of declarations in previous days from other government officials.

On March 4, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez declared that the renewal of the Executive Order had the purpose of encouraging “anti-democratic factors” in the country. In a press release the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry said that Venezuela will “put under comprehensive revision our relations with the United States.” The release also says:

The unilateralism and extraterritoriality permanently practiced around the world by the United States government constitutes an open violation of the principles and purposes of the United Nation’s Charter, as well as of international law, thus threatening the validity of multilateralism, its protection mechanisms, and the principles of non-interference in the internal issues and the sovereign equality among states.

The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela condemns the double standards of the government of the United States, which being one of the countries where the violation of human rights is a state policy, and which practices an extreme form of warmongering in entire regions of the world, thus massively denying people’s access to human rights, tries to lecture other countries about what it lacks, so as to intentionally justify its interventionism.

On March 8, the Venezuelan Defense Minister, Vladimir Padrino López, in a broadcast by state television, and backed by the Armed Forces High Command, declared: “The National Bolivarian Armed Forces again raises its voice to the people of Venezuela and the world, to express its profound and absolute indignation in the face of the absurd and sad decision by the President of the United States.” Padrino López also suggested that the decision is “part of a systematic campaign orchestrated against Venezuela, by external and internal elites, drunk with power.”

On March 9, Diosdado Cabello said “President Obama took this action because the United States is committed to the coup d’etat that is underway in Venezuela…The United States has continued its conspiration against the Fatherland, against our people.” Maduro also suggested that the opposition supports the decree and that Obama’s actions are part of a plan to oust him.

The regional multi-lateral organizations that Venezuela is part of also criticized the renewal. The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) stated:

The renewal of U.S. unilateral measures against Venezuela is a disappointment for the 12 UNASUR member states because it violates the principle of non-intervention, as agreed upon at the Ministerial Meeting held on March 9, 2015.    

The Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra America (ALBA) condemned the renewed executive order in the following terms. “Today we lament that President Obama has not listened to the international outcry in which entire countries mobilized and important activists and personalities of all five continents raised their voices.”

The Venezuelan government stated that the Community of Latin American and Caribbean Heads of State (CELAC) has renewed its support for Venezuelan against the Executive Order (however we have been unable to confirm this claim).

On March 11, Venezuela’s ambassador to the UN Rafael Ramírez read a declaration purportedly from the coordination committee of the Unaligned Countries Movement rejecting the decree (declaration not available but watch Ramírez read it here). “The Non-Aligned Movement deplores these disproportionate measures and reiterates its firm backing of Venezuela’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence…[It] exhorts [the US] to desist from such coercive and unilateral measures which affect the spirit of dialogue and political understanding between nations.”

Opposition on its Heels

The decree appeared to catch the opposition majority in the National Assembly AN unprepared. On March 8 the pro-government faction in the AN requested a change in the AN’s agenda to be able to debate the decree. When the request was not accomodated, leader of the pro-government minority, Hector Rodriguez said of the opposition majority “it is incredible how unpatriotic they are.”

Maduro added “by action or by omission the National Assembly has supported the Obama Decree which is threatening Venezuela…Many of those opposition leaders are puppets with salaries from the US empire…They don’t make a single political move without first consulting with the empire.”

Henry Ramos Allup responded to Maduro’s criticisms suggesting the decree was being studied by the AN’s Foreign Policy Committee. He added “Maduro shouldn’t talk too loud, because Raúl Castro is going to negotiate with Obama. They are going to talk business regarding Venezuela. [Maduro] should tell Raúl Castro not to sell him out completely.”

However, even opposition commentators suggested the AN majority had not played its hand correctly. Nelson Bocarranda stated “It was an error for the AN not to have discussed the renewal of the Obama Decree which will be in effect at least until the US president finishes his term in 2017. It was a gift for the ‘red reds’ (rojo rojitos) who will continue this Saturday, to accuse Venezuela’s democrats of being accomplices of the United States.”

Former presidential candidate and now Governor of Miranda State Henrique Capriles had perhaps the most pithy response to Maduro’s call for a mobilization. He suggested that the Venezuelan people know “the problem in Venezuela isn’t Obama; it’s Maduro.”

Assessing the Impact

What can we say about the overall impact of this renewal of the renewal of the Executive Order?

·      It provided the government with an external event that dramatizes their discourse of Venezuela being the victim of an international conspiracy. At least for a few weeks it will empower the government to mobilize and unify its employees and most-committed supporters.

·      It proved to be a distraction for the opposition and their already troubled launch of a “roadmap” for ending the Maduro presidency.

·      Nevertheless, the domestic and international impact is clearly lesser than a year ago. The following reasons are probably in play.

o   The renewal avoided the aggressive language of the original EO, renewing the “national emergency with respect to Venezuela” but not declaring it an “extraordinary threat to national security.” This by no means impeded the Maduro government from repeating this language at every opportunity, but probably lessened the response among national and international audiences not directly articulated with Chavismo.

o   After the regional backlash last year, the EO largely lay dormant as the US froze its original plans to add additional names throughout 2015 and instead engaged Venezuela through veteran diplomat Thomas Shannon. Thus the EO in itself seems less threatening than when it was first announced.

o   Compared to a year ago the potential for this action to disrupt Venezuela’s political process seems less (although as we have just seen it is still a disruption). Last year Venezuela was headed to election that seemed like it could change the political equilibrium. In December that equilibrium did change and the current political process seems less vulnerable to this type of exogenous shock.

o   The international context is different with: a change of direction in Argentina, the Workers Party under siege in Brazil, and Evo Morales’s plans for reelection recently put down in Bolivia.

What is yet to be seen is whether the Obama Administration will add names to the list of those to be sanctioned. This would indeed be a departure from the Obama Administration’s policy over the past eleven months, and would have important effects.

First, while the current political process is less vulnerable it is not invulnerable to exogenous factors. The Obama Administration’s trickling out names through 2016 would further distract opposition efforts to mobilize for a recall referendum—efforts that are already beset by a lack of focus.

Second, while targeted sanctions certainly get the attention of officials who might be in a position to make decisions that violate human rights, it also raises the “exit costs” for sanctioned officials when these latter contemplate their fate in a potential transition. Officials who are already targeted for sanctions may see going down with the ship as their only alternative and do everything in their power to impede a constitutional provision like a recall referendum.

It seems unlikely that this renewal signals a plan to add more officials to the list. Rather, it is probably fulfilling the same role of political triangulation it did in December 2014. At that time President Obama signed the original law sponsored by the main critics of his Cuba policy the day after announcing a move towards reestablishing diplomatic ties with Cuba. This time, the renewal of the EO comes just a couple of weeks before his historic visit to Cuba. In both cases, implementing the Venezuela policy sponsored by Marco Rubio, Robert Menendez and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, complicates their argument that Obama is “soft on dictators.”