Sanctions: Reality vs. Perception

This is a piece by Datanálisis director Luis Vicente León, originally published in Spanish in El Universal on March 15, 2015.

Luis Vicente León

The government of president Obama decided to announce sanctions against a few specific Venezuelan government officials, using an intense discourse that heated up the political atmosphere within Venezuela. The difference with previous U.S. announcements is that this one was framed as a declaration of national emergency in the face of a security threat that, according to the Obama administration, the Venezuelan crisis represents for the United States.

Beyond the substance of these unilateral measures, which I will not analyze here, the decision has far different impacts in the United States and in Venezuela. In politics, what is relevant is not so much the reality, but the perceptions, and these perceptions create political acceptance or rejection. Last year we published the results of national survey research by DATANALISIS on this issue, and the results were very revealing: seven of every ten Venezuelans did not support that idea that the United States take unilateral measures in order to deal with the Venezuelan crisis, and an overwhelming majority did not see such measures as useful for solving the crisis. 

The concrete reality, beyond the resounding bombast of the declaration of emergency by Obama, which is part of a procedural issue in the United States, is that the North American government has applied sanctions on specific Venezuelan officials. These sanctions have been applied on an individual basis: the officials have been stripped of their visas and the freezing of their personal assets in the United States is now a possibility. There is no such thing as an embargo on Venezuela, oil commerce has not been blocked, there has not been a diplomatic rupture, and certainly no invasion of the country has in any way been announced or is to be expected—any of these things, by the way, I would personally condemn if they were to take place.

However, if we turn and look at the perception of the issue, what do we see? A sovereign action by the United States, such as issuing or removing visas or investigating accounts and assets of legal persons, becomes a group sanction made public by issuing the names of the persons involved. It is obvious that such action becomes the focus of attention for all Venezuelans, and if a declaration of U.S. national emergency against the “danger” posed by Venezuela is added to the statement, automatically the measures cease to be individual in the mind of the receptor and are perceived as a generalized action.  

The response by the Venezuelan government to the measures was predictable. The government is now constructing an epic history around the sanctions, which will end up being how people understand them, or how they will come to perceive them. It is possible that the sanctions will have a positive impact in internal U.S. politics, and are related to the struggle between Democrats and Republicans for the votes of Cuban-American community, and now also of Venezuelan exiles. But the story in Venezuela could be very different.

At a moment when the real struggle for the Venezuelan government is how to respond to the country’s severe economic crisis—terrain on which the government has no chance of winning—the U.S. sanctions are displacing the debate from the economic crisis to the political and international fields, were the government has much more room for maneuver. The Maduro government will concentrate its discourse and political actions on the sanctions by the United States: these sanctions are a blessing for the government at a time of falling popularity.

It is worth clarifying that the U.S. government does not have to take into account the impacts of its actions on internal Venezuelan politics. But it is obvious that they do have an impact on our politics. I insist: any country has the sovereign and unilateral right to issue or deny visas and to feel threatened by whoever it likes, but the recent measures by the United States give the Venezuelan government the chance to reorient the internal debate. We didn’t have to wait long to hear the official discourse portraying the United States as guilty of the crisis of inflation and scarcity and of all the things that stem form that crisis. You could say that there is nothing new in this narrative by the Venezuelan government; which is true, but now the government has a very concrete excuse.

Translated by Hugo Pérez Hernáiz