Update on US and International Policy Towards Venezuela: Pressure and Engagement

Protestor holds up piece of bread © Rodrigo Romero

[Below I have elaborated my the notes I used for my presentation at WOLA on Friday.]

With the most important opposition candidates and parties disqualified, an electoral authority that has committed fraud twice over the past year, moved-up elections that break Venezuela’s election law and were called by the unconstitutional National Constituent Assembly (ANC), and innumerable other democratic deficits, Venezuela is now in a situation in which its population is no longer able to seek the change it desires. This is the type of situation in which regional and international countries have an important role in restoring Venezuelan’s democratic rights.

In this presentation I am going to provide a critical review what measures have been taken by the US and other actors.



First I will look at mechanisms of pressure. As I have said before, at WOLA we do not have a principled opposition to sanctions, but we do have a principled suspicion of them. That is because most research is clear that sanctions do not “work,” in other words, do not achieve their stated objective, most of the time.

Research shows that sanctions programs that do work tend to have a common set of characteristics.

Effective sanctions are most often multilateral. When sanctions come from one country, they are easily dismissed as a product of a particular bilateral conflict and often do not have much power in any case. When sanctions are multilateral, they have more legitimacy as responding to a widely-shared grievance. They are also more effective.

This indeed has been the most important change over the past year. Versions of the targeted sanctions rolled out by the US three years ago have now been adopted by Canada and the European Union, which increases both their effectiveness and their legitimacy. It is simply more difficult for Maduro government leaders to dismiss sanctions as a US conspiracy when they are shared by a couple of dozen countries. And they are much more effective when sanctioned officials see that they are not only restricted from visiting or parking their money in the US, but in Europe and Canada as well.

The debt sanctions the US levied in August are multilateral in their functioning since so many of the world’s international banks work through the US banking system. However, this defacto multilateral character does not increase their legitimacy in any way because it is not the product of any sort of consensus.

A second factor to take into consideration is that for sanctions to motivate a change in behavior there needs to be a clearly understood way for the sanctioned to get out from under them. Short of that, sanctions actually increase exit costs for officials and provide the regime with a loyal core. The US government has said any number of times that targeted sanctions can be lifted if a person contributes to a return to democracy. But there needs to be much clearer information on this, not just for those who are sanctioned, but for the general public. Every person who cares needs to know that officials who are sanctioned could get out from under them if they did A, B and C.

Second, incremental increases in sanctions are good. It keeps them in the news and in people’s minds. But instead of always thinking of broadening sanctions, i.e. adding more people to the list, sanctioning countries should think in terms of deepening sanctions, in other words more sanctions on the same people. Making sanctions multilateral has done this. But simply adding more people to the list, while it makes for great press in South Florida, simply promotes unity in the Maduro government.

Finally, an effective sanctions strategy requires an effective communications campaign. I have mentioned the need to be clear about how to get out from under sanctions. But there needs to be much more. What sanctions mean, what they cover and how they can be avoided or ended needs to be made absolutely clear to all stakeholders.

In the case of Venezuela, every Venezuelan citizen should know that the Venezuelan government could issue new debt with US banks if it had the National Assembly’s approval. Everyone should know that the Maduro government is sliding into default by choice. All relevant financial institutions should know exactly what type of business is and is not sanctioned. Overcompliance by banks and industry should not be seen as a side benefit of a sanctions program, rather it is an enormous problem that turns what should be a scalpel into a chainsaw and can undermine the effectiveness of a sanctions program. The debt sanctions as currently implemented need to be reevaluated, overcompliance needs to be addressed, and their nature and reach needs to be clearly articulated to all stake holders, including Venezuelan citizens.

Let there be no doubt that the Maduro government is currently winning the communications battle around sanctions. It mentions the debt sanctions at every opportunity and blames them for all of Venezuela’s scarcities and shortages. In December, polls showed that 55,6% of Venezuelans rejected economic sanctions. Even people identifying themselves as opposition supporters are more likely to reject these debt sanctions than support them. This rejection has likely increased since December since the economic situation has dramatically deteriorated since then.


Pressure—Recognition and Isolation

What has hurt the Maduro government perhaps more than anything else over the past year, is the lack of recognition given to the Constituent Assembly. It has prevented the latter from becoming the superbody it was meant to be. Lack of recognition causes a series of problems for a government insofar as it reduces its ability to sign bilateral and multilateral agreements, participate in multilateral institutions, and can undermine its internal legitimacy.

This is the most important threat for the presidential election as well. If the Maduro government goes ahead with an election that is not recognized by the most important players in its international space, it will be significantly weakened. That said, it is not entirely clear what such a lack of recognition will mean in the future. Governments will always have to communicate with the defacto authorities of a territory over issues of mutual interest. Those countries who have said they will not recognize the presidential election need to think about what this will mean and plan accordingly.

But to the degree possible, withholding legitimacy should not entail isolation. Isolation is, without a doubt, an effective punishment; but it also reduces the ability to engage, negotiate and seek solutions. For example, I was glad to see a clear and forceful announcement by the Lima Group, saying they rejected the April 22 election, and it was significant that its members had grown from 12 to 14. But I think it is lamentable that Venezuela has been disinvited to the Summit of the Americas. That provides a rebuke to Venezuela, but it also means that other countries will have reduced opportunities to engage Venezuela. I think public rebukes by 14 countries in the context of the Summit, would have had just as important impact as being disinvited.



“Pressure” is the favorite metaphor for foreign policy officials, but is altogether overused. Whether you are talking about an internal combustion engine, hydraulic systems, or political conflict, pressure alone does not facilitate desirable change. There always needs to be some sort of escape, some sort of relief, that can channel pressure in productive ways. Thus the term “engagement” is a necessary counterpoint to the idea of pressure.

It is hard to imagine any return to democracy in Venezuela without some sort of international mediation in Venezuela. The Maduro government is not going to simply win an election and turn over the keys. Any conceivable transition would require a pact brokered by trusted international partners. The negotiation process that took place since December was much more fruitful than past rounds of dialogue in large part because of the presence of regional governments who provided it with more seriousness than previous rounds. This process is not done and will likely revive in the coming months and, perhaps, years. The efforts of these countries need to be supported.


Engagement—Transitional Justice

It is also inconceivable that there will be any sort of return to a well-functioning democracy without some program of transitional justice that can provide exit-plans for powerholders. People in and around the government have well-founded fears of retribution if they were to let go of power and that is a significant impediment to change. They need to have assurances that letting go of power would not lead to a witch-hunt. Blanket amnesty is equally unacceptable. There can be no amnesty for the most serious crimes. Programs of transitional justice seek to broker deals that address each of these extremens.

Colombia’s government, in its efforts to bring its long-running armed conflict to an end, has some experience with this. There, the debate centered around grave human rights violations, war crimes and crimes against humanity — massacres, assassinations, etc. Absolute amnesties for those kinds of things shouldn’t be acceptable. But in Colombia (and other instances, like South Africa) alternative justice mechanisms like reduced prison time, bans from holding office, or house arrest were offered to those who committed secondary-level offenses. In South Africa, offenders avoided criminal convictions by providing full and complete confessions. Fortunately, some among the Venezuelan opposition have already begun grappling with this question. In May 2017 the National Assembly created a special commission tasked with, among other things, coming up with proposals that offer guarantees to Chavista officials in a future transition. International governments, multilateral institutions and civil society groups likewise need to develop proposals for transitional justice that are available if and when the time comes.


Counterproductive Measures—Oil Sanctions

There are a couple of measures that are currently being discussed that would be counterproductive. An embargo on Venezuelan oil or on US exports of the light crude Venezuela needs to mix with its heavy oil to transport it, would accentuate an economic crisis whose main victims are the Venezuelan people. Government officials will eat no matter what. There is a tendency among US officials to think that such sanctions would make the government “hit bottom” and that short-term pain would lead to the longer term gain provided by a change in government. But there is no evidence that that causal sequence would take place. In fact the cases of Cuba, Zimbabwe, North Korea and others suggest that such general economic sanctions actually strengthen leaders, because they are in the best position to navigate them. Governments and societies never “hit bottom” and never perish. Things can always get worse and change can always be resisted if one side of a conflict has what money, guns and institution still exist.


Counterproductive Measures—Military Options

There are many reasons to oppose military action in the Venezuelan case (see my statements here and here). Today I would like to focus on just one: how it affects the Venezuelan opposition.

We can start by realizing that at least since 2004 the Venezuelan opposition has been divided between the electoralists and the abstentionists. When HCF won the recall referendum in August of that year, María Corina Machado, then of NGO Sumate, put forward evidence-free accusations of fraud that led the opposition to sit out the local elections of 2004 and the legislative elections of 2005, with disastrous results. In 2007 the defeat of Chávez’s Constitutional Reform energized the electoralists and they held sway through 2016. But in the past year the many abuses of the CNE have given the abstentionists the upper hand.

Abstentionists suggest that participating in elections simply legitimizes the regime and that if Venezuelans would just stop participating and protest, the government would somehow fall. The abstentionist theory of change is always a little vague—sometimes it seems like they think if they just play their horns loud enough the walls of Jericho will come tumbling down.

But there is one mechanism that could make this strategy work: military action—whether it is a coup by the Venezuelan armed forces, or foreign intervention. Without this, this theory does not make sense. If you invert this, if there is a plausible expectation of military action in the air, it is likely to strengthen the argument of abstentionists and lead a good part of the opposition to abstain from electoral participation.

The possibility of military intervention floated by President Trump in August and repeated since then by multiple Venezuelan expats, has been one of the contextual factors that has undermined opposition cohesion. Administration officials probably thought that by suggesting the possibility of military force, they would get the attention of the Maduro government and get them to shape up. What it actually did was contribute to opposition abstention in October and its divisions since then.

None of this assumes that participating the April 22 presidential elections is the best course for the opposition. But the US government needs to realize that whenever it makes plausible the idea of military intervention, it moves large segments of the opposition to withdraw from electoral participation, whether or not that participation is a good idea. The same can be said for dialogue and this explains the vigorous opposition of much of the Venezuelan expat community to the negotiation process in the Dominican Republic while it took place. On his trip to the region, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that military options were off the table. President Trump needs to say so as well.