In its May 7 editorial “US sanctions against Venezuela could break the nation’s free fall," the Washington Post recommended that the U.S. government impose targeted sanctions against Venezuela as a way to get the Maduro government to agree to reforms. However, an understanding of Venezuelan political dynamics would suggest that this kind of “pressure” would have the opposite effect.
Venezuela has been engulfed in significant street protests now for three months. While these protests started as small scale demonstrations against crime and inflation, government repression in mid-February threw fuel on the fire and generated a wave of daily mobilizations.
The protests have dwindled over the past month not because of repression but because the government and opposition have been engaged in the most significant dialogues between opposing sides in ten years. While this does not satisfy opposition hardliners, the more moderate supporters of the protests have decided to wait and see. The protest movement has also been affected by polls which show that while two thirds the population support the protests, two thirds also reject the violent “guarimba” tactics that many protesters have used.
We do not actually know if the government “has conceded little” as the editorial claims. The talks have been taking place behind closed doors. We do know that participants on both sides are optimistic that progress is being made.
These dialogues have been sponsored by the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), as a follow-up to the visit of UNASUR foreign ministers in early March. Indeed the most important protagonist has been U.S. ally Colombia.
If the U.S. government applies sanctions it would not provide “useful leverage,” as the Post argues. Rather it would short circuit the dialogue process that is now underway. It would rally Chavista hardliners and prevent government officials from making important concessions. Worse yet, it would disarm UNASUR’s ability to keep the Maduro government at the table.
The idea of “pressure” is too simple for the United States’ complex role in the world. To have a positive role in the region, U.S. foreign policy would do well to move to a model of smart engagement.