The United States is imposing sanctions on eight more individuals, including the brother of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, for undermining democracy in the South American country.
The Treasury Department says seven are current or former Venezuelan government officials. The U.S. accuses them of supporting the creation of a constituent assembly that’s charged with rewriting Venezuela’s constitution and has declared itself superior to all other government institutions.
It should come as little surprise that battle lines across Latin America have been drawn along ideological lines: Left-leaning states like Ecuador, Bolivia, Cuba and Nicaragua affirmed their support of Maduro’s moves at a meeting in Caracas, while a 17-member bloc, meeting in Lima, has condemned the Maduro’s “dictatorship.” Peru, Canada, Brazil, Chile and Colombia were among the countries that criticized the deteriorating human rights conditions in Venezuela, and vowed to seek a peaceful end to Venezuela’s political crisis. While leaders like UK’s Jeremy Corbyn still seem to have a soft spot for bungling lefty despots like Maduro, the kind of repressive state socialism practiced by the likes of Chavez and the Castro Brothers seems to be increasingly cursed across the continent.
As Venezuela teeters on the precipice—disgruntled soldiers attacked a base in Valencia last weekend, in what some at the time thought might be the first sign of a slowly developing coup—it’s not clear what the United States might do next. Senator Marco Rubio has been at the forefront arguing for the strongest measures against Maduro’s government, which might include measures directly targeting Venezuela’s state-run oil enterprises.
Is this the right way forward? It’s not a simple question. For one thing, tighter energy sanctions would likely push Maduro further into Russia’s arms. Indeed, Reuters is reporting today that Rosneft has been secretly negotiating with the state-owned Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) for ownership stakes in various oil projects in the country since earlier this year. Perversely, this might make a harder line against Venezuela more likely. As Moscow’s direct financial interests become more pronounced, its incentives to keep propping up Maduro increase; if Maduro is overthrown, after all, it’s not likely that whatever “deals” were negotiated on behalf of the country with Russia would be left in place. At the same time, Moscow’s increased involvement, especially in the energy sector, ups the chances that Washington—Congress, if not the White House—will start turning the screws with even greater zeal.
But while vigorous energy sector sanctions would hit Maduro where he is most vulnerable, they would also further brutalize the Venezuelan population, which has already suffered an astounding fall in its standards of living. Food and medicine shortages are now rampant in a country that until recently has been reasonably prosperous, in large part due to the erosion of global oil prices. While further pain inflicted on the country as a whole might hasten Maduro’s exit, there’s little reason to think that such a transition would play out in America’s best interests. Rampant poverty, anarchy, street fighting, and civil war are not the usual ingredients conducive to the emergence of decent, representative governments.
The best way forward therefore might be the path we’re currently on: a well-paced expansion of targeted, individual sanctions in hopes of splitting off various bases of support for Maduro, and thus hastening a more peaceful transition of power. It may not be as viscerally satisfying as a stronger display against a deplorable regime that has already extracted such a heavy toll on its people, but it may be the best hope for salvaging a decent outcome from what is already a remarkable tragedy in our hemisphere.