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‘Maximum Pressure’ in Venezuela Is Still Failing

Michael Shifter warns [1] about the consequences of the Trump administration’s economic war for the people of Venezuela:

The new policy moves the United States closer toward a full embargo, though it stops short of those imposed on Cuba, North Korea, Iran and Syria. Unless it succeeds in upending Mr. Maduro quickly, however, the economic embargo will make life worse for Venezuelans. What’s more, history suggests it may not work at all. Instead, it could have a devastating effect on the country, deepening the migration and refugee crisis in which more than four million Venezuelans have fled their country. That is an unprecedented amount in Latin America.

Venezuela sanctions were always going to make life worse for the population, and they are unlikely to have the desired effect of forcing Maduro from power. Even if it did eventually push Maduro out, it would not be quick. Sanctions usually don’t achieve their goals, and the more ambitious those goals are the less likely they are to succeed. Counting on sanctions to force regime change quickly is a terrible bet, but that is the bet that the Trump administration is making. It has already been almost seven months since this push for regime change began, and Maduro doesn’t appear to be any closer to giving in than he was in January.

Laura Weiss spoke [2] to other regional experts who said much the same thing as Shifter:

“The acute economic crisis already existed before the sanctions, but the sanctions have worsened the situation,” Ociel Lopez, a political analyst and professor at the Universidad Central de Venezuela, added in an email interview. “All without achieving even its most minimal objective of cornering Maduro.” Instead, he argued, U.S. sanctions and Trump’s campaign of so-called maximum pressure have provided fodder to the Venezuelan government, which blames the crisis entirely on “imperialist” U.S. policy.

Sanctioning a country that was in an economic crisis is particularly harsh and destructive. The U.S. shouldn’t be inflicting collective punishment on the entire population in any case, but doing it to people that have already endured years of hardship and deprivation is unusually cruel. As Lopez notes, it has also been fruitless. The striking thing about all this is that Trump’s Venezuela policy has been a much more obvious and immediate failure than any of his other policies, and the harm that it is doing promises to be much worse than anywhere else, but for some reason there is remarkably little criticism of the policy coming from Congress or the Democratic presidential candidates.

The Associated Press published [3] an explainer earlier this week on the new sanctions and their likely effects. One danger is that that there will be overcompliance with the sanctions so that humanitarian trade that is technically permitted is nonetheless choked off:

Similar sanctions imposed in other parts of the world show organizations and financial institutions will typically choose to err on the side of caution even when U.S. policy explicitly allows for the delivery of certain goods.

“They usually don’t continue even though they’re authorized,” Schott said.

He described it as an example of the “collateral damage” that sanctions often involve: Businesses and people who are not specifically targeted by the measures are nonetheless hurt.

Meanwhile, Russian and Chinese support for Maduro isn’t going away. Both governments condemned [4] the recent escalation by the Trump administration:

China and Russia have lashed out at the United States’ recent embargo on Venezuela, calling it a desperate attempt to save a troubled policy designed to overthrow the Latin American nation’s socialist government.

For their part, the Chinese government emphasized that trade with Venezuela would continue despite the sanctions:

“China is fully convinced that the China-Venezuela cooperation will go on as usual no matter how the situation changes,” she added. “We advise the U.S. to draw lessons from history and give up sowing discord immediately.”

The Trump administration’s economic war doesn’t seem to be scaring off the Venezuelan government’s international supporters, but it will strangle the economy further to the detriment of the population. As things stand now, Maduro has every incentive to hang on in a bid to outlast his opponents. Weiss continues:

As this stalemate deepens, there is little indication that Maduro will cede power under any terms. “Now that the United States and its neighbors have thrown so many threats against Venezuela and the government, and that these threats have not been able to topple Maduro, it seems very unlikely that the government will change its ways to find a solution,” Lopez said. Maduro, after all, has little incentive to step down. “If he maintains power, even if under the qualification of dictatorship, he has nothing to lose. On the other hand, if he leaves it, he could lose everything.”

The best and probably the only peaceful way out of this crisis is through negotiations that lead to some form of power-sharing or new elections. Norway is trying to revive the talks after Maduro pulled out in protest against the latest sanctions, and we have to hope that they are successful in getting them back on track. U.S. involvement in this crisis has been as harmful as it is unnecessary.

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