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The Inhumanity of ‘Maximum Pressure’

Francisco Rodriguez explains how the U.S. has helped Maduro to consolidate his hold on power with its harmful sanctions and regime change policy:

In weathering all these pressures, Maduro has benefited from the actions of an unsuspecting accomplice: the United States. Maduro can rightly blame Washington for contributing to the country’s economic crisis, pointing to the aggressive sanctions that the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has placed on Venezuela. The specter of a foreign aggressor has helped Maduro rally the military around his leadership. And the deepening economic crisis has only increased the power of the state over ordinary Venezuelans. U.S. policymakers must grapple with the uncomfortable fact that they have abetted Maduro in maintaining his grip on power.

Sweeping sanctions typically hurt the most vulnerable, weaken the political opposition, and strengthen the government’s grip on power. This has happened several times before, and it will keep happening wherever these inhumane tactics are employed. The reasons for this are not hard to understand, but policymakers seem determined not to understand them. Corrupt, authoritarian governments are least susceptible to the effects of such sanctions because they are largely unresponsive to the needs of the people and because they are most concerned with looking after the interests of top officials and their cronies. The government and its cronies use their position to benefit from smuggling and other illegal activities, which become even more valuable to them as normal commerce disappears. As sanctions strangle an economy, they also make the rest of the population more dependent on whatever aid the government still provides. Far from aiding civil society and political dissidents, sanctions are frequently a death knell for both. Throttling the legitimate economy along with everything else impoverishes the opposition that the sanctions advocates claim to support, and exacerbating the existing economic problems encourages many young people to leave the country to find some way to make a living elsewhere. Because the sanctions are being imposed by the world’s superpower, it is extremely easy for the targeted government to whip up nationalist sentiment and resentment against foreign interference, and that in turn makes it easier for them to deflect blame and attention from their own role in the country’s ills. In trying to dislodge an authoritarian ruler with sanction, the U.S. helps that ruler to entrench himself and his allies in their positions. This was entirely foreseeable, and many people warned that it would happen in Venezuela. We see the same results in Iran and Syria today, and we saw much the same thing in Iraq and Myanmar before that.

Trump’s push for regime change in Venezuela has been one of his worst policies, but it is also the one that has had the most support in Washington. Even though all signs pointed to the failure of “maximum pressure” in Venezuela from the start, there has been broad and bipartisan backing for this destructive policy from members of Congress and much of the foreign policy establishment. “Maximum pressure” on Venezuela is every bit as cruel and monstrous as the administration’s Iran policy, but for some reason it doesn’t receive the same amount attention or criticism. There have been a few notable exceptions to this reckless consensus. Sen. Bernie Sanders was one of a handful of members of Congress to speak out early on against the pursuit of regime change in Venezuela. His foreign policy adviser, Matt Duss, pointed this out again this week:

The standing ovation Duss refers to was the one given to Guaido during Trump’s State of the Union address at the start of this year. Our Venezuela policy over the last several years has been one of the more shameful episodes in recent U.S. history, but as long as it can be dressed up as supporting democracy it will receive thunderous applause in Congress. The fact that the U.S. is engaging in collective punishment against tens of millions of people does not seem to matter, and it is doubtful that many of the clapping politicians are even aware of what they are cheering on.

It is one of the many absurdities of U.S. foreign policy that supporters of “maximum pressure” are treated as serious opponents of the government that they target with sanctions. If you criticize these sanctions, the default response is that you must be “pro-dictator” or “pro-regime.” Even though the sanctions on the government end up battering the population and doing little or nothing to hurt the people in charge, sanctions advocates always claims to be on the side of the people that their policy crushes. The reality is that an end to broad sanctions is what the people in the country also want. The overwhelming majority of Venezuelans opposes the sanctions that the U.S. has imposed on their country, and it is easy to see why they would object to them. Rodriguez comments:

The strategy has failed at getting Maduro to back down, but it has dealt a huge blow to the Venezuelan economy. A large majority of Venezuelans oppose U.S. oil sanctions—71 percent, according to a survey by local pollster Datanálisis. The country’s embattled opposition has put itself in the impossible quandary of trying to explain to Venezuelans why their lives should be made even harder. Unsurprisingly, Guaidó’s approval rating has plummeted to 24 percent, according to Datanálisis.

The same nonsensical “pro-regime” framing cropped up in the debate over Syria sanctions in the last few months. Joshua Landis and Steven Simon made a very strong case that the Caesar Act sanctions that had been imposed earlier this year would mainly harm the civilian population. Simon’s position was then later distorted and misrepresented by Josh Rogin as arguing “against increasing pressure on Assad.” Simon defended his real position, which is that the sanctions don’t really pressure Assad but put an enormous burden on the people:

The Syrian people are another story. Without massive assistance, increased resources and a coordinated reconstruction effort, their ongoing decimation will gain momentum. U.S. sanctions, which threaten non-U.S. governments and NGOs with severe, even disabling punishment should they offer to help, are now a principal impediment to the survival of Syria. As Landis and I observed in Foreign Affairs, in these situations those with guns eat first. As comprehensive as sanctions might be, the Assad government will get what it needs to survive and the population will get whatever is left.

The truth is that “maximum pressure” policies tend to bolster the regimes they target and cripple the societies that suffer under their rule. Intensifying that suffering in the name of opposing the government is deranged, and it ignores the repeated failures of these policies over the last thirty years. Sam Heller summed up what is wrong with the Syria sanctions in a later piece that covered part of this debate:

Today, U.S. sanctions policy is not even a case of the United States writing off Syria and withholding its own money from the country’s reconstruction. No, with the Caesar Act’s secondary sanctions and aggressive U.S. enforcement of other sanctions, Washington is actively intimidating others into not contributing to rebuilding a destroyed Syria.

Put bluntly: Immiserating Syria while performatively and moralistically “trying” like this is psychopathic.

The same could be said of U.S. policy towards Venezuela over the last few years. Rodriguez concludes:

U.S. policy toward Venezuela requires deep reconsideration. Dislodging an authoritarian government is hard—and local political dynamics are likelier to accomplish it than external pressure. The United States has effectively asked Venezuelans to pay the price for Maduro’s atrocities. Continuing to do so will not win hearts and minds. On the contrary, it will further insulate the regime from its own failures and abuses.

Trying to force political change in Venezuela through a pressure campaign was always the wrong thing for the U.S. to do. It was always unlikely to “work,” but the more important point to take from this is that the U.S. should never have tried to interfere in Venezuela’s crisis. By taking sides in their political dispute, the U.S. encouraged the opposition to be as inflexible as it could be, and Washington actively discouraged negotiations as a way out of the crisis. Attacking the country’s entire economy with sweeping sanctions has been a disaster for the people and it has identified the opposition with a cruel policy that deprives ordinary Venezuelans of food and medicine. Venezuela needs economic relief and assistance, not more punitive measures, and the very least that the U.S. can do is to stop strangling the people with sanctions. The U.S. should absolutely reconsider its policy towards Venezuela, and that should be part of a much broader reconsideration of the use of sanctions against entire nations. These economic wars are indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations, and they need to be repudiated as such.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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