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The U.S. Needs to Abandon Its Dead-End Venezuela Policy

Geoff Ramsey calls for an overdue change to U.S. policy towards Venezuela:

After a year and a half of diminishing returns since recognizing Juan Guaido as interim president and imposing crippling oil sanctions, U.S. strategy in Venezuela has reached a crossroads. Policymakers in Washington have two paths before them: they can either continue down the path of “maximum pressure” and saber-rattling, or they can choose a path of pragmatism, supporting more flexible negotiations towards a democratic transition.

The current path has been disastrous.

The Trump administration’s pursuit of regime change has had two foreseeable results: broad sanctions have worsened already severe economic and humanitarian crises to the detriment of tens of millions of innocent people, and Maduro and his allies have managed to retain and even strengthen their hold on power. By inserting the U.S. into Venezuela’s political crisis and seeking to coerce Maduro into giving up power, Trump effectively bolstered Maduro’s position and gave him no incentive to compromise or negotiate. The president was encouraged to pursue this doomed course of action by exiles and ideological hard-liners, including Marco Rubio and John Bolton, and he was led to believe that it would be a quick and easy “win” that would redound to his political benefit. Having failed to get the “win,” Trump seems to have lost interest, but the awful “maximum pressure” policy continues on its destructive path. After almost two years, U.S. policy has achieved nothing except to make it more difficult for ordinary Venezuelans to obtain food, medicine, and fuel. Ramsey warns against imposing further sanctions:

Now the White House is threatening to impose further sanctions that could limit the importation of diesel to the country, which would have devastating consequences for bulk transport, public transportation, and electricity generation.

The Trump administration has relied heavily on economic warfare in its misguided pursuit of forcing other regimes to capitulate to its maximalist demands, but the stakes for the other government are always so high that it will never be enough. Suffocating the population with sanctions does not make their leaders any more likely to yield, and insofar as the leaders can blame the sanctions for poor conditions in the country it can actually take some domestic political pressure off of them. Hard-liners push for ever-tougher sanctions because they like to think that they are squeezing the other government into submission, but they tend to weaken the government’s opponents more by forcing everyone in the society to scramble to survive. Sweeping sanctions are often a help to the government they ostensibly target, because they steal time, energy, and resources from the very people that are seeking political change.

Mac Margolis wrote recently about the split in the opposition over whether they should participate in the parliamentary elections in December, and he includes another quote from Ramsey:

That diplomacy and political spadework are something that Guaido once got and to which Capriles appears to be committed. “Capriles understands that a growing portion of Venezuela’s opposition is interested in a pragmatic outcome and a negotiated path forward, rather than an all or nothing approach or the fantasy of military intervention,” said Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuela expert at the Washington Office on Latin America. “The literature on political transition is clear: Participating often yields better results than abstaining.”

According to a recent survey of Venezuelan public opinion, there is broad support across the political spectrum for opposition participation in the elections:

Boycotting the elections may seem preferable given the likelihood of irregularities and cheating, but it would cede the field to Maduro and his allies and leave the opposition in an even worse position than they are already in. Most Venezuelans clearly want the opposition to participate even though they must know that it will not be a fair contest, and the U.S. shouldn’t ignore that. For his part, Pompeo has wrongly criticized those members of the opposition that have called for participation in the elections. Pompeo would rather have Guaido and the opposition continue on their self-defeating course. That’s because the administration’s hard-liners aren’t interested in resolving the crisis or even in helping the opposition, but they are happy to use both to justify their ongoing failed policy of “maximum pressure.” Just as they have done with Iran, the Trump administration piles sanctions on Venezuela not to achieve some identifiable goal, but simply to inflict pain and economic destruction for their own sake. They aren’t concerned with what happens to the people living in Venezuela, and they have been using that country as little more than a prop in the election campaign.

At every step, the U.S. has given Maduro every reason to cling to power. Ramsey notes that the decision to unseal the indictments against him and his closest allies has forced them to hang together:

Meanwhile, there are few incentives for Maduro and his inner circle to get behind a plan for a negotiated transition. In March, the Department of Justice unsealed indictments against the head of every single government institution controlled by the ruling United Socialist Party. This was a significant break from the previous U.S. strategy, which sought to drive a wedge between Maduro and members of his inner circle. The indictments helped cement a situation in which Maduro’s inner circle now have little reason to break away and support regime change.

Instead of the dead-end, pressure-only approach that we have seen so far, Ramsey suggests an alternative:

While sectoral sanctions have aggravated the crisis and had a documented negative impact on the work of independent NGOs, there is evidence that targeted sanctions against individuals have had more impact inside the Maduro government. The U.S. government should continue to use these individual sanctions to build internal pressure for change, but abandon a failed strategy of relying on sanctions as a direct tool to force regime change. Instead, U.S. policymakers should consider lifting them in exchange for more immediate concessions like an improvement in electoral conditions, restoring opposition parties, allowing international observation, and freeing all remaining political prisoners.

“Maximum pressure” is a failure everywhere it is tried. It uses an indiscriminate weapon against an entire nation in a vain effort to topple their government, and it devastates the population while leaving the leadership relatively unscathed. It has been a disaster for the Venezuelan people, it has made a political transition less likely, and it has not served any American interests. The U.S. needs to scrap this policy for a much more flexible and smart approach. Our government needs to reject collective punishment and it has to give up on the fantasy of bringing down the government, and perhaps then some progress towards a transition might be made.

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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