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The Senseless Economic War on Venezuela

The Trump administration is gambling with the lives of tens of millions of people on the chance that it might topple the government.
Nicolas Maduro

The Guardian reports on Bolton’s announcement of the new embargo on Venezuela at the Lima Group conference, and includes comments from regional experts on the likely consequences:

Some fear the latest sanctions will further aggravate an already dire humanitarian situation which has already forced millions to flee Venezuela, while others believe they will alienate Guaidó’s European backers who believe a negotiated solution is possible.

Christopher Sabatini, a senior fellow for Latin America at the Chatham House thinktank, said Trump’s latest gambit was designed to achieve nothing but Maduro’s immediate downfall.

“This is intended to bring this government to its knees and to bring in Guaidó. That’s it … But it will not work. It will actually make Maduro’s government what it always wanted to be: a martyr,” Sabatini said.

Farid Kahhat, a professor of international relations at Lima’s Catholic University, said that while Maduro was to blame for Venezuela’s economic meltdown, “what the US is doing is making things worse – at least in the near future”.

The Trump administration is obviously not concerned about the harm that their sanctions policy has been doing to the people in Venezuela, and they will keep chasing their goal of regime change regardless of how many people are hurt or killed in the process. When sanctions were imposed on Venezuela’s oil sector six months ago, critics of the move warned that the sanctions would exacerbate the humanitarian crisis without dislodging Maduro. Starving people to force a change in government is the wrong thing to do in any case, but we can see that it has also been ineffective in bringing about the regime change that hawks want. We have been pointing out the damage caused by sanctions for all this time, and the Trump administration’s only response to evidence of the ongoing failure of their policy is to intensify the economic warfare that is suffocating the population. A Miami Herald article from March included this quote that has proven to be all too prescient:

The deep and biting economic measures are predicated on the idea that Maduro will fall quickly and interim President Juan Guaidó — recognized by Washington and more than 50 countries — can form a transitional government and call new elections, said Phil Gunson, a Caracas-based analyst with the Crisis Group.

“But what if the plan doesn’t work? Suppose the government holds on and then you’ve duplicated the suffering and you haven’t solved the problem,” he said. “The prospect that it can be apocalyptic but not produce an outcome can be quite scary.”

Even before the newly-announced embargo, U.S. sanctions were causing more misery for the population, and now U.S. policy is going to cause a great deal more suffering by expanding the reach of the economic war.

The Washington Post also reports on the reaction to the embargo:

“There is no doubt that the new sanctions will severely limit the government’s maneuvering power,” said Luis Vicente Leon, director of the Caracas polling firm Datanalisis. “But it will also affect the lives of all the residents of Venezuela who will be directly impacted.”

“The most complicated part is that it’s not clear at all that this will help oust Maduro or accelerate the solution to the problem because the key aspects that are holding Maduro to power, the military and territorial control, are firm.”

Put simply, you cannot wage an economic war against a country’s government without waging that war against all of the people in the country. The effects of sanctions do not discriminate, and they tend to fall hardest on the weakest and most vulnerable members of society. The Trump administration is gambling with the lives of tens of millions of people on the chance that it might topple the government. In the worst-case scenario, the economic war the U.S. is waging will push the country into a major famine while Maduro clings to power in spite of everything. Like typical regime changers, the administration has not considered how their policy could go wrong, and they have given no thought to the terrible cost that the people will have to pay in the meantime.

The Guardian story concludes:

Sabatini said he was concerned that in its campaign to remove Maduro, the US was relying too much on its stick and not enough on carrots.

“All you have is a stick – and you are beating the hell out of Venezuela and beating your own allies,” he said. “This makes no sense.”

The policy “makes sense” only as a sop to hard-liners in the GOP and as a bid to win votes from Venezuelan expats, and even that last part is a stretch because the policy is proving to be such a destructive failure. The administration’s policy cannot resolve the crisis in Venezuela. It can only bludgeon Venezuelans as it tries to strike down Maduro. The policy has already made things worse, and it promises to do even more of the same in the coming months.