Venezuela: New US sanctions pressure Maduro but ‘risk exacerbating humanitarian crisis and torpedoing negotiations’

Luke Taylor

When Juan Guaidó raised his nation’s tricolour flag in January and swore himself in as interim president to the rapturous cheers of thousands in Caracas, many hoped – and believed - President Nicolas Maduro was finally on his way out.

A long-fractured opposition had reorganised, mass protests returned to the capital, and within minutes the US - followed by 50 other nations - officially recognised the National Assembly head as the country’s legitimate leader.

The successor of Hugo Chavez’s failed socialist project, Maduro had long been in the White House’s diplomatic crosshairs. The country’s economy was now collapsing and an international consensus was forming that his latest elections were fraudulent.

“Both the Venezuelan opposition and the US government thought this was going to be a quick win,” says David Smilde, a Venezuela expert and senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America.

But seven months on, political change has proved more elusive: despite the US’ best efforts to pressure Maduro with bellicose rhetoric and waves of economic sanctions, the embattled leader holds on to power.

“They completely underestimated the sociology of authoritarian governments, which are often more resilient than you think,” Smilde says.

Last week, the US took centre stage at a Lima Group meeting to announce its latest efforts to turn the screw on Maduro. In the company of 14 other nations allied in seeking a resolution to the Venezuela crisis, it spelled out its boldest, most sweeping economic sanctions on the country to date.

The executive order froze Venezuela’s assets in the United States, banned entry to Venezuelan citizens aiding the dictator, and pledged to sanction foreign companies – or governments - dealing with Maduro’s government.

Guaidó swiftly welcomed the news. The wiry leader stressed to reporters in Caracas that the “sanctions are against Maduro, not the Venezuelan people”; items that alleviate human suffering – clothes, food and medicine – are exempt.

The measures would “protect Venezuelans” from the government plundering the nation’s assets, he tweeted.

Predictably, Venezuela’s foreign office blasted the sanctions, describing the order as “economic terrorism against the Venezuelan people” and the formalisation of “a criminal economic, financial, and commercial blockade that has already started.”

While the US has already imposed targeted sanctions on individuals (figures close to Maduro), specific companies, and industries, the latest measures cast the net wider. For the first time they include secondary sanctions (targeting those outside the US), threatening to cut off foreign businesses with America and its financial system should they not comply.

"Do you want to do business in Venezuela, or do you want to do business with the United States?,” US national security adviser, John Bolton said to reporters in a message to foreign businesses around the world.

“That includes any foreign entity, government, corporation, person, who contributes to keeping the Maduro regime in power”.

Although both the US and Guaido deny that the measures are an embargo, experts in international law, international relations, and NGOs operating in the country told The Independent they will still exacerbate an already dire humanitarian crisis - and hinder efforts to restore democracy.

The new US sanctions worsen the suffering of Venezuelans, they should be personally targeting members of the state

Rodolfo Montes de Oca, Venezuelan human rights lawyer

“Although it is not technically an embargo … the order will have a chilling effect on any transactions with Venezuelans,” predicts Mary Ellen O'Connell, international law expert at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. The academic adds that the move is “unlawful”, violating World Trade Organisation Standards.

Mismanagement of the most oil-rich nation in the world - and once the wealthiest of Latin American nations - has caused widespread food and medicine shortages, a spike in crime, and rampant hyperinflation, predicted by the IMF to reach 10 million per cent.

Over four million have fled the crisis, according to the UN Agency for Refugees, and nine out of 10 Venezuelans now say they go hungry, according to local polls.

The new sanctions are, according to the US, intended to alleviate that suffering by strangling Maduro’s finances and forcing him out of power. But some fear that the Venezuelan people will hurt more than its leaders.

“The new US sanctions worsen the suffering of Venezuelans, they should be personally targeting members of the state,” says Rodolfo Montes de Oca, lawyer at leading Venezuelan human rights organisation, PROVEA.

As many as 40,000 people have already died in Venezuela as a result of US sanctions since 2017 that made it harder for ordinary citizens to access food, medicine and medical equipment, according to a report released by the Washington-based think tank, the Centre for Economic and Policy Research.

Bolton boasted that Venezuela now joins Cuba, Iran, Syria and North Korea in the “club of rogue states” exiled from the US market.

Academics researching the impact of US sanctions on those countries say none offer a positive case study in restoring democracy; more likely, they weaken resistance to authoritarian governments as local populations are ground down by suffering.

“This tends to hurt ordinary people far more than it hurts governments, as governments have control of hard currency,'' says Barbara Slavin, an Iran expert at the Atlantic Council think tank.

“This is cruel and counterproductive. The sanctions look tough but how is this tough if it’s killing innocent people?”

Several NGOs told The Independent that they are already facing banking difficulties due to over compliance with previous sanctions. As Slavin says, financial institutions commonly avoid working with organisations - even if exempt - due to fear of draconian measures from the US.

More salient than the potential exacerbation of the already grave humanitarian crisis, Smilde says, is that the announcement could have torpedoed ongoing talks between Maduro and Guaido.

As the crisis drags on but Guaido’s opposition loses momentum, international observers have increasingly looked to ongoing negotiations in Barbados, now in their third round, as the most likely peaceful way out.

Late on Wednesday, the government announced in an official statement that it would not be sending delegations this week "due to the grave and brutal aggression" being “carried out by the Trump administration against Venezuela”.

It is not known if they will return to the table.

“The ramping up of sanctions by the US provided the perfect excuse for Nicolas Maduro to withdraw from this round of negotiations,” Smilde says.

“The only viable way the opposition has of translating its popularity and legitimacy into power is through some sort of political settlement”.