Venezuela has been in the crosshairs of US sanctions policy for some time. The variety of behavior for which the state has been sanctioned nearly runs the gamut. Through sanctions, the United States has tried to limit drug trafficking, the funding of terrorists, and corruption in Venezuela. However, since Nicolás Maduro’s rise to — and consolidation of — power in Venezuela after the death of former President Hugo Chavez in 2013, most US sanctions against Venezuela have been due to the Maduro regime’s antidemocratic actions and human rights abuses. Despite the significant economic pressure from Democratic and Republican US administrations, Maduro remains in power and continues to violate democratic and human rights norms.
Barring significant interstate conflict or dramatic instability in the region — despite rumblings of military action against Venezuela during the Trump administration — there is little to no appetite for US military intervention in the Western Hemisphere. The covert, US-sponsored coups of the 1970s have fallen out of vogue for both Republican and Democratic administrations.
In stark contrast to US policy toward Latin America during much of the 20th century, economic statecraft represents the ceiling of US foreign policy intervention in the Western Hemisphere. Because of that, there is outsized pressure and importance placed on the US economic statecraft tools like sanctions to further US national interests in its backyard.
THE EVOLUTION OF US SANCTIONS
The Maduro-related sanctions against Venezuela began in 2014 at the urging of Senators Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). Menendez, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, championed and ensured the passage of the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014 into law. They pointed to Venezuela’s deteriorating human rights situation as the primary impetus for the sanctions legislation in press releases and Dear Colleague letters. The bill eventually directed President Barack Obama to “impose sanctions against those whom the president identified as responsible for significant acts of violence, serious human rights abuses, or antidemocratic actions.”
Maintaining the sanctions currently preventing economic recovery in Venezeula will logically exacerbate factors like food insecurity and deplorable living conditions that are primary motivators of migration.
Why were Mendendez and Rubio so eager to sanction Venezuela? They are both members of the Cuban diaspora community, a group with strong anti-communist sentiments. Both members benefit electorally from their opposition to the socialist governments of Venezuela among the members of the Cuban and Venezuelan-American communities residing in New Jersey and Florida. Importantly though, the electoral advantage enjoyed by Rubio and other conservative members of Congress who support sanctions against Venezuela extends beyond just Hispanic voters in Florida or New Jersey. Conservatives often use sanctions against Venezuela as a heuristic for standing against socialist policies at large. And the shift in US sanctions policy toward Venezuela during the Trump administration is a good example.
Sanctions implemented by the Obama administration blocked the assets of over 100 Venezuelan individuals for corruption, their roles in the Venezuelan government, and their actions undermining democratic processes or institutions. The list included Maduro, his family, leaders of Venezuela’s judiciary, its military, and its central bank. Upon taking office in 2016, President Donald Trump altered the nature and tone of US sanctions policy toward Venezuela. During an address to the UN General Assembly in which Trump announced additional sanctions against Venezuela, he stated, “virtually everywhere socialism or communism has been tried, it produced suffering, corruption, and decay.”
Trump began shifting from limited, targeted sanctions on individuals toward a “maximum pressure” sanctions strategy that utilized sectoral sanctions designed to restrict important Venezuelan industries — like oil — and limited the Venezuelan government’s access to the US financial system to exert increased economic pressure on the Maduro regime. In January 2019, the Department of Treasury added Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PdVSA), Venezuela’s state-owned oil corporation, to the Specifically Designated Nationals list.
Most importantly, though, the Trump administration altered the primary goal of US sanctions policy. While some may debate whether or not the Obama administration sought regime change in Venezuela, Trump’s desire for regime change was obvious. When the Trump administration declared the Maduro government illegitimate in early 2019 and recognized the president of the National Assembly, Juan Guiadó, as the legitimate leader of the Venezuelan government, Trump’s full-throated support for a sanctions policy in pursuit of regime change was an undeniable shift to US goals in Venezuela. In March 2020, the State Department introduced the Democratic Transition Framework for Venezuela, a document that connected sanctions relief to regime change.
After the Biden administration took office in January 2021, it maintained Trump’s existing sanctions on Venezuela. However, it also began re-engaging the state by resuming talks with Venezuelan negotiators. Most recently, in late November 2022, the Treasury Department moved to allow Chevron to resume extracting oil in Venezuela at 2020 levels at existing joint ventures for six months, provided PdVSA will not receive any profits from the oil sales.
Meanwhile, the broader array of economic statecraft tools used concurrently with sanctions includes billions of dollars in humanitarian assistance. From fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 2021, $1.7B in US government funds went to support Latin American countries receiving Venezuelan migrants who left the country due to the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. The amount of US aid flowing into Venezuela has increased significantly from $25 million in 2018 to over $200 million in 2022.
The Trump and Biden administrations were willing to remove sanctions on specific individuals. The Trump administration did so after a former high-ranking intelligence official broke with Maduro; the Biden administration did so to encourage negotiations. In both cases, US administrations used the removal of blocking orders to send a signal to those in Venezuela.
WHAT WENT WRONG WITH US SANCTIONS
The United States has followed many key tenets that characterize good sanctions policy. US sanctions, especially during the Trump administration, were able to quite easily target critical Venezuelan industries to inflict pressure. US administrations also clearly articulated the policy goals through documents like the Democratic Transition Framework for Venezuela. Finally, US administrations coordinated with the international community to create a relatively broad coalition to limit Maduro officials’ ability to hide or use their wealth. Yet, Maduro remains in power. Why?
The first and foremost critique of existing policy is the strength and effectiveness of the international effort to address the situation in Venezuela. International economic pressure has been limited to asset freezes and entry bans — no actor besides the United States has even approached the type of sectoral sanctions that are currently the most severe means of economic pressure on Venezuela. Thus, the international economic pain designed to incentivize behavioral change is limited in size and duration. By the time Maduro officials had lost any assets stored in blocking countries, the economic pain had already been inflicted and would have likely begun to fade as officials learned to store their assets elsewhere.
The Biden administration must decouple the Venezuela policy from domestic politics. Doing so requires messaging campaigns demonstrating how the current policy is failing to achieve any positive change.
Further, the cracks in the international coalition were on display after Mexico and Argentina left the Lima Group. Many in the Lima Group, a coalition of 12 Western Hemisphere countries established in 2017 to address the country’s crisis, issued entry bans for those connected to the Maduro administration. However, just as quickly as it formed, the Lima Group began to fall apart. Mexico left in 2019, and President Manuel Lopez Obrador stated it was due to Mexican policies of non-intervention in other countries’ internal affairs. Similarly, Argentina left in 2021, and the government stated it was due to the inclusion of Guaidó in the group’s decision-making.
Continually, the US sanctions campaign has allowed, or, debatably, even encouraged, closer ties between malign actors like Iran, China, and Russia with Venezuela. Reporting demonstrates increased military cooperation between these aforementioned states as well as pledges between Caracas and Tehran to boost bilateral ties. While providing such an opportunity to other states is not always worth addressing and may have been unavoidable in this specific situation, Venezuela’s proximity to the United States provides a distinct advantage to malign actors seeking to act in the Western Hemisphere and is worth highlighting as a critique of current policy approaches.
Another critique lies in the policy outcomes sought. Trump’s policy goal of regime change may have been unachievable and unrealistic. Regime protection is one of the most important goals an authoritarian government seeks. When considering the level and number of human rights violations and other crimes those in the Maduro government have been accused of, many have speculated that sanctioned officials likely fear for their lives should regime change succeed. While the Democratic Transition Framework for Venezuela attempted to mitigate these factors by calling for amnesty, it does not change the fact that regime change may have been an infeasible goal during the Trump administration.
Finally, the Trump administration’s demonstrated attempts to tie action against Venezuela to political opposition to socialism restrained US freedom of movement. While the electoral and political benefits of such actions are quite transparent — they translate to votes, often in swing states like Florida, and can act as a cudgel with which to criticize Democratic changes to Venezuela policy — this ideological linkage will likely tie the hands of any future administration that wishes to change course from the status quo and that has a political opponent that is farther to the right of it ideologically. Feasibly, this could even limit action by a centrist Republican administration.
WORKING TOGETHER TO COUNTER MADURO
Simply put, the sanctions on Venezuela likely cannot remain in place forever. The Biden administration has struggled to stem the flow of migrants from Latin America for much of 2022. Further, financial measures indicate that Venezuela’s economic crisis is far from over. Maintaining the sanctions currently preventing economic recovery will logically exacerbate factors like food insecurity and deplorable living conditions that are primary motivators of migration. There are three things that the Biden administration should do to counter Maduro.
The first is providing a clear, transparent pathway for sanctions relief. The Chevron announcement in November 2022 showed that sanctions relief is on the table. However, if the Biden administration is going to consider relief at all, it should consider signaling the path to sanctions relief loudly and proudly, especially through in-country networks. A potential relief-worthy behavior that would also be a politically palatable pill to swallow would be protection guarantees and enforcement mechanisms for humanitarian aid delivery and dispersal.
In the past, the Maduro regime has blocked US aid from crossing Venezuela’s borders. Suppose the Biden administration tied temporary or limited relief to aid delivery protections as it had done in Afghanistan, where humanitarian exemptions were temporarily expanded in exchange for verification methods. In Venezuela’s case, exemptions could provide meaningful change to the economic situation of everyday Venezuelans and hopefully stem the flow of migrants fleeing the country. Venezuela’s opposition will hold primaries in June 2023, before the nation’s general presidential elections in 2024. By openly tying relief to behavior like this, Venezuelan opposition and civil society groups could benefit rhetorically and politically from any obstinate refusals by Maduro in the upcoming elections. Doing so would also hammer home the fundamental goal of US policy toward Venezuela, which is to prevent the violations of democratic norms and human rights in the state.
All sanctions policies that seek behavioral change require clear and consistent messaging. If the Biden administration wants to create a pathway for sanctions relief, it must stick its neck out to communicate successfully with the Maduro regime. For this policy shift to not become an albatross around his neck, Biden will need buy-in from congressional Republicans. Therefore, it will be necessary to attempt to decouple Venezuela policy from domestic politics. Doing so will require messaging campaigns demonstrating how the current policy is failing to achieve change and how these policies are also failing Venezuelans.
The Biden administration should also work toward creating and maintaining an international coalition. The return of left-leaning governments to Latin American states like Brazil and Colombia, which account for 85% of the length of Venezuela’s border, could become a thorn in the side of any future Venezuela policy. Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro re-opened the Venezuelan-Colombian border to commerce in September 2022 after a seven-year closure, reopening an economic pipeline between the two countries.
To maintain a coalition capable of exerting pressure on the Maduro government, the United States should focus its sanctions and enforcement pressure on areas of concern shared by Latin American states and the US government. Tackling the Maduro regime’s sources of illicit revenue and corruption would represent an area of shared concern that could kill two birds with one stone and allow US policy to continue targeting those responsible for the crisis in Venezuela. Strong-arming Latin American allies to toe the US line through stronger sanctions against Venezuela, as demonstrated by the actions of the Lima Group, is ineffective and has driven a wedge between the United States and its allies. Further, the Maduro regime’s illicit sources of revenue allow the Biden administration to speak to regional actors about what they care about, such as drug-trafficking-related violence in the case of Colombia’s Petro and illegal mining and rainforest protection in the case of Brazil’s Lula.
Third, the Biden administration should provide and maintain off-ramps for the Maduro regime. Any possible amnesty or immunity provisions could stand in stark contrast to the purportedly values-based policy goals sought by the US government and would be difficult for many US policymakers to stomach. But US support for amnesty will not undercut the Biden administration’s commitment to defending democracy abroad as some may think. Instead, it will indicate a shift in US foreign policy, something that President Joe Biden promised on the campaign trail. The ongoing war in Ukraine has highlighted the urgent need to have off-ramps in place. Further, if providing amnesty can reasonably secure democratic concessions, prevent future political violence, or ameliorate regional instability, the ends are well worth the means.
Over the past decade, the US sanctions policy on Venezuela has evolved quite a bit. A variety of approaches have failed to achieve the changes desired by US policymakers. These approaches have also failed the Venezuelan people, who have had to live under deplorable conditions and continued political repression. The Biden administration is at a crossroads.
Going forward, it is important to remember that US sanctions policy does not operate in a vacuum. If the sanctions relief that is currently on the table is going to bring about real change, it has to be clearly communicated, utilize a broad, multilateral coalition, and must remain responsive to domestic and international political dynamics.
Wilson Trawick is a graduate student studying security policy at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He previously worked on and around Capitol Hill. He is also an Out in National Security and New America 2022 New Voices Honoree and is a Foreign Policy for America NextGen Initiative member.