The US decision to impose sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials earlier this month seems innocuous enough. But the language accompanying the imposition does little to help US objectives, and may strengthen Nicolás Maduro’s authoritarian regime.
The effectiveness of sanctions has long been debated. At worst they can act as a useful signaling tool, but as with everything in international relations, timing is vital.
Coming one week after Venezuela ordered the US to remove the majority of its diplomatic staff from the Caracas embassy, the sanctions were not a major surprise. However, the exercise seemed to have backfired after the US described the declaration as an “emergency” and labeled Venezuela a “security threat.”
Such claims lack credibility and seem bizarre in the current climate. Officials from the Obama administration explained that the language was a legal formality necessary for the sanctions to be applied and that the assessment of the Maduro government is no more severe.
Even so, the presence of such inflammatory statements does not make the sanctions worthwhile. Relations between the two countries are already at their worst since 2010 when each nation called back their respective ambassadors. Yet, bizarre claims that Venezuela is a “security threat” provides Maduro with a vehicle to turn attention away from his declining popularity and the nation’s economic chaos.
Maduro has used the language as an opportunity to attack the US and its attempts to “govern Venezuela by decree.” In addition, it gave Maduro an excuse to allow the National Assembly to grant himself decree powers for the rest of 2015, under the guise that he needs such control to protect Venezuela against US aggression.
The ruckus has also given Maduro some respite from anger about 90% inflation and another currency devaluation. Polls this year indicated that Maduro’s approval rating had fallen to 22%, but it is not yet clear what impact recent developments have had.
While likely providing a short-term boost to Maduro, the US actions create a headwind to the opposition.
As Maduro rallies against the US, his political opponents find themselves in a difficult position. The US rhetoric has given Maduro a platform from which to spur nationalist anger, meaning that any criticism of Maduro from the opposition could be viewed as support for the US and an affront to Venezuela. Indeed, the opposition felt a need to denounce the US actions by issuing a statement that said “Venezuela is not a threat to any nation.”
National legislative elections are expected sometime this year. While there are some concerns that the socialist government may postpone the vote due to Maduro’s low popularity, the US-inspired tumult could see the newly confident administration proceed with a summer election.
This could be the opposition’s best opportunity to defeat the government. And even if the executive takes control of authority before the elections, a strong performance at the ballot box would increase pressure on Maduro to relent from his march toward dictatorship. But the opposition’s hopes have been dented over the last couple of weeks.
The needless sanctions and accompanying language used by the US have merely served to solidify Maduro’s grip on power, while leaving the opposition looking hamstrung. In addition, other Latin American leaders will be reluctant to speak out against Madura in the current environment, and the latest spat will be an unwelcome overhang at next month’s Summit of the Americas in Panama.
Sanctions can be useful, but this is another example of how bad timing can make them a liability to the imposing nation.