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Blinken signals zero change from failed Trump Venezuela policy

Crippling sanctions have yet to topple Nicholas Maduro — yet they punish the very people we supposedly want to liberate.

Analysis | Latin America

The United States remains wedded to a failed Trump-era policy towards Venezuela, but it is no closer to achieving its regime change goals today than when it started more than three years ago. 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently spoke with the former head of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, whom our government still likes to pretend is the “interim president” of Venezuela, despite the fact that he controls none of its political institutions, and endorsed his leadership once again. There are few policies less successful or more closely identified with Trump’s “maximum pressure” approach than this one, but the Biden administration has been unwilling to break with the policy that it inherited. 

The United States is one of a shrinking number of countries that recognizes Guaidó’s claim to being an “interim” president. Ever since the failed attempt to rally military support to overthrow Maduro in April 2019, Guaidó’s position inside Venezuela has steadily weakened with his approval rating sinking to as low as 16 percent earlier this year. Guaidó’s claim rested on his status as the head of the National Assembly, but since January 2021 he no longer has an undisputed hold on that position, either. This is why the European Union no longer recognizes him as the interim leader.

While Washington has pursued its unrealistic goal of regime change, U.S. sanctions have exacerbated the worst humanitarian crisis in the Western Hemisphere and inflicted senseless collective punishment on the people of Venezuela. There are no serious signs so far that the administration intends to ease these sanctions in the slightest. Incredibly, the official line from the administration is that U.S. sanctions have nothing to do with the suffering of ordinary Venezuelans. 

There was a glimmer of hope earlier this year that the U.S. and Venezuela might find a compromise on oil sanctions, and a U.S. delegation even traveled to Caracas for preliminary talks. But the Biden administration backed off from the idea as soon as it faced political opposition from hawks at home. The false start in the spring showed how easily the administration can be spooked by hawkish criticism and how it would rather stick with a failed status quo than take a modicum of political risk.

As always happens in these situations, the Venezuelan people have been the ones to bear the brunt of this destructive policy. As a group of Venezuelan civil society leaders, economists, and analysts said in a letter to President Biden and Secretary Blinken last month, “While sanctions are not the root of Venezuela’s humanitarian emergency, they have gravely worsened conditions for the average Venezuelan.” Even if U.S. policy were succeeding in forcing a change of leadership in Venezuela, it would not be worth the price that ordinary Venezuelans are being made to pay. While Blinken talks about “resolving” the country’s humanitarian crisis, U.S. policy is designed to deepen and intensify it. 

Last month, a group of antiwar and humanitarian organizations, including the Quincy Institute, urged the Biden administration to take action to minimize the harm caused by sanctions in several countries around the world. As the letter points out, in Venezuela, “oil and financial sanctions initiated by the Trump administration contributed to a 72% collapse in per capita income, heightening food insecurity and worsening the health and economic crisis facing the civilian population.” 

Blinken’s call with Guaidó referred to a “return to democracy” in Venezuela, but it should be clear by now that heavy-handed economic warfare is not going to achieve that. It cannot possibly advance the cause of “restoring democracy” to link it to a policy that impoverishes tens of millions of people. The United States has made a bad habit of pairing its coercive policies with the rhetoric of supporting democracy over the years, and the former just discredits the latter. Insofar as the opposition aligned with Guaidó is identified with the sanctions and their effects, it has naturally caused them to lose support. 

For their part, the opposition aligned with Guaidó is inflexible on sanctions relief, and they insist that there should not be any easing of oil sanctions until there are “significant political reforms.” At this rate, Venezuela will not be seeing any major reforms for a long time to come, but the people will keep being ground down by increasing economic hardship. As Murtaza Hussain observes in his discussion of the effects of broad sanctions, “While elites in sanctioned countries usually find a way to get what they need, ordinary people find themselves sent into poverty — victimized by economic blockades that U.S. politicians treat as open-ended.” Persisting with the same policy that has only further entrenched Maduro in power and caused more misery for the population is not the answer to Venezuela’s crises, but this is unfortunately what Washington is committed to doing.

U.S. economic warfare against Venezuela is taking place in the context of overall U.S. neglect of Latin America and the Caribbean. This neglect can be seen in everything from leaving multiple Trump-era policies on autopilot to leaving a dozen ambassadorial posts in the region unfilled. Christopher Sabatini, a senior research fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, warned this week that the administration risks presiding over a high-profile embarrassment at the upcoming Summit of the Americas because of its lack of preparation and attention. 

It is a familiar story that we have seen repeated in other regions as the administration’s mantra that “diplomacy is back” has been followed by a notable lack of engagement, diplomatic or otherwise. Senate obstructionism is partly to blame for the missing ambassadors, but the bigger problem is that U.S. policy in the region seems to be rudderless.

Making major changes to Venezuela policy would encounter some stiff resistance from hawks in Congress and from many Venezuelans in the United States, but letting hardliners dictate U.S. policies in Latin America has never benefited the United States or the other countries in the region. One need only look at the decades-long failure of our Cuba policy for proof of that. The “maximum pressure” campaign against Venezuela is still relatively new and does not have to harden into a permanent feature of U.S. foreign policy, but that is exactly what will happen if the Biden administration makes no effort to repudiate it while it has the chance. It is always possible that a future Republican administration will reverse any changes that Biden chooses to make, but that is no reason why he should continue a Trump-era policy that advances no U.S. interests and causes nothing but suffering. 

As Francisco Rodriguez has said, “Starving an economy of its capacity to purchase goods to promote regime change is cruel, inhuman, and contrary to international law.” Our Venezuela policy is one of the principal examples of what is fundamentally wrong with our government’s use of broad sanctions, and it cries out for a radical overhaul. If Washington wishes to foster good relations with Venezuela over the long term, it needs to provide substantial sanctions relief as soon as possible. If that doesn’t happen, the United States will be remembered mainly for the destructive effects of its interference in Venezuelan affairs.

When he was campaigning for president, Biden condemned Trump’s handling of Venezuela as an “abject failure.” Until he rejects Trump’s Venezuela policy, Biden shares in that failure and adds to it. 

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken delivers remarks to the press on the release of the 2021 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on April 12, 2022. [State Department photo by Freddie Everett]
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