The Executive Order announced this week freezing Venezuelan assets in the United States and threatening third parties that do business with the Venezuelan government with action from the U.S. has been called an embargo by the media, then called not-an-embargo by Francisco Toro, but then Francisco Rodríguez claimed that the embargo actually came earlier when the U.S. first imposed oil sanctions. And that was before The New York Times corrected its story to say that National Security advisor John Bolton had not actually said “the time for dialogue is over”—a not insignificant mistake. (However, he did say, “Now is the time for action,” leaving open the question of what the administration was doing before. Livin la vida loca?)
First there is the matter of why it was called an embargo at all and whether it is in fact an embargo. Were the early breathless reports of a U.S. embargo on Venezuela by the Wall Street Journal and the Miami Herald the result of the fevered imaginations of journalists? Clearly upon closer inspection the Executive Order is not actually an embargo in the strict sense. It does not prohibit U.S. general trade with Venezuela and permits U.S. investment and work with private sector entities in the country, just not with the government and select public officials. So, no it isn’t, as Toro noted, an embargo. In fact, despite all the hype (from the administration and from the media), the new regulations are really quite marginal, intended, as Toro notes, to protect U.S.-based CITGO assets for the democratic opposition and threaten China and Russia to “proceed with caution” (Bolton’s words) in doing business with Venezuela. Specifically, the sanctions block “all property and interests in property of the Government of Venezuela that are in the United States or that come within the possession or control of a US person.”
But even the tough talk of action against Chinese and Russian entities that play ball with the Venezuelan government isn’t clear; according to Eli Lake, writing for Bloomberg, whether to penalize Russian and Chinese companies will depend on the Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. As Lake argues, in the past the secretary has shown little appetite to take them on.
Then where did the talk of “embargo” come from? I suspect—though I have no proof of this—that it was largely the indirect or even direct result of the NSC’s press and social media strategy. The Cuba-embargo-loving NSC director and his Western Hemisphere advisor have made a habit of macho posturing over punitive actions against the menage à trois of menace (Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela), believing, it seems—despite no historical evidence to back this up—that embargos, sanctions and speaking loudly while carrying a Vienna-sausage-sized stick bring regime change. This is an NSC that earlier had said that a blockade (presumably a naval blockade) was also going to be announced shortly.
So, it’s not inconceivable that in wanting to look tough to rattle the Maduro government, administration officials first used the term embargo to describe their marginal sanctions. If that’s the case, the problem (apart from the fact that it wasn’t true) is that not only did it trigger an overwhelming rejection of the new sanctions, it also makes the U.S. look weak by threatening something that is far less than it claims. And if it was the media that latched onto the term embargo, it is perhaps understandable that they would use the term given this administration’s professed belief in and embrace of the U.S. embargo on Cuba. (Less excusable was the misquoting of Bolton’s remarks saying the “time for dialogue is over”—a completely different message from the official line that the administration still supports negotiations between the government and democratic opposition, though with a healthy dose of, legitimate, skepticism.)
The second question is will these really be effective? With the announcement by President Maduro that the government would not be attending the next round of negotiations, it would look like the new sanctions—even though weak—sent the negotiations off the rails. That would be the wrong conclusion. It was the Maduro government’s decision not to attend the negotiations in a transparently pathetic attempt to make itself a martyr. Don’t blame the Trump administration for that.
The real issue is that neither these sanctions nor any of the previous ones are being used as anything other than a punitive tool. Punishing a repressive regime that has brought unimaginable suffering on its own citizens is a good cause. But in situations in which the sanctioning government is attempting to induce a change of behavior or even a change in regime, then the promise that sanctions could be lightened or lifted for specific, targeted changes need to be dangled as a potential carrot. Unfortunately—and illogically—this administration has repeatedly demonstrated that it has no intention to do so. In fact, Bolton has said that the sanctions will be in effect until Maduro leaves power. In other words, “we’re not letting up on the gas until we get the absolute change we demand.” There are no inducements to incentivize elements within the government to agree to an interim government or to free and fair elections or to the release of political prisoners or to allow greater media freedom. Instead it’s “we’ll give you relief only when he’s gone, not to help lay the path to restore liberties and ease him out.”
Sure, there are the promises of lifting the personal sanctions on the 100 or so officials accused of corruption and human rights abuses if they flip against Maduro. But that’s pretty cold comfort for those who face torture or death at the hands of the former bus driver’s security personnel and his Cuban advisors for disloyalty to what many recognize as a failed regime.
In the end, at best, the embargo-that-isn’t-an-embargo—but may have been framed as one intentionally or unintentionally—doesn’t follow the same mistake as its Cuban godfather. At the same time, though, even an incremental change that may not even be fully implemented by Secretary Mnuchin just adds to the welter of clumsy punitive tools the White House has piled on to Venezuela without any apparent strategy of incentivizing constructive change short of a full-on collapse. Not only won’t this short-term bullying and macho talk not work, it only makes the U.S. look weak and feckless. But don’t take my word for it: even the Washington Post’s editorial board—which has been supportive of the U.S. embargo on Cuba—says so: “Trump’s Venezuela strategy has failed. Forcing talks could be the only option.”