Protestors demonstrate against Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro’s government at Plaza Bolivar in Lima, Peru. Source: Guadalupe Pardo/Reuters.
Anthony Eterno is a 20-year career diplomat who served as Senior Advisor to the Special Representative for Venezuela from 2019 to 2020. He previously served as Economic Counselor and Deputy Economic Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Caracas before he was expelled from Venezuela by Nicolás Maduro. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the U.S. Government, the Biden-Harris Administration, the former Trump Administration, or Global Americans.
“Oh, there is no doubt,” Nelson Mandela replied when Time Magazine asked him in 1993 if sanctions helped end apartheid. Of course, there were other pressure points, but sanctions on the apartheid government began with an extraordinary moral and globally-unified imperative to target an oppressive regime where it hurt most: its sources of wealth. The same unified moral imperative is now targeting another oppressive regime, this time the Russian government, with a similarly comprehensive sanctions response. Yet, the effort to hold the Maduro regime accountable for its equally despicable abuses by targeting its principal source of wealth is questioned. Critics still argue that U.S. sanctions policy in Venezuela has failed outright—contributing to the misery of the Venezuelan people while strengthening Maduro’s hand. Such critiques diminish the strategic value and moral imperative of holding tyrants accountable—an element just as important as regime change.
Success, Although Difficult to Define, is Still Success
Defining the success of our sanctions is understandably difficult, especially when not directly resulting in regime change. From 2017 to 2020, when our team first drafted our oil and gold sector sanctions proposals, however, our primary objectives were more multi-faceted than simply regime change. First, and a central focus of our objectives, was to stop the regime from stealing resources that belonged to the Venezuelan people or from using those resources to oppress them further. Our thinking was that if Maduro wanted to steal from and oppress his people, he was not going to use the U.S. financial system or oil sector trade to do so. At the very least, we wanted to use sanctions to exponentially increase the political and financial cost of the regime’s wholesale abuse of the Venezuelan people. If all of this had led to regime change, our view was that it was all the better, but regime change was never really the only—or primary—measure of success.
Instead we sought to measure our success by decreasing regime personal wealth to the tune of billions of dollars, a reduction in outside financial support for the regime, increased support from our allies for additional sanctions of their own, leveraging negotiations between the regime and the opposition on humanitarian assistance, and straining Maduro’s relationships with malign enablers. Furthermore, sanctions put the brakes on the Venezuelan regime’s oil diplomacy in the Western Hemisphere, and weakened support for likeminded authoritarian regimes. They also exposed the regime’s secret corruption networks—creating points of significant vulnerability and stopping important financial facilitators and enablers. We later learned that sanctions created internal pressure on the regime as the regime’s inner circle spoils began to shrink. We observed the increasing discontent among members of the military rank-and-file as well as among former close Chavez military confidantes which created disloyalty for their commander in chief as a result of the sanctions.
What Really Causes the Suffering of the Venezuelan People
The statement “sanctions need not be permanent” is included in every Department of Treasury sanctions announcement and most of the State
Department’s media messaging. This caveat underscores that removing sanctions rests on the shoulders of malign actors. Echoing Maduro’s own argument, critics repeatedly assert that sanctions cause more suffering among the Venezuelan people. The reality is that the trajectory toward Venezuela’s economic ruin and humanitarian disasters began long before U.S. sanctions were implemented—mainly thanks to the Bolivarian regime’s decades of neglect, corruption, and mismanagement. In fact, Venezuela’s steepest decline in oil income occurred between 2013 and 2015—years before U.S. sanctions on Venezuela—a fact even Maduro corroborated, albeit inadvertently, in an official graph he tweeted. Almost every socio-economic indicator of Venezuela’s humanitarian crises shows a marked deterioration before sanctions were enacted.
To those who agree that Maduro started this mess, but still claim that oil sector sanctions exacerbate the humanitarian situation: I also disagree. Reports like the one the Government Accountability Office released in February 2021—which many of these critics point to as proof—are ignoring one key element: the onus has always been on Maduro to make the suffering stop. Should Maduro and his regime change their behavior and start cooperating, sanctions could be removed almost immediately—as the recent lifting of sanctions on Chevron’s oil production demonstrates. Furthermore, as noted in each of the Treasury’s sanction announcements, “Sanctions do not prevent humanitarian assistance.” Before Maduro decided to end his embargo on humanitarian assistance in exchange for oil production, it was his regime—not the U.S. government—that blocked billions of dollars of humanitarian relief. This is also reflected in polls where a majority of Venezuelans continue to blame the regime, not U.S. sanctions, for the country’s disastrous state.
The truth of the matter is that Maduro prioritized other issues rather than using Venezuela’s natural resources to benefit the Venezuelan people. These have included paying off debts to Russia, China, Iran, and Turkey to maintain his alliances, purchasing weapons and intelligence technology to intimidate the opposition and other enemies, influence peddling, and enriching the regime’s enablers. For instance, tens of millions of barrels of diesel and other refined products have been given to Cuba free of charge. Other refined products have not helped provide needed gasoline to Venezuela’s cities, but rather used to run gold mining operations—the revenue of which also helps pay off debts and in the pockets of the regime and its enablers.
During my time in the U.S. Embassy in Venezuela, many Venezuelans told me that what little oil remains goes to electricity generation for military installations and regime-run hospitals. However, most Venezuelan public health facilities have been decimated from decades of neglect and brain drain. The regime’s food assistance program, the Local Committees for Supply and Production (CLAP), is also paid for with oil and gold revenue. However, the program does not meet recipient’s nutritional needs. Meanwhile, those managing the purchase, supply, and distribution of food to supply CLAP—such as Alex Saab—have enriched themselves and the regime with markups and kickbacks.
And therein lies the point. If the vast majority of Venezuelans have not benefitted from their oil and gold sectors, then a vast majority of Venezuelans cannot be affected by the sanctions targeting those sectors. Our targets were always the regime and its enablers’ pockets, not the pockets of the Venezuelan people. Finally, and perhaps most important of all, there is absolutely no guarantee that lifting sanctions is going to immediately result in alleviating the humanitarian crisis. On August 12, the regime proved me right, suspending oil for fuel swaps with Europe that were meant to provide needed diesel for humanitarian purposes.
Maduro and his regime still occupying Miraflores does not mean sanctions are not working. Measuring sanctions’ success by this standard alone is shortsighted. At the very least, sanctions give Venezuelans a fighting chance—particularly the Venezuelan opposition. Sanctions and the leverage they have created are arguably the only reason the regime recently resumed negotiations and agreed to end its own embargo on humanitarian assistance. The utility of sanctions extends to providing justice to those robbing the Venezuelan people of their resources, environment, lives, and livelihoods. A moral obligation exists to unite the international community behind holding the Maduro regime accountable. With the right tactical and strategic modifications, sanctions, properly targeted, may be the best way to help return Venezuela, its resources, and its democracy to the Venezuelan people.