OPINION

Opinion: Obama’s policy toward Venezuela - The sanctions and the real threats

The burning issue of the moment in Venezuela is the set of sanctions announced by the government of the United States against seven senior officials from the President Nicolás Maduro administration who have been accused of human rights violations. This has given rise to a week of inflamed nationalist rhetoric, calls for military manoeuvres and screaming denunciations of supposed plans of invasion and other violations of sovereignty.

This week Maduro wrote an Open Letter to the People of the United States in the New York Times, in which he calls for action demanding: 1) The U.S. government immediately cease hostile actions against Venezuelan people and democracy; 2) President Obama abolish the Executive Order that declares Venezuela a threat to U.S. national security, as has been requested by the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR); and, 3) the U.S. Government retract its libelous and defamatory statements and actions against the honorable Venezuelan officials who have just obeyed our laws and our constitution. In doing so, Maduro cited the traditional democratic values of Venezuela throughout its history, reminding the reader “Venezuela has provided heating oil through subsidies for low-income communities in the United States, thanks to our company CITGO.”

The sanctions adopted by the U.S. Government have no effect on Venezuela as a country nor on Venezuelans as a society. They are, rather, sanctions against individuals which have effect solely within the territory of the U.S.

- Leopoldo Martinez

On the same day of the publication, a hearing was held at the U.S. Senate in which members of both parties gave their support to Obama’s Executive Order on Venezuela and demanded the inclusion of other individuals in the list of sanctioned officials. At the hearing, officials with the Department of State and OFAC at the Treasury Department made clear that these were sanctions to individuals for their human rights abuses, and that further action could be based on documented wrongdoings in the U.S. financial system or drug trafficking.

Maduro’s letter, however, failed to respond to the specific facts cited by President Obama’s executive order pursuant to the findings of several international human rights advocates; with the disclosed offensive and extortive intent to buy support from the public in exchange for CITGO’s subsidies. The bad news for the Government of Venezuela is that the “subsidy” argument is not consistent with the value-driven spirit of the American people when it comes to standing up for freedoms, and less persuasive at a time when successful U.S. energy policies have contributed to a significant reduction in the cost of fuels to the American consumer. On the other hand, it tries to manipulate the reader in presenting these individualized sanctions for illegal conduct as measures against Venezuela.

Let us calmly examine this matter.

President Barack Obama decided to issue these individual sanctions based on two existing legal instruments in the U.S., instruments with effect exclusively within the territory of the U.S. One is the Menendez-Rubio Act, recently passed into law, which orders sanctions against Venezuelan officials involved in human rights violations during the crackdown against the opposition and in detentions that have occurred since the protests last year and that continue right up to the present day.

However, Obama decided to broaden his range of action by using the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. This allows the President of the United States, on his own authority, to identify the existence of an external threat or risk to the interests of security, foreign policy, or economy of the U.S., declare an emergency and take exceptional measures against individuals such as revocation of visas and blocking or freezing of assets in U.S. territory.

There are dozens of illegal activities that constitute extraordinary or unusual threats and risks to the national interest of the U.S., or indeed that of any country. For example, drug trafficking is a threat contrary to the interests of the U.S., as is money laundering. Both of these threats are legitimate concerns, according to a dozen investigations into senior Chavista officials conducted by the U.S.

To give one example: The U.S. Treasury and the Government of Andorra are currently conducting a joint investigation into a complex money laundering operation involving two billion dollars stolen from PDVSA.

What ought to happen in Venezuela when there are indications of this kind of criminal activity is that the Attorney General, the Comptroller, the Ombudsman and the Venezuelan judiciary take appropriate action and launch an investigation. But that’s not what happens, the authorities prefer to look the other way and the victims, the Venezuelan people in general, have to look abroad for justice and solidarity.

The concept of sovereignty is not absolute. Venezuela is part of a group of nations with obligations under international law to punish these acts when the institutions of a country are either unable or unwilling to. In this case, the ideal response would have been one from institutions such as the OAS and UNASUR. This is always preferable to unilateral actions by governments.

In the end, it is up to the Venezuelan people to resolve the grave crisis it is currently enduring. But it is also the case that international solidarity with democracy in Venezuela and the human rights of the Venezuelan people requires statements and concrete actions from friendly countries and neighbors; and this is even more so of governments, like that of Venezuela, that are obliged to respect the Democratic Charter of the OAS.

I never would agree to sanctions that punished the people of Venezuela for the mistakes of their government or the illegalities or atrocities carried out by its officials. But the sanctions adopted by the U.S. Government have no effect on Venezuela as a country nor on Venezuelans as a society. They are, rather, sanctions against individuals which have effect solely within the territory of the U.S.

Some people have argued against the “timing” of these sanctions, both from a Venezuelan and a U.S. perspective.

In Venezuela some say this energizes the Chavista base, and provides a diversion to a government otherwise confronted with overwhelming economic and social problems in the midst of the campaign for the parliamentary elections. Others say that these sanctions do not facilitate a good regional climate for the Americas Summit happening in Panama next month. This last argument, however, is very relative.

Regarding the impact on domestic Venezuelan politics, the sanctions do not amount to any sort of interference in the affairs of the country as they have no extraterritorial effect and involve no sort of intervention in judicial or other activities; their effect is exclusively within the borders of the Unites States. The sanctions adopted by Obama leave normal economic and trade relations between the two countries completely intact.

Of course the people of Venezuela do face real threats, but these don’t come from the United States. Principal among them are inflation and the shortages of basic products caused by the erroneous economic policies of the government. And the government itself is threatened by National Assembly elections, which could return an opposition majority, if they are free and fair, and with an appropriate level of international observation.

Regarding the timing of the sanctions on the region, indeed, State Department officials have made clear that President Obama is willing and ready to address the Venezuela crisis to regional leaders in the Panama summit next month.

The sanctions can have a persuasive power among Latin American leaders, as the underlying cases undermine the credibility of the Venezuelan government, which has not abandoned the path of corruption and oppression that it has followed up to now.

Each Venezuelan official sanctioned for an act of corruption or repression helps the international community learn further about what is truly happening in Venezuela, which no amount of nationalist speeches can hide.

Leopoldo Martínez Nucete is a former Venezuelan congressman currently living in Washington, DC, where he is the CEO of the Center for Democracy and Development in the Americas (@cddamericas) and the Chair of the Latino Victory Project National Committee (@LatinoVictoryUS). He tweets at @lecumberry.

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