Yesterday, Barack Obama sent a letter to Congress announcing that he was applying the International Emergency Economic Powers Act to Venezuela, declaring the “situation” there to be an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.” Washington named seven Venezuelan politicians as targeted by the act, their property in the US liable to seizure.
It’s a serious step taken with extraordinarily strong language (as the head of the Organization of American States pointed out; “very harsh,” he said). Reuters writes: “Declaring any country a threat to national security is the first step in starting a U.S. sanctions program. The same process has been followed with countries such as Iran and Syria, U.S. officials said.”
Set aside the irony (within hours of an administration spokesperson’s accusing Venezuela of criticizing other nations in order to distract from its problems, New Jersey’s soon-to-be-indicted senator Robert Menendez applauded the sanctions), the hypocrisy (forget Saudi Arabia, think of Mexico or Colombia), or the hyperbole (an “extraordinary threat”?). It’s hard to figure out what the White House hopes to accomplish with this move. It will achieve exactly the opposite of its stated intention to isolate Caracas.
Within Venezuela, it will confirm to many the validity of President Nicolás Maduro’s accusations that the United States has been leading a soft coup against his government. One doesn’t have to be a committed Chavista to appreciate the irony, condemn the hypocrisy or recoil from the hyperbole. Obama just threw Maduro a lifeline.
Outside Venezuela, Latin American nations will bristle at the attempt to apply a sanctions regime associated with the mess Washington has made in the Middle East to the region. The more suspicious among them will see the opening to Cuba as bait-and-switch, an attempt to use the good will generated by that move to isolate and destabilize other adversaries, pressing its advantage as falling commodity prices put strains on Latin American economies (the Trans Pacific Partnership is part of this divisive strategy).
Over the last few months, there was some indication that support for Venezuela by other South American nations, like Brazil, was waning. In an essay that was posted yesterday but probably written before the threat designation, Time argued that Obama’s “decision to reopen relations with Cuba is having an interesting side effect: it’s helping isolate Latin America’s other hard-line leftist regime in Venezuela.” Daniel Wilkinson, the managing director of Americas Watch, which has been sharply critical of Venezuela since at least 2008, said: “Until very recently, most countries in the region were reluctant to say anything about Venezuela …. If this is just U.S. sanctions, and the U.S. is doing it on its own, then it’s much easier for Venezuela to play the victim card. That’s why it’s really important for the U.S. government to be working with other democratic governments in the region to make this more of a collective.”