Andres Oppenheimer

Andres Oppenheimer: Obama’s sanctions may play into Maduro’s hand

The big question about the U.S. sanctions on seven top Venezuelan officials accused of human rights violations is not whether they deserve them — of course they do — but whether the measure won’t give Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro a golden excuse to usurp even more powers and further clamp down on the opposition.

As was to be expected, Maduro reacted with characteristic zeal to President Barack Obama’s executive order freezing the assets and denying visas to the Venezuelan officials.

Wrapping himself in the national flag, and obscuring the fact that the U.S. sanctions are only targeted against selected government officials, Maduro claimed that Obama’s measures amount to “the greatest U.S. act of aggression ever committed against Venezuela.” Hours later, Maduro asked the Venezuela’s government-controlled Congress to grant him new extraordinary powers, which it did on Wednesday.

Maduro, who faces an economic collapse at home, found precious material within Obama’s executive order to back up his long-standing narrative that the U.S. “empire” wants to invade Venezuela.

Obama’s decree says Venezuela poses an “extraordinary threat to the national security” of the United States. U.S. officials later explained that this was a boiler-plate language required by White House lawyers to authorize financial sanctions on foreign officials.

But in Venezuela, where the bulk of the population is only getting news from government media, such subtleties were barely noticed.

Maduro, whose regime faces a serious challenge from the opposition in this year’s legislative elections, has found a new excuse to ban even more opposition candidates from running for congress, claiming that they are part of a U.S. scheme to destabilize Venezuela, critics of Obama’s measure say.

Furthermore, Obama has allowed Maduro to shift the focus of the conversation from a conflict between his authoritarian regime and the Venezuelan people, to a conflict between the United States and Venezuela, the critics say.

Why did Obama fall into Maduro’s trap, after six years in which the U.S. president consistently turned the other cheek?

In a telephone interview, Roberta Jacobson — the top State Department official in charge of Latin American affairs — told me that there is “no change in U.S. policy.” The latest sanctions are just an implementation of the U.S. law signed by Obama on Dec. 18, calling for visa denials and the freezing of financial assets in U.S. banks of selected Venezuelan human rights abusers, she said.

“We didn’t want to go this route,” Jacobson told me, adding that the administration wanted to support mediation efforts by the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) between Maduro and the opposition.

“We did not want to be protagonists in this,” she said. “The problem was that nothing was moving forward on the Venezuelan government side.”

After waiting several months, and frustrated by UNASUR’s failure to get Maduro to allow a more level playing field in Venezuela’s upcoming legislative elections, the Obama administration decided to impose financial sanctions.

“These are not broad, sweeping sanctions against Venezuela,” Jacobson said. “We have no interest in invading. This is not about overthrowing the Maduro government. We are seeking to shine a light on human rights violations or behaviors that we seek to change.”

My opinion: Contrary to the Obama administration’s claims, this looks like a clear change in U.S. policy, or at least strategy, toward Venezuela.

After six years of ignoring Venezuela’s claims of alleged U.S. aggression, and frustrated by the absence of Latin American pressure on Venezuela to respect democratic freedoms, Obama has decided to apply financial sanctions on selected Venezuelan officials.

It’s too early to know whether Obama did this to give Republicans in the U.S. Congress a carrot, so as to persuade them to support the lifting of U.S. sanctions on Cuba, or a possible move to take Cuba off the U.S. list of terrorist nations, in order to complete the normalization of U.S.-Cuba ties. Or it may have been that Obama got tired of seeing so many Islamic fundamentalist terrorists traveling around the world with Venezuelan passports.

There is nothing wrong with U.S. individual sanctions against Venezuelan human rights abusers. On the contrary. But anticipating Maduro’s predictable response, Obama should have rolled out these financial sanctions alongside U.S. revelations about the billions of dollars stashed by Venezuelan officials in U.S. and foreign banks.

That would have helped expose the Maduro government’s corruption, and eclipsed the headlines about an alleged U.S. declaration of war on Venezuela.

As it is now, Obama’s executive order about Venezuela’s “extraordinary threat” to U.S. national security will only feed false hopes among Venezuela’s opposition that Washington will do something big to topple the Venezuelan regime, and will give an excuse to Maduro to further clamp down on basic freedoms.

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