Venezuela and the 'Politics of Pain'
Instead of making policy decisions in the best interests of the United States and the people of Venezuela, our government caters to the obsessions of unrepresentative hardliners and exiles.
William Neuman makes a compelling case for lifting broad sanctions on Venezuela:
The oil embargo and other general sanctions targeting the economy are deeply unpopular in Venezuela. Many opposition politicians have come out against them, although Guaidó and some others still call for continued or even stronger sanctions. But advocating more suffering is not a winning message to send to voters in Venezuela. “To make politics with people’s pain,” Torrealba told me, “is a mistake.”
So what should Biden do? First, he must acknowledge that US policy toward Venezuela is broken and the sanctions-heavy approach, carried out on the fly and distorted by political aims, has failed. Any change carries political risks so tweaking the margins doesn’t make much sense.
Neuman has written the book on Venezuela’s crisis, Things Are Never So Bad That They Can’t Get Worse, and in it he documents how the Venezuelan government created terrible economic conditions that U.S. sanctions have severely worsened. It should be required reading in the Biden administration and Congress. He describes the policymaking process in the U.S. this way:
It was like watching the Venezuelanization of U.S. policy making. So much was improvised, done without thinking things through, without preparation, ignoring the facts, hoping that it would all work when your own experts said that there was little chance of success.1
This description could be applied to many of the big U.S. foreign policy blunders of the last twenty years, but it is certainly an accurate assessment of the slapdash way that Trump and his officials made Venezuela policy. Regime change policies seem to suffer from these flaws more than most, because they involve seeking a goal that is either unrealistic or unwise (or both) in a country that the regime changers don’t really understand. They either don’t know enough to realize regime change is folly or they are so bent on it that they ignore everyone that warns them against it. Instead of relying on regional or country experts, regime changers routinely listen only to the people that are telling them what they want to hear, and what they want to hear is that regime change will be quick, easy, and advantageous. The Trump administration imagined that they would be able to score a cheap foreign policy “victory,” and then when that didn’t happen they lost interest and left their destructive policy on autopilot. The sanctions that were supposed to deliver the coup de grace have instead become a permanent feature of the landscape. Once they are imposed, sanctions are rarely lifted.
Venezuela’s crisis is one of the clearest examples of how U.S. economic warfare makes an awful situation even worse. The frustrating thing is that this was all obvious and it was all predicted beforehand, but the people that could foresee the disaster that would follow were not the ones deciding on the policy. The policy was set by hardliners in the Trump administration egged on by regime changers in Congress, and Trump endorsed it primarily to win votes in Florida. As Neuman notes, the policy was a total failure, but the political pandering was successful. Now Biden is reluctant to reverse the policy that he called a failure because he does not want to antagonize the voters that are already voting for the other party. Instead of making policy decisions in the best interests of the United States and the people of Venezuela, our government caters to the obsessions of unrepresentative hardliners and exiles. As Neuman writes, the 2020 election results in Florida “stunned” Democrats, and now the Biden administration sees Venezuela policy as a “third rail.”2
There is a passage in Neuman’s book that helps further explain why the U.S. persists in error long after it has become obvious that the policy can’t work:
When [State Department official Keith] Mines told me that he and others in the government were aware that Guaidó’s approach was based on a chimera, I asked him why the U.S. government had poured its resources into supporting him. “We just all got behind trying to find some way to make it work,” Mines said. “None of us fell on our swords and said, ‘Oh, this is just going to be a disaster’.” The way he described it, the administration’s policy took on an institutional momentum. When it failed to produce results, there was always a fallback. “Whenever something was tried and failed, it was more sanctions,” Mines said. “The answer was always more sanctions.”3
Sanctions rarely succeed in changing the behavior of a targeted state, but in most cases I think sanctions advocates know very well that sanctions usually don’t and can’t do that. The main purposes of sanctions are to inflict punishment for its own sake and to serve as a placeholder that allows the government to claim that it is doing something about a given problem. Sanctions very quickly become ends in themselves, and that is why it is so difficult to get rid of them. Because they are so hard to remove, they should be imposed only with the greatest care, but in practice we know that they are imposed by default with little consideration of the harm that they will do the people of the targeted country.
Impoverishing ordinary Venezuelans will never lead to any improvements in that country. Sanctions relief at least offers the prospect of some improvement on the economic front. As Neuman says in his op-ed, “Easing sanctions may be the best way to quickly improve the lives of ordinary Venezuelans.” Americans need to understand that U.S. sanctions mostly hurt ordinary people and sanctions relief benefits them most of all, and then we need to vote out the politicians that support policies that punish the people for the actions of their government. It is essential that we recognize the futility and cruelty of the collective punishment that our government inflicts on several nations around the world, and we have to make support for that collective punishment so politically toxic that presidents and members of Congress flee from it.
Neuman, Things Are Never So Bad That They Can’t Get Worse: p. 296.
Neuman, p. 236.