In a somewhat desperate move that was perhaps motivated more by exasperation than sound policy advice, President Barack Obama today declared a national emergency to deal with the perceived threat that Venezuela poses to the "national security and foreign policy of the United States."
Citing serious concerns about Venezuela's erosion of democracy and human-rights guarantees, Obama ordered individual sanctions against seven high-ranking Venezuelan security and judicial officials whom the White House deems responsible for the situation. The sanctions will ban the individuals from entering the country and freeze their U.S. assets.
Other than that, it's unclear what the U.S. hopes to gain from the move. The idea that sanctions against seven Bolivarian apparatchiks will somehow persuade the Venezuelan government into behaving democratically is entirely risible…unless, of course, the U.S. really thinks the move will work, and then it's just sad.
The White House says the sanctions, which were originally approved by Congress last December, will somehow serve the lofty ideals of democracy, human rights and good governance in Venezuela. "The Venezuelan people deserve a government that lives up to its commitment to democracy," reads a statement from the White House press secretary. The Obama Administration also repeated its call for Venezuela to "release all political prisoners, including dozens of students, opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez and Mayors Daniel Ceballos and Antonio Ledezma."
But labeling Venezuela a threat to national security and then answering that threat by freezing a few bank accounts won't get the job done. If anything, it will only strengthen President Nicolas Maduro's increasingly tenuous grasp on his country, while making the U.S. look unresolved in the process. That's because the U.S. is creating a situation with its rhetoric that it's not prepared to respond to with its actions.
The White House was careful to note that the sanctions are meant to target corrupt officials, and not "the people or the economy of Venezuela." But instead of easing Maduro's suspicions of a U.S. plot to destabilize Venezuela, the sanctions offer a touch of credibility to the president's otherwise addle-brained rants.
"This fuels Maduro's narrative about the U.S. being behind an economic war against Venezuela. This confirms it," says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. "This is a gift to Maduro — and one he didn't earn. It's a freebie."
In addition to throwing Maduro a lifeline, Obama could also be inadvertently distancing Washington from Latin America — just months after earning a pat on the back for announcing efforts to normalize relations with Cuba. Other Latin American countries may privately share the U.S.' concerns over the worsening mess in Venezuela, but the White House is wrong to think there'll be any support for U.S. sanctions or any other punitive measures against a country that has been very generous (perhaps disastrously so) with its oil largess, doling out hundreds of millions in petro-dollars during the boom days of the mid-aughts.
On Saturday, the president of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) reiterated his organization's support for the Venezuelan government and heartily rejected any attempt to destabilize Venezuela's democratic order. The timing of the White House's announcement — no less than a public declaration of exasperation — is probably not a coincidence.
"It is unfortunate that during a time when we have opened up engagement with every nation in the Americas, Venezuela has opted to go in the opposite direction," the White House press secretary said in his statement.
While it's pretty clear Venezuela is heading in the wrong direction, Obama's executive order won't turn that bus around — it'll only put more distance between Washington and the rest of Latin America.