Why US needs more than its own sanctions to sway Venezuela’s Maduro

After promising “strong and swift actions against the architects of authoritarianism in Venezuela,” the Trump administration went right for the top Monday – slapping sanctions on President Nicolás Maduro.

And more sanctions are likely to follow, perhaps even on Venezuela’s crucial oil industry, as Mr. Maduro pursues a rewrite of the constitution that the United States considers the final step in the country’s slide into “dictatorship.”

For starters, the US is threatening to impose targeted financial sanctions on anyone who participates in the Constituent Assembly resulting from Sunday’s elections. Those electors are almost certain to include Maduro’s wife and son.

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But are all the punitive measures likely to alter Venezuela’s course?

History suggests they can, some experts in sanctions say, provided those sanctions are just one piece of a multifaceted and multilateral policy.

“Sanctions must not only enrage the target but engage the target,” says George Lopez, an international sanctions expert and professor emeritus at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. “Unfortunately, this administration is falling into the trap of letting the sanctions become the policy,” he adds, “instead of a tool in a larger diplomatic effort.”

But some experts in Latin America’s political history remain dubious that sanctions will ever coerce Maduro into altering his march toward a one-party political system inspired by Cuba and Hugo Chávez. The late Venezuelan president, whose own ruling style was decidedly authoritarian, initiated the country’s leftist-populist revolution.

“Sanctions don’t have a very good track record of achieving their goal, and they certainly don’t in Latin America where there are such regional divisions and always someone to offset the sanctions’ impact,” says Eduardo Gamarra, a professor of political science specializing in Latin American democratization and populism at Florida International University in Miami.


Noting the regional and indeed international divide on display following Sunday’s Constituent Assembly election, Dr. Gamarra says the international disunity will only fuel Maduro’s ambitions. The US, Canada, Spain, and a number of Latin American countries including Mexico and Argentina condemned the vote on one side, while Russia joined Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador,…

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