Friday, December 12, 2014

Obama Will Sign Venezuela Sanctions, But Will They Work?

Following Congress’s passage of a bill that would impose targeted sanctions against Venezuelan officials linked to human rights abuses, today’s Washington Post and New York Times report that the White House has signaled that President Obama will sign the measure into law. This is not surprising, as the president has shown he is willing to work with lawmakers on sanctions in recent weeks.

Since the passage of the sanctions bill, some corners of the Latin America analyst blogosphere have been buzzing with commentary. Over at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights, WOLA’s David Smilde has a particularly scholarly approach to the sanctions debate. Smilde’s analysis is a challenge presented earlier this year by freelance journalist Steven Bodzin who asserted that the U.S. has sanctioned Venezuelan government officials in the past, with little or no repercussions. As Bodzin wrote:
I think anyone arguing that Maduro will use US sanctions to bolster his position needs to explain why he hasn’t already done that. Here’s what I think: the Venezuelan people aren’t stupid. Even die-hard government supporters know there are some awfully corrupt people in their government.
This is essentially the argument put forward by some members of the Venezuelan opposition, like former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles. El Universal reports that yesterday the opposition figure took to social media to assert that the sanctions are targeting “connected officials, not Venezuela and much less its people.”

Smilde’s position, which is also held by local civil society actors like human rights NGO PROVEA, is that sanctions could be used as a pretext by the government to rally the Chavista base and distract attention from the country’s economic ills. In his post he tracks the government response to sanctions against officials in 2008, 2011, and earlier this year. While Smilde concedes that the evidence for these instances triggering nationalistic responses is mixed, and that reactions have mostly been limited to political theater, he asserts that such theater is important.

Among other impacts, Smilde argues that sanctions: 1.) “provide the population with evidence for Chavismo’s continual flow of international conspiracy theories;” 2.) “allow the government to portray the opposition as dangerous traitors at a time of external threat;” and 3.) “lead regional allies to circle the wagons around Venezuela in the face of foreign aggression.”

The sanctions have not been signed yet, but already there are signs of these effects taking place. In a fiery speech after the Senate vote, President Maduro railed against the “insolent imperialists” of the U.S. for the assaulting the “children of Bolivar.” It’s not hard to imagine how this tone could be paired with ongoing cases against opposition leaders to present the opposition as part of the imperialist menace.  And on the international front, Ultimas Noticias reports that the ALBA bloc has released a statement rejecting the sanctions. Other regional organizations that have rejected U.S. interference in Venezuela in the past, like UNASUR, may soon follow.

Still other analysts have cautioned against judging the effect of targeted sanctions on these grounds. James Bosworth of Bloggings by boz, for instance, argues that whether the sanctions provide space for Maduro to rally his base is irrelevant. The real goal of the sanctions, he notes, is reducing persecution and politically-motivated violence against Venezuelan citizens. “If the sanctions reduce political violence or help the politically persecuted, we should view the sanctions as a success, no matter how Maduro reacts and whether the Maduro government is strengthened, weakened or unaffected in the process,” Boz asserts.

News Briefs
  • The Wall Street Journal has uncovered further evidence of shady ties between the administration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Juan Armando Hinojosa, a businessman who has won hundreds of million dollars in public work contracts. According to documents viewed by the WSJ, Finance Secretary Luis Videgaray also purchased a luxury home owned by Hinojosa’s company.
  • The latest Associated Press scoop on USAID actions in Cuba, which details how a USAID contractor attempted to infiltrate the island’s hip-hop music scene, has sparked immediate reactions. The AP reports that Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has condemned the program for a “lack of concern for the safety of the Cubans involved,” and Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) called it a “downright irresponsible use of U.S. taxpayer money.” El Nuevo Herald, meanwhile, reports that one of the rappers recruited to spark an anti-Castro opposition movement refutes the AP’s claim that he received money from the U.S. agency.
  • Also on Cuba, The Miami Herald highlights remark by former U.S. President Bill Clinton on the Alan Gross case made in a recent interview. Clinton told the paper he believed the U.S. “would be well on our way to doing it [ending the blockade] if they released Alan Gross,” and praised the emergence of a more “nuanced” approach to Cuba policy.
  • EFE and Peru21 report that Peruvian anti-corruption prosecutor Joel Segura has recommended that former Peruvian leader Alberto Fujimori be fined some $84.1 million for the 1998-99 “diarios chicha” scandal, in which he paid tabloids to support his re-election campaign and attack his political rivals.
  • Some potentially bad news for drug policy reformers in Argentina: Buenos Aires Province Governor Daniel Scioli, who is positioned to be government-backed presidential candidate in October 2015 elections, has said he does not support legalizing cannabis in the country, as El Pais reports.
  • In other drug policy news in the hemisphere, Semana reports that Colombian opposition leader and former President Alvaro Uribe has said he will support a bill in the country to legalize cannabis for medicinal purposes, albeit with reservations. The Colombian senate is slated to vote on the measure on Monday.
  • La Silla Vacia looks at one of the biggest obstacles Colombia may face in a post-conflict era: the issue of mine clearance. The news site points out that records of mine placement are incomplete, that the country has not significantly increased its demining efforts, and that there is a chronic lack of mine clearance programs in areas that desperately need them.
  • The Guardian reports on a major march in Lima on Wednesday, in which trade unions, environmentalists and indigenous groups protested to pressure negotiators at the UN climate talks in the city to adopt a just solution to climate change. From inside the talks, the AP notes that the slow-moving talks are entering their final stretch with lingering disputes over how developed and developing countries should split emission cuts.
  • La Prensa Grafica reports that after falling ill in Mexico, on Wednesday the Salvadoran government announced that President Salvador Sanchez Ceren had traveled to Cuba this week for a “periodic medical checkup” that had been moved up. Of course, the fact that he sought treatment in Cuba has led some to draw parallels to Hugo Chavez’s attempts to hide the extent of his cancer from the public.