Editor’s Note: Ryan C. Berg is a research fellow in Latin America Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. José Ignacio Hernández is a visiting fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, a Venezuelan law professor, and a former Special Attorney General for the interim government of Juan Guaidó in Venezuela. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. Read more opinion articles on CNN.
After last Sunday’s undemocratic and stolen election, which gives control of Venezuela’s National Assembly to Nicolás Maduro, Joe Biden’s administration will face a consolidated dictatorship in the South American country.
This comes at a time when the President-elect has spoken of his willingness to “press for a democratic outcome through free and fair elections.” In addition, the pandemic has led to growing demands to reduce sanctions and rethink Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign. Giving in too easily to these demands risks squandering Biden’s inherited leverage.
Nearly two years after the first broad economic sanctions against PDVSA, the Venezuelan state-owned oil and natural gas company, the stalled political transition in Venezuela has been used as evidence that the sanctions are “holding back Venezuela’s opposition.” And although sanctions have not caused the current humanitarian emergency (Maduro’s economic mismanagement and kleptocracy has), economic sanctions – particularly on the oil industry – have created constraints on the import of critical goods and valid concerns about the hardship placed on Venezuela’s poor. From a humanitarian perspective, lifting sanctions appears to be reasonable.
This line of thought misses a critical fact: economic sanctions are not only tools used to promote a political transition, but also measures aimed at reducing Maduro’s resources to fund the repressive machinery which contributes to his unfathomable human rights abuses. Lifting sanctions would neither promote a democratic transition, nor improve the quality of life for average Venezuelans. It could even make things worse for them.
Venezuela’s real binding constraint is that with or without sanctions, it will still remain a deeply failed state, in which weak institutions have been co-opted by unlawful organizations to finance kleptocracy and systematically crush human rights. Irrespective of sanctions, the country is ruled by an authoritarian regime committed to remain in power at all costs.
Unshackled from economic sanctions, Maduro would have greater financial capacity to advance his predatory policies, while lacking even fewer incentives for a negotiated solution.
Additionally, even without sanctions, the Venezuelan oil industry would remain in a state of utter disrepair, while Maduro would take advantage of his recent “anti-blockade law,” which bypasses the National Assembly and grants him unlimited discretionary power to sign oil transfer agreements with any individual, company, or state.
Nor is it fair to evaluate the effectiveness of US sanctions solely on the basis of political outcomes, as the program aims at more than just political transition in Venezuela. The January 2019 sanctions are meant to be one of the most important tools to curtail Maduro’s capacity to siphon money from state assets.
Critically, sanctions can choke off funding to the repressive institutions implicated in human rights abuses. As members of the United Nations-appointed Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela concluded: Maduro’s regime has “committed large-scale human rights violations, some of which amount to crimes against humanity.” Lift the sanctions and Maduro’s regime will be able to further his reign of terror as the Venezuelan state collapses.
A complex crisis requires complex solutions. The Venezuelan transition to democracy is not only a political one, but also a complicated process that must address an ongoing humanitarian emergency, a massive crisis of refugees and migrants, and the collapse and outright criminalization of the Venezuelan state.
Accordingly, protecting human rights and promoting a political transition requires a wide range of international tools, including sanctions. Individual sanctions, such as the kind imposed by the US, along with greater assurances and a more engaged diplomatic strategy, could create the right mix of incentives for Maduro’s inner circle to envisage a post-Maduro future.
The challenge for the incoming Biden administration will be recalibrating the sanctions program to improve its effectiveness as a tool in a broader diplomatic strategy against Venezuela’s dictatorship, while reducing its negative impact on the Venezuelan people.
Ideally, Biden and his team should expand humanitarian exceptions in the sanctions program, improving their efficiency, while curtailing, or at least without increasing Maduro’s capacity to steal Venezuelan incomes and assets and stash them overseas.
This humanitarian reform will require an agreement with political actors and NGOs on the ground, with the support of the international community. It is a goal that may open the door for a broader political solution in Venezuela – a task that requires boosting the domestic pressure on Maduro.
Yet, none of these outcomes will be achieved if Biden simply lifts economic sanctions. Together with the interim Venezuelan government, which the President-elect should continue to recognize as legitimate, the incoming administration should develop a different sanctions strategy: promoting effective humanitarian exceptions and using US diplomatic tools to hinder Maduro’s rapaciousness.
This would increase the likelihood of a democratic endgame through a bold diplomatic strategy – a better set of options to address the complicated transition to democracy in Venezuela. The unparalleled nature of Venezuela’s crisis requires US persistence and thinking outside the box.