I’m in Trinidad, and my father-in-law just asked me why President Obama would declare Venezuela to be a “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security.” This was in the context of the kind of argument that he loves, where he insists that Venezuela’s economic woes are the fault of American intervention and I tell him that’s the dumbest thing I’d heard since that British guy in the previous post. We go back and forth, I admit that duh-obviously the U.S. cares, he admits that he has no reason to think that U.S. actions have contributed in any material way to the woes of the Bolivarian Republic.
Then the President of the United States declares, “The situation in Venezuela ... constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States, and I hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat,” and I gotta start all over again.
At the same time, my friend James Nicoll decides to make an anti-American jab. “DOES AMERICA NEED A CUBA? That is, some eternal enemy to show the other New World nations what the alternative to be a satrapy is? Just sticking to horrible petrostates, the Saudis do worse but they’re smarter diplomatically than the guys down in Caracas.”
So here I am with an explainer.
(1) Nobody believes that Venezuela is a threat to national security.
The reason for the wording of declaration isthat the authority to sanction Venezuelan officials comes from the International Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977. From Section 1701: “The authorities granted to the President by section 1702 of this title may only be exercised to deal with an unusual and extraordinary threat with respect to which a national emergency has been declared for purposes of this chapter and may not be exercised for any other purpose.”
And so the President had to declare that the situation in Venezuela was indeed an “threat to national security” if he was going to impose personal sanctions.
The legislative history behind the 1977 act is interesting. Presidents had long imposed economic sanctions in response to foreign events, especially under the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917. The problem was that those emergency declarations were open-ended and subject to no oversight. The post-Watergate congresses were not happy about that, and so they passed the Economic Powers Act to regulate the imposition of sanctions. The law does not directly limit presidential power, but it forces him or her to make six-month reports on the actions being taken and gives Congress the ability to terminate those actions under the National Emergencies Act of 1976.
(2) The Administration cares about Venezuela because it is in this hemisphere and the U.S. cares about democracy in this hemisphere.
I would love to find that the U.S. has some nefarious purpose in Venezuela. In fact, I wrote an entire book about U.S. actions in Latin America that had a nefarious purpose. (Go read! James, I will send you a free copy on request. Would you review it?) I am having trouble seeing how these sanctions will advance American goals in Venezuela. Regarding our public goals, the sanctions thus far apply to individuals and will not worsen the economic situation. Those individuals are unlikely to change their behavior due to the threat.
For two decades, the U.S. has put democracy promotion atop its Latin American agenda. It is extremely difficult for the United States to claim that democracy is an important foreign policy goal when a major government is violating the norms of democracy. With the rest of the Latin America apparently unwilling to move (for various reasons) that left the United States few other options other than acquiescing to Maduro’s dictatorial actions. That is certainly an option, of course ... but why would you want the United States to do that?
While the sanctions themselves will not change behavior, they will have two salubrious goals. First, it will put Caracas on notice that it cannot cancel or subvert the upcoming elections without courting diplomatic isolation. Second, it will embolden the opposition, at least on the margin. Finally, as a Hail Mary it might exacerbate some cracks in the Chavista coalition.
As for private benefits from U.S. action ... well. American companies are not getting paid, but those are not the policies that the U.S. is sanctioning. Washington can and will leave that to ICSID and wait for Venezuela to default on those obligations.
(3) Nobody in Washington cares about hypocrisy and neither should you.
The U.S. is inconsistent about supporting democracy in this hemisphere. Across time, well, our record is worse than bad. The only two periods where we supported democracy in any sort of remotely consistent way were the 1920s (really! It surprised me too) and since 1990.
Across space, well, on the one hand we have (rightfully!) decided that it is time to open relations with Cuba and (not quite as rightfully) look the other way in Honduras. (I am not referring to the 2009 coup; I am referring to the current actions of the current government. Like these.) So we are not consistent, even in our hemisphere.
But so what? There are good reasons to engage with Cuba. There are good reasons not to sanction Honduras. I have no idea what purpose perfect consistency would serve.
In short: these are mild personal sanctions, imposed to declare that the U.S. is serious about democratic norms in Venezuela. They will have little direct effect, but at least on the margin they make it a little more likely that elections will be held on schedule. And I do not see a cost for U.S. interests. So why not?
I invite James to change my mind! Why should the Obama administration have done nothing instead?