In 2014, student protests highlighted discontent in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Mass insurrection involving thousands of Venezuelans resulted in the deaths of dozens. Uprisings also led to the imprisonment of popular opposition leaders such as Leopoldo Lopez. Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro directed a violent crackdown that led President Obama to place retaliatory sanctions on Venezuelan officials. Recently, President Obama renewed an executive order that extends sanctions against the South American country for another year.
Tensions are now higher than ever between the United States and Venezuela. Washington, D.C., hosts no ambassador. Caracas hosts no ambassador. The relationship between the two countries is near the breaking point, but there is a way off the precipice. U.S. sanctions must be rescinded, and efforts must be made to improve U.S.-Venezuelan relations. Foreign policy in the Americas should be dictated by dialogue and engagement, not unilateral action.
Continued sanctions undermine U.S. public diplomacy in Latin America. Regional leaders condemned President Obama’s sanctions almost immediately after they were issued in March 2015. Indeed, all 33 members of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) unanimously rejected the sanctions last year. With the extension of U.S. sanctions, further statements of disapproval will follow. The current policy of the United States creates unnecessary controversy, alienating partners in Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil.
The United States has little to gain from extending sanctions, and continues to run the risk of losing regional support if it sustains them. Millions across South America resent such strong-arm policies, which raise memories of U.S. intervention and covert action in the latter half of the 20th century. In Argentina, for example, a right-wing military dictatorship supported by the U.S. was responsible for the deaths of thousands from 1976 to 1983. The United States must move away from such strong-arm policies in Latin America. It now has an opportunity to re-engage the region by allowing sanctions against Venezuela to expire and reinitiating dialogue with the country’s government. This would be a powerful signal to Central and South America that the United States takes its hemispheric relations seriously.
Further, U.S. sanctions are unnecessary given Venezuela’s imminent economic collapse. Plunging oil prices almost ensure that the country will default on its $120 billion in foreign debt. With oil under $30, oil export revenue is expected to drop 40% this year – to $22.1 billion – hardly enough to cover the country’s debt service. Net assets and foreign currency reserves have fallen to their lowest levels in Venezuelan history.
Venezuela’s debt crisis is shaping up to be the biggest in Latin America since Argentina’s default in 2001. Millions of Venezuelans are already waiting hours in line to buy the most basic goods – milk, toilet paper and bread. Default will bring Venezuela’s economy to a grinding halt and magnify the country’s economic woes, likely resulting in the return of massive protests.
If the aim of U.S. sanctions is to punish Venezuelan officials, specifically President Maduro, it appears that goal has already been accomplished. President Maduro’s administration increasingly faces political and societal opposition. The country’s December 2015 elections put the country’s U.S.-friendly opposition into the majority of the national legislature. Currently, political opposition leaders are framing Hugo Chavez’s Socialist Party as the cause of Venezuela’s crisis. Some have suggested the possibility of a constitutional rewrite to oust Maduro. Political change in Venezuela is already on the horizon. U.S. sanctions are not only unnecessary, but also counterproductive.
The United States should begin to restore relations with Venezuela immediately. The country’s location on the South American coast would make it a key ally in regional anti-drug and counterterrorism efforts. The two countries have common interests in reducing security threats, especially those arising from narco-trafficking organizations. Caracas and Washington, D.C., should capitalize on discontent with the status quo in Venezuela as a basis for dialogue and cooperation.
Earlier this month, President Obama traveled to Argentina to meet with recently elected President Mauricio Macri. The trip was an effort to reset relations with the national government, which cooled under former President Cristina Kirchner from 2007 to 2015. The Obama administration has made significant efforts to end animosities between the United States and other countries in the Americas. Its focus should turn now to repairing relations with Venezuela, and returning to dialogue.
Continued partnership in the region rests on the United States’ ability to balance strategic interests with those of its regional allies. The United States should rescind its unilateral sanctions against prominent Venezuelan officials. To do so is important on its own, considering the United States’ history with the region. Repairing relations with Venezuela would show Central and South America that U.S. foreign policy now views Latin American countries as equal partners. This is a change that millions across the hemisphere would welcome and celebrate.