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Tightening U.S. sanctions screws won't loosen Venezuela regime screws

Caracas Cowards: Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro holds a document given to him by the leader of his United Venezuelan Socialist Party (PSUV), Diosdado Cabello, that names Maduro as its candidate for reelection, at the National Election Commission (CNE) in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, March 25, 2024.
Ariana Cubillos
Caracas Cowards: Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro holds a document given to him by the leader of his United Venezuelan Socialist Party (PSUV), Diosdado Cabello, that names Maduro as its candidate for reelection, at the National Election Commission (CNE) in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, March 25, 2024.

COMMENTARY The Biden Administration has decided to re-impose U.S. oil sanctions on Venezuela. But either way, it looks like the dictatorship will have its way — until a more long-term plan arises.

The U.S. has decided to get tough again on Venezuela. But don’t expect that to actually soften the dark dictatorial tragedy in Venezuela.

Today, April 18, was the deadline for the Biden administration to a) re-tighten the screws on Venezuela’s authoritarian regime, or b) keep the screws loosened, or c) re-tighten the screws a couple turns while, well, keeping them fairly loose. Or fairly tight.

Or something like that.

Until now the White House had seemed fairly perplexed about how to respond to the bald-faced betrayal of Venezuelan Dictator-President Nicolás Maduro, a weasel who’s giving weasels a bad name by welching on the deal he made last fall in Barbados to hold a free and fair presidential election this year.

Thuggishly welching, in fact, as witnessed by his recent, bogus arrests of opposition figures, including top aides to María Corina Machado — the challenger who polls make clear would wipe the floor with Maduro’s mustache if he let her run against him in the July 28 vote.

Maduro and his socialist circus — call 'em the Caracas Cowards — of course won’t allow Machado on the ballot. So President Biden had little choice but to re-impose heavy U.S. sanctions on Venezuela’s vital oil industry. He'd partially lifted them back in October, when he unwisely wagered Maduro’s word might actually be worth more than his country’s worthless currency.

READ MORE: Are Biden — and I — guilty of Cuba-Venezuela double standards?

U.S. officials have now indicated the Biden administration, because of Maduro’s democracy-suffocating sabotage, will indeed restore sanctions — or rather, it's rescinding the license it had granted in October that allowed U.S.-linked companies to work with Venezuela's state-run oil monopoly, PDVSA, and permitted Venezuelan crude sales on the world market in U.S. dollars. The U.S. might now issue "special" licenses for companies and buyers to engage Venezuela's oil industry, but only under non-monetary barter arrangements.

That's a victory for the re-tighten-the-screws camp, which insisted U.S. credibility was at stake. The White House, after all, had explicitly warned that unless Maduro let Machado run and otherwise re-adhered to the Barbados agreement, sanctions would kick in again.

It’s hard to argue with them: when the U.S. draws a line in the sand and then lets its adversary kick that sand in its face — see Syria, 2012 — it doesn’t exactly make other creeps like Vladimir Putin think twice about, say, annexing Eastern Europe.

Both pro- and anti-sanctions camps make strong points — but whether the U.S. tightens or loosens the Venezuela screws, Venezuelans remain screwed.

Still, the loosen-the-screws advocates made strong points, too. They reasoned the U.S. and the rest of the world need Venezuela’s prodigious oil reserves to shore up global supply, and that Venezuela needs to sell it to shore up its destroyed economy — and alleviate a humanitarian crisis that continues to send desperate Venezuelan migrants spilling over the U.S. southern border. In the end, that cohort claimed, sanctions are better at emptying a population’s stomachs than at ousting a populist dictatorship.

That last consideration, in fact, had many speculating Biden would not go whole re-sanctions hog on Venezuela, since the immigration crisis threatens his re-election arguably more than any other issue.

Criminal and incompetent

But here’s the reality check: though I support returning the sanctions, neither option was likely to have much of an impact at this point anyway.

A woman on a podium surrounded by people speaks into multiple news microphones
Ariana Cubillos
Leading opposition presidential hopeful Maria Corina Machado outside her campaign headquarters in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, Jan. 29, 2024, days after the country's authoritarian regime upheld a ban on her candidacy.

Ask yourself: if Maduro had really been that fretful about the penalties being re-applied, would he have so brazenly and brutally double-crossed Venezuela’s opposition — and the U.S. — in the first place? Doubtful. Meaning: sanctions or no sanctions, the Caracas Cowards still had no intention of risking their power, or letting July 28 be anything but a fraudulent joke.

By the same token, say the sanctions were not or were only partially re-levied. Let's recall that the Maduro regime, equal parts criminal and incompetent, has proven it’s perfectly capable itself, even when it’s selling crude, of emptying Venezuelans’ stomachs — by either robbing PDVSA blind, or by macro-economically blowing up the rest of the country with ludicrous left-wing policies.

Truth is: whether the U.S. tightens or loosens the screws on Venezuela, the average Venezuelan stays screwed.

So, long-term persistence — continuing to help build up Venezuela's political opposition, having it come and come again at the regime over the course of election cycles instead of betting everything on this one presidential contest — is likely to be more effective than short-term punishment.

Such is the perplexity of dealing with weasels.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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