The Case for Sanctioning Venezuela

Power for Venezuela's people.

Venezuela’s leaders seem determined to exemplify Adam Smith’s dictum that there is “a great deal of ruin in a nation.” Blessed with unrivaled reserves of oil, they have inflicted on their country one of the world’s highest inflation rates, absurd shortages of basic goods, a homicide rate that would make gangland Chicago blush, dwindling industry and an accelerating brain drain.

Economic suicide is any nation’s prerogative. If President Nicolas Maduro wants to drive his country into a ditch, well, a majority of Venezuela’s citizens voted his government in and only a majority can vote it out.

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Yet Venezuela’s neighbors have an interest in responding to its deepening political repression, not least because of the democratic values they profess to share. Since last February’s anti-government protests, more than 3,100 Venezuelans have been detained, at least 43 people have died during clashes, and the United Nations and human-rights groups have documented numerous cases of abuse by security forces.

Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador have worked with the Vatican to get the Venezuelan government and its opponents talking. Unfortunately, that process has foundered. Instead of freeing political prisoners or disarming vigilantes, Maduro has concocted ever-more-outlandish reasons to detain his “enemies.” Venezuela’s judiciary, as Human Rights Watchnotes, “has largely ceased to function as an independent branch of government.” Its media outlets labor under restrictions not just on news, but also on newsprint and other supplies.

Most disturbing of all has been the country’s militarization. As Michael Smith and Anatoly Kurmanaev report in Bloomberg Markets magazine, “active or retired officers hold a quarter of Maduro’s 31 cabinet posts, including the Finance, Electricity, Food and Interior ministries.” Some of them are making fortunes through their friendship with the government. Yet the ill-gotten gains of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela’s new “Boligarchy” are also a vulnerability. Well-meaning outsiders need not be passive witnesses to repression.

Many of Venezuela’s new elite, for instance, have significant U.S. assets and rely on the U.S. financial system. The U.S. Congress is considering sanctions bills that would target Venezuelans responsible for human-rights abuses. In an attempt to forestall legislated penalties, President Barack Obama's administration has imposed travel and visa restrictions on some two dozen Venezuelan officials responsible for human rights abuses. The U.S. needs to go further by targeting assets -- and disseminating objective data about Venezuela’s parlous economy and those who benefit from it. Against Syria, the U.S. has built the case for sanctioning individuals who have participated in kleptocracy and corruption. Why not take the same approach toward Venezuela?

The Obama administration has resisted going down the sanctions road for fear of giving Bolivarians a rallying cry and stirring memories of Yanqui oppression. News flash: It will take many generations for those memories to pass. Venezuela’s embattled democrats don’t have that much time to wait.

--Editors: James Gibney, Mary Duenwald.

To contact the editor on this story:
David Shipley at