Latin America

The Right Way to Do Regime Change in Venezuela

Hitting Maduro with crippling sanctions could backfire. Looking back at South Africa offers a better game plan.

Looking for a fight.

Photographer: Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images

Unsurprisingly, President Donald Trump hasn’t held back when speaking about the political crisis in Venezuela. Before the United Nations General Assembly, he demanded the full restoration of “democracy and political freedoms” in the Latin American country. A month earlier, he stunned many by stating that he would not rule out a military intervention. His UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, has echoed the fierce rhetoric, declaring that the U.S. will not tolerate a “dictatorship” in Venezuela.

Observers are forgiven if they are perplexed. How is the administration’s position toward Venezuela consistent with its oft-stated insistence that every country has the right to be sovereign? Or with Trump’s promises that the days of Washington meddling in the domestic affairs of other countries are over?

I have no sympathy for Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro, a left-wing thug who has maintained power by creating an unconstitutional new national assembly. But I can understand if he is wondering why leaders in, say, Saudi Arabia have been given a complete pass on domestic human-rights issues, while he receives threats of military intervention.

But let’s put that aside. Few administrations are truly consistent in their foreign policies, and any such consistency would probably be overrated in any case. Moreover, there is a much better reason to be perplexed about the White House’s approach to Venezuela.

It’s this: Given the strong rhetoric, it seems odd that the U.S. has not yet used many of the non-military arrows in its policy quiver. Although a series of escalating sanctions have been put in place -- including travel restrictions on some Venezuelans as laid out in the White House’s newest travel ban on Sunday -- there’s an array of additional economic measures that could undoubtedly increase the pressure on Caracas and its oil-dependent economy.

For example, the U.S. could restrict the sale of its own oil and refined products to Venezuela. It could ban the sale of certain U.S. equipment needed by Venezuela to produce oil. It might also outlaw imports of Venezuelan crude oil or, perhaps, prohibit the use of U.S. dollars for Venezuelan oil transactions, as it did with sanctions on Iran.

The impact of these different measures on the Venezuelan economy would vary significantly. But the fragility of the political situation in that country, and the extreme lack of diversification of the economy, make it very vulnerable to sanctions -- even unilateral ones by the U.S. 

So why has none of this happened? The most obvious explanation is that these measures could also impose costs on U.S. consumers and companies. Or that they could create unwanted complications -- such as the U.S. government having to step in to prevent the Russian oil company Rosneft from suddenly assuming partial ownership Citgo, the U.S.-based oil company (and with it, some American energy infrastructure), were Venezuela to default on its debt.

Sometimes things are as simple as they look -- and the reluctance to impose tougher measures on Venezuela could be just a reflection of unwillingness to bear any costs at home. But other possibilities are at least worth considering -- and may come into play if policy makers take a more historical look at the tools at hand. 

First, if the goal is simply to speed the collapse of the Venezuelan regime, then a more aggressive set of sanctions geared to bring about default would make sense. The Maduro government is already teetering on the verge of default, with the state and the state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela SA together owing $5 billion in principal and interest by the end of this year. Measures that would further reduce the foreign currency the regime received from its oil sales by increasing transportation costs or forcing the regime to accept deep discounts in price could bite hard. 

A ban on the use of dollars in oil transactions could be calamitous. A default could be a precursor to regime collapse, especially if debt restructuring involved further austerity measures and put even more restrictions on imports of essential goods.

But no responsible foreign-policy practitioner can believe that the U.S.’s end goal is the immediate collapse of the Maduro government. If regime change was not accompanied by other measures -- to stem immediate humanitarian distress and to pave the way for a sustainable political transition -- an implosion of the regime would serve neither U.S. interests nor those of the Venezuelan people.

Until a more comprehensive strategy is in place to help usher in a more positive situation after the end of the Maduro regime, hastening the economic collapse of the country would be irresponsible. This is not an argument for keeping Maduro in power, but for developing an U.S. approach with more than just punitive economic tools. 

In doing so, the administration might look half a world away and decades ago, to the case of South Africa under apartheid. While the situations are different in many respects, the relevant lesson from South Africa is that a successful approach to regime change -- which was essentially the goal in that country -- does not necessarily require the most stringent economic sanctions that the U.S., or the international community, can muster.

This takeaway seems counterintuitive, as the most ambitious goal would seem to warrant the most aggressive measures. But what’s really needed when pursuing regime change is a more targeted approach to apply pressure on the regime -- alongside the complementary use of incentives and other measures to both peel power centers and various constituencies away from the ruling party and to cultivate opposition figures and prepare them for the assumption of power, or at least a process in which they could compete for it. 

Looking back at South Africa, it is easy to forget that the only UN sanction imposed on the apartheid regime was an arms embargo. Most of the sanctions against Pretoria were not comprehensive; they were as diverse as the countries applying them. Even the U.S. was selective in the sanctions it imposed. It maintained diplomatic contact with the government of South Africa and allowed some economic links to continue. U.S. aid was not terminated, but instead, significant funds were channeled to civil society groups; it was one of the first U.S. assistance programs that openly embraced political objectives and did not go through the government.

Venezuelans caught in the crisis, and the rest of the world watching it unfold, are impatient for a sensible U.S. policy toward its hemispheric neighbor. The Trump administration does not yet have one in place. But one should not necessarily equate imposing all available sanctions on Venezuela with getting serious about the situation there. It may be that, like South Africa, a sensible strategy geared toward getting the Maduro government out -- and a new government in -- requires more finesse and less bludgeoning than commonly assumed.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Meghan L. O'Sullivan at Meghan_OSullivan@hks.harvard.edu

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

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