The pros and cons Obama needs to consider before sanctioning Venezuela

| Dec. 16, 2014 | Caracas, Venezuela

Published by GlobalPost

There are plenty of issues for the United States to consider now that it's smacked one of Latin America’s biggest economies with sanctions.

President Barack Obama signed a law Thursday that punishes Venezuelan government officials, freezing their US assets and denying them visas.

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro fumed after US Congress passed the bill last week.

“Who is the Senate of the United States to sanction the homeland of Bolivar,” Maduro said last Tuesday in a fiery speech, referring to Latin American liberator Simon Bolivar. “We refuse to accept insolent imperialist sanctions.”

On Monday, thousands of government supporters marched in Caracas against the sanctions.

“[The United States] need to sort out their own problems and leave our country alone,” said Jose Camacaro, a 60-year-old analyst at the country’s state oil company. Many in the crowd echoed his view, citing the recent killings of black Americans by US police.

A little protesting did not stop Obama. GlobalPost lays out the pros and cons of the sanctions:

They will put added pressure on Maduro ...
Venezuela’s president is fighting many flanks at the moment: an ailing economy, falling global oil prices, and a public that polls suggest is increasingly turning away from the late Hugo Chavez’s handpicked successor. As supporters are becoming disillusioned with Maduro, a blow to his government from Obama may just tilt the balance, either toward the opposition, or even toward a rival candidate from within the Chavismo movement.

... But they might boost Maduro's support
Sure, sanctions could add some pressure, but what about the opposite effect? President Maduro is very unpopular right now — his approval rating sank to 24.5 percent in November, according to national pollster Datanalisis. This contrasts sharply with Chavez’s highs in the '70s. Chavez was masterful at using the US as a scapegoat to deflect problems at home, famously calling George W. Bush the devil as he spoke at the UN lectern in 2006. Venezuelans now face shortages of basic goods, annual inflation over 60 percent and one of the world’s highest murder rates. Observers say Maduro lacks his predecessor’s charisma to hold things together. But US sanctions could provide a perfect ingredient to gel his base back together against an outside enemy.

They could placate Miami ...
Many in the Latino exile community in Miami have long rallied against leftist governments in Latin America. They’re key voters who help prevent Washington from ending the US embargo against Cuba, a half-century-old pile of economic sanctions that Havana blames for causing misery on the island. Venezuela’s leftist leaders are close allies of Fidel and Raul Castro, and the South American nation’s oil helps keep the island afloat. President Maduro has often blamed “the Miami lobby” for fueling problems in Venezuela to destabilize his government, if not overthrow it. "Obama can't let himself be taken by the Miami lobby," Maduro said in March.

... But they could also damage Latin America relations
The sanctions will also likely shake Washington’s fragile relations with a region whose biggest oil exporter casts a long shadow. Things have been delicate between the US and Latin America at least since the region’s dirty wars and dictatorships of the second half of last century. The Obama administration hoped for a new start, but last year former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed that the US had been spying on world leaders including Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. She was furious, and, in September 2013, called off a planned state visit to the White House. As for Venezuela’s reaction to the NSA scandal? It offered Snowden asylum.

Many of Latin America’s regional groups back Venezuela. While they may not always agree politically, some of them see Washington as the bigger enemy and an attack on Venezuela as a tacit attack on them all.

Nicaragua responded promptly to the proposed US sanctions by banning Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen — key advocates of the bill — from traveling there.

Rubio, of Florida, replied snarkily:

Oh no! My summer vacation plans are ruined!

— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) December 13, 2014

The Florida Rep. Ros-Lehtinen added:

No impact on oil ...
Venezuela remains among the top five oil exporters to the US. Despite barbed rhetoric over the years, the oil usually keeps flowing steadily. Meanwhile, the US has been vastly upping its own fuel production. These sanctions will probably have no impact on the real meat of relations.

... But Venezuela could retaliate against Americans
A number of Americans in Venezuela have been accused by the Maduro government of spying for Washington. The latest was Miami Herald journalist Jim Wyss, whom Venezuelan authorities captured on the border with Colombia in November 2013 and later released. Officials also arrested young US filmmaker Timothy Tracy last year as he attempted to leave the country. He was later deported. No evidence was presented against either Wyss or Tracy.