U.S. Department of State from United States [Public domain]
Photo description: Elliott Abrams. U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela provides remarks and takes questions from the media at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on March 8, 2019. [State Department photo by Ron Przysucha]
By Amadeus Narbutt
The Trump Administration has accelerated its economic isolation of Venezuela by expanding its sanctions against the Venezuelan government to a virtual embargo against the country. The move puts Venezuela into the company of other pariah states like North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Cuba who face similar restrictions on their finances. Notably, this is the first such move against a government in the western hemisphere in over 30 years.
While previous sanctions targeted Venezuela’s oil industry and specific individuals of Maduro’s regime, the newest sanctions go much further. The latest move impacts “all property and interests in property of the Government of Venezuela that are in the United States, that hereafter come within the United States, or that are or hereafter come within the possession or control of any United States person”, creating a situation where the assets “are blocked and may not be transferred, paid, exported, withdrawn, or otherwise dealt in”.
These new sanctions are already causing reverberations across the border and around the world. Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, in a press conference with UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, stated that Canada was “examining” the US move but refused to commit to following their lead. Freeland also added that Canada believes Cuba could play a mediating role in the crisis. The US envoy to Venezuela, Elliot Abrams remained pessimistic about such diplomatic efforts. Peaceful diplomacy, however, has never been a hobby of Abrams’. A neoconservative who previously served under Reagan and George W. Bush, Abrams’ foreign policy history includes praising Guatemalan dictator and mass murderer Ríos Montt, misleading the US Congress about the Iran-Contra affair, and approving an ultimately unsuccessful coup against former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Abrams also expressed interest in pressuring the European Union to expand its sanctions against Venezuela.
Contrastingly, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has criticized the US embargo as being “extremely broad” and failing to contain measures to prevent the continued suffering of the most vulnerable populations in Venezuela. Bachelet added that the move will exacerbate the economic crisis and further reduce access to essential goods due to financial institutions and businesses erring on the side of caution to ensure they do not face retaliation from the United States. The impact of the previous sanctions imposed by the US have already been described as a form of ‘collective punishment’ by the United States, which is in violation of both Geneva and Hague international conventions. With the expansion of sanctions to the level of an embargo, this situation will only deteriorate further.
The sanctions have already had a negative impact on prospects for peace, as the Venezuelan government skipped this week’s Norway-brokered talks. While Norway’s chief facilitator for the negotiations, Dag Nylander, has confirmed that he remains in contact with Maduro’s government about the next meetings, Carlos Pina, a Venezuelan analyst has stated that the government in Caracas “has shown it has the capacity to cope with external pressures, and specifically with economic sanctions.” As such, this move by the United States is unlikely to have any immediate impact in terms of peace negotiation concessions from Venezuela. The Trump Administration’s ‘unreliable’ reputation in regards to sanctions and diplomacy, in addition to this further escalation does not present itself as a good faith stance of negotiation. If Maduro’s government is able to weather the economic pressures of this latest move, as Carlos Pina suggests they can, the Norway-backed peace talks are likely to remain stagnant and unproductive, and the most vulnerable in Venezuela will continue to bear the brunt of American aggression.