The Trump administration on Monday extended the reach of U.S. sanctions on Venezuela to target the country’s state-owned oil company Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), freezing its assets in the U.S. and blocking its American subsidiary Citgo from transferring any revenues to PDVSA as long as Nicolás Maduro remains president.
The new sanctions represent an escalation of the administration’s efforts to help an invigorated Venezuelan opposition movement oust Maduro and support Juan Guaidó — the leader of Venezuela’s National Assembly who declared Maduro’s government illegitimate and claimed the presidency last week — with the backing of the U.S., Canada, and a number of Latin American countries.
The U.S. will use “the full suite of its diplomatic and economic tools to support interim president Juan Guaidó, the National Assembly and the Venezuelan people’s efforts to restore their democracy,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in Monday’s announcement.
Oil sales represent the bulk of Venezuela’s national income; the U.S. is a major customer, importing some 500,000 barrels a day, though Mnuchin said the sanctions would not affect gas prices here. National Security adviser John Bolton said the sanctions would block $7 billion in PDVSA’s assets and cost it an additional $11 billion in frozen export revenues over the coming year. U.S. refineries will still be allowed to buy Venezuelan oil, but only if their payments go into blocked accounts, which will be unfrozen when the company comes under the control of a new government.
Maduro denounced the sanctions, of course, portraying them as part of an illegal effort by the U.S. to steal Citgo from the Venezuelan people, and vowed that PDVSA would “take legal, political, operational and commercial measures to defend Venezuela’s interests in the United States.” It is not yet clear whether Venezuela will continue exporting oil to the U.S., but Risa Grais-Targow, an analyst of Latin American affairs at Eurasia Group, told the New York Times that it likely would not bother, making the sanctions “a de facto embargo.”
On the same day, Guaidó, who remains free but has not managed to take control of the armed forces or the treasury, instructed the National Assembly to appoint new boards of directors to PDVSA and Citgo, in his own move to tighten the screws on Maduro. At first, Guaidó’s soft coup looked doomed to fail as the military has continued to back the regime, but his internal and external support has been growing steadily, to the point that Maduro can’t put him in jail now without risking a massive backlash. Guaidó is now floating an amnesty bill that would forgive soldiers for complicity in the regime’s crimes if they defect. He has also begun assembling a shadow government and called on his supporters to continue holding street protests.
It’s too early to say whether Guaidó will ultimately prevail, but he still has many cards to play, while Maduro — no mastermind of statecraft — is running out of ways to placate the public and the armed forces amid a crumbling economy caused by his government’s catastrophic mismanagement. While it’s hard to gauge public opinion in an authoritarian country, the socialist ruling party appears to have lost a great deal of public support as the economy has collapsed and the humanitarian crisis has mounted. Maduro continues to receive support in the international sphere from Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, Cuba, and a few other countries, lending a Cold War feel to the standoff. The wild card remains the military: The top brass remains loyal to the regime, but the rank and file may be swayed by Guaidó’s amnesty proposal, which could change the generals’ calculus as well.
So far, the Trump administration’s handling of the Venezuela situation has been uncharacteristically deft, but runs the risk of going off the rails if President Donald Trump and his most hawkish advisers (i.e., Bolton) decide to push too hard, too fast. The U.S. does not have a great track record in terms of outcomes when it comes to helping overthrow socialist governments in Latin America, and too much enthusiasm from Washington runs the risk of backfiring on Guaidó by helping Maduro paint him as a right-wing imperialist tool. (Indeed, this caricature has already been voiced among the left-leaning class of Democratic freshmen in Congress).
Notwithstanding the wrongheaded support for Venezuela’s government in some quarters of the American left, it is not wrong to express concern that U.S. intervention in Venezuela could end up doing more harm than good. In anonymous comments to Vox, some U.S. officials expressed concern that the new sanctions would “royally piss off Maduro” but do little else — or worse, that they could bolster the regime’s narrative that the U.S. has been strangling Venezuela economically in an attempt to foment a coup. The sanctions won’t prevent humanitarian assistance from reaching the country, but could do some collateral economic damage that Venezuelans can ill afford. If they work as intended and help usher Maduro out the door in due haste, they will be worth the risks, but they may prove untenable in the longer term if the situation in Caracas devolves into a protracted standoff.
One thing the U.S. could do that would definitely be unhelpful is an unilateral military intervention, talk of which was amplified Monday when Bolton let press cameras catch a page of his legal pad containing the cryptic note, “5,000 troops to Colombia.” Bolton told reporters that “all options” were on the table for handling Venezuela, including the option of an invasion. Conservative hawks are champing at the bit for Trump to exercise that option. Elliott Abrams, an unrepentant interventionist neoconservative who is believed to have green-lit a failed coup attempt against Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chávez in 2002 while working for the Bush administration, was named Trump’s special envoy to Venezuela last week.
It’s not hard to imagine the likes of Abrams and Bolton convincing Trump to pull the trigger on a military intervention in Venezuela, nor Trump seeing such a war as a pathway out of his domestic political problems and declining prospects for reelection. While such a war would not necessarily produce the multigenerational, regional devastation that resulted from the Iraq War, it will be far messier than its advocates imagine. The multilateral support for Guaidó’s constitutional coup would not extend to a U.S. invasion, which nobody outside a small circle of neocons and Venezuelan exiles thinks is a good idea; we’d be going at it entirely alone. The only circumstance in which military action might be warranted would be if Maduro struck first, either by attacking or detaining U.S. diplomats or by ordering major acts of violence against protesters, which would give Guaidó an opening to request military support under the international principle of responsibility to protect.
Fortunately, there is a lot the U.S. can do short of military action to support the cause of freedom in Venezuela. We can engage diplomatically and talk Maduro’s international backers down from supporting him, which is not of vital interest to the government of any country, except maybe Cuba. We can ramp up the financial pressure on Venezuelan officials and the international money launderers who help them hide their money. We can help Guaidó make the case to the Venezuelan military that they will gain, not lose, from Maduro’s downfall.
Most importantly, we should extend humanitarian aid to Venezuela and neighboring countries that have been weighed down by the exodus of economic refugees, and consider taking in some more of those refugees ourselves. All of this can and should be accomplished as part of a multilateral strategy, in concert with allies, not as a unilateral project.
While such a soft-power strategy may be anathema to Trump, Bolton, and other key figures in the administration, there is a real opportunity here to help Venezuela free itself from the failed experiment of Chavismo once and for all. It would be a shame to squander it.