Thoughts on US-Venezuela relations

After several years of US-Venezuelan relations being mostly a non-issue, they have suddenly blown up thanks to the US’s use of inflammatory rhetoric in the “whereas” portion of an executive order sanctioning seven midlevel officials.

“unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States”

When you have thousands of nuclear missiles, spy personnel and tech in every country on the planet, a military budget almost as big as the rest of the world’s combined, and an economy apparently invulnerable to external shocks, you have to be deluded to consider a midsized, lowish-income South American country full of baseball-playing, TV-loving, fried-food-eating beach-goers to be an “unusual and extraordinary threat.” It’s like the Dallas Cowboys worrying that their defensive line may be breached by a middle-school field hockey team. A country that does in fact face imminent threats of climate change (which can’t be named), destructive levels of poverty, and gun violence (which also can’t be named) is instead going to focus its state power on…seven midlevel officials in Venezuela. I’m sure everyone in Peoria is sighing with relief, their fears are gone. I hope there is a new military honor for the valiant battle against midlevel bureaucrats in South America.

But seriously. There is more to this move than meets the (sarcastic) eye.

First of all, I don’t like the idea of sanctions on individuals. As far as I’m concerned, they are themselves a human rights violation. If you have information that could justify charging someone with a crime in your country, lay charges and try and get the person into custody. If you don’t have enough info to lay charges — or more likely, if you don’t want to reveal your sources and methods to scrutiny — then STFU. You can’t just impose state power on people without due process, citizens or not. The idea of human rights is we have them because we are born, not because we are born under one legal regime or another.

In 2015 one shouldn’t have to repeat the case in favor of due process, but the short of it is that without due process, you can’t be sure you’re punishing the right person, you don’t get the moral pleasure of confronting the person with allegations and hearing them accept or deny responsibility, you don’t get the information they might turn over under questioning, and you open the door to unlimited state power.

The problem with the debate of whether Joe Blow or Jose Fulano should be subject to sanctions ignores the fundamental issue that administrative sanctions on individuals are a bad idea.

Second, there are those who say that the “extraordinary threat” language was necessary in order to justify the sanctions. That’s screwed up. As Greg Weeks put it,

I don’t think that changes much, though–words matter even if they’re just there for bureaucratic reasons. Words send signals.

In case you don’t believe him, here is an on-line post from a friend who used to support Chávez but who became disenchanted with the corruption, inefficiency and hypocrisy of the Venezuelan state (my translation below):

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Venezuela is an extraordinary threat to the security of the USA. These are the words of the “Nobel peace prize” winner??? These are the words of the representative of the most noxious country on the planet??? This are the words of the representative of the most meddling, interventionist attacker on the planet??? Are they creating conditions for an armed attack on Venezuela??? What, Venezuela isn’t an independent sovereign country??? What, we Venezuelans are unable to figure out “our” O-U-R political, social and economic problems among ourselves??? What, is there a big part of the Venezuelan population, desperate for a little help, that hasn’t noticed that when these “gentlemen of the north” threaten, what follows is tragedy??? What, are there bombs that distinguish between Chavistas and opposition??? Ladies and gentlemen, let’s take a look at the reality of Libya, of Iraq, of Afghanistan, of Ukraine… These declarations are seriously alarming!!! And one last question, what has Venezuela done against the security of the USA??? What a surreal world!!!

Yeah, words send signals. Remember, this is the reaction of someone who opposes the Venezuelan government.

Third, if “threat language” really is a bureaucratic necessity, that just speaks to the dysfunction of the US political system. Is it really impossible to go after human rights abusers unless they pose a grave threat to the USA? Why is it that a country that could relax in its power must instead constantly piss its pants in terror? For some reason the animated portion of Bowling for Columbine comes to mind.

Fourth, I don’t believe it. The US has some of the world’s best lawyers. They have come up with legal justifications for torturing a Canadian child, stopping people and asking for citizenship papers far from borders, and wiretapping the entire planet. Need to justify some executive action without fulfilling a minor bureaucratic requirement? I hear John Yoo is still out of prison, I’m sure he can write you a memo.

Fifth, all of this is a distraction. These sanctions will have little to no effect on what happens to protestors in Venezuela or what happens to those who abuse human rights there. The real action happened the next day, when the US for once took action against alleged money-laundering.This is another stinking heap of hypocrisy (When kleptocrats from rich countries use anonymous corporations, tax havens, intergenerational trusts, dodgy accounting and phony nonprofits it’s called “personal finance.” When kleptocrats from the developing world do so, it’s called “money laundering.”), but it’s one that matters much more and could actually help the people of Venezuela. Leave that for another day.

Finally, I see Boz just posted something criticizing those of us who criticize the recent US language. And Tim Padgett says it’s all about Cuba. Interesting reads.


6 thoughts on “Thoughts on US-Venezuela relations

  1. Juan Cristobal Nagel

    Something tells me that had the US imposed sanctions on, say, Pinochet’s bank accounts in the US, you wouldn’t be defending his “human rights.” Oh, and when did “having a US visa” or “owning a condo in South Florida” become a human right?

    Sorry Setty, you’re marching with the crowd on this one, and the crowd is wrong. Furthermore, your idea that the sanctions “won’t work” are baseless. We simply don’t know if they will work or not.

    1. Steven/Setty Post author

      Pinochet? You should have said Hitler. Would make just as much sense.

      If you want an analogy in an ostensibly conservative government with a human rights record similar to Venezuela, it would be the US imposing sanctions on officials from Thailand. For a much more serious case, how about sanctions on government figures from Saudi Arabia? No, dude. I support human rights, no matter whose. States don’t get to mess with people without those people having a chance to respond.

      I have no problem with how the US has tried to arrest people like Gen. Carvajal or the other sleazeballs who use the US while committing crimes abroad. That’s a perfectly good use of state power. But these sanctions, like the Clinton List, are sort of silly. They basically force the supposed criminals to stay outside the reach of the law of the country that would otherwise be able to prosecute them, while leaving them free to continue committing their crimes.

      1. Noel Maurer

        What am I, chopped liver? :-)

        Actually, that’s not fair … I just came here after a commentator mentioned it at this post: (Mr. Nagel, I’d be delighted to get your thoughts.)

        There are three issues here, I think. The first is the language in the declaration. That really is a legal necessity. I think I laid out why pretty well in the post. Short version: the Emergency Economic Powers Act is really specific about the wording needed for the President to exercise his or her authority. On this one you’re mistaken.

        The second issue is the propiety of personal sanctions. I don’t think you’re quite correct here either. It is possible for foreign residents to harm Americans while outside the police power of the U.S. government. Under those circumstances, issuing an arrest warrant is a hollow move, whereas sanctioning their economic interests is not. The problem is compounded when the foreign resident is an official of a foreign state acting in their capacity as a member of the government. In that case, the U.S. has no right to criminalize their actions without tossing aside the totality of international law. Moreover, it has no way short of invasion to enforce any such criminalization. It can impose sanctions on the government. But imposing sanctions on the government harms civilians …. which sometimes is what you want to do, but sometimes is gratuitous or counterproductive.

        In short, the analogy with due process doesn’t hold. I don’t think we’re on much of a slippery slope, either. First, individual sanctioning is not something new and it has not yet led us to perdition. Second, the wording of the Economic Powers Act, specifically section 1702, makes it clear that the President has less power here than your typical local government under America’s (appalling) civil forfeiture laws.

        The third issue is whether they will work at a practical level. I agree with Boz, mostly, although I do think Maduro can use them to mobilize public opinion. But I also think that they strain his coalition, give heart to the opposition, call out other Latin American governments, and serve as a shot across the bow against going any further. That said, here is where I am most unconfident of my arguments and could rather easily be swayed.

        Whaddaya think?

        1. Steven/Setty Post author

          I knew there was an informative post on EEEEP!A that I couldn’t remember. Yes, it was yours. Thanks. Fair argument on the slippery slope, open door, etc, and on individual sanctions. Still not my favorite concept but I can see the uses.

          My other point, that US law is silly, stands. The US should support human rights, without having to (pretend or really) pee itself in fear of the human rights violator or his/her country. I think this sort of language unnecessarily alarms and alienates some people who would be natural allies of efforts in favor of human rights. The US continues to act like a scrappy underdog even when much of the world sees it as an over-muscled bully.

          And whether this all works? I think it will have a small effect if any. But overall it’s clear that the current order in Venezuela is untenable and if it changes a lot in any direction (more/less democratic, more/less violent, etc) it will be hard to disaggregate what exactly had what influence.

  2. david i

    Why are sanctions to the mid level individuals who actually implement the orders from the Venezuelan nomenclatura wrong.

    First USA has the right to take decisions over people with their soil, just as all countries do Russia, China, UK, Australia, Chile, Argentina,etc. We need to be realistic
    It’s is very difficult to jog with a small rock in your show.

    So the level of sanction has multiple intents
    The idea that the Venezuelan government is not a risk is been downplayed or we are just naive. I do not need a group of people behave like ISIS to be dangerous.
    To certain extent the cancers that do not show immediate symptoms are the most dangerous

    It seems that we also seem to forget who Maduro is , how was he trained, where and when was he inserted into the country politics.

    The involvement of Cuba is real , they plan long games and the need to further radicalized Venezuela prior to completing any first stage opening with USA and Fidel dying is critical in their strategy

    But also lets not forget that the drug business that has become huge and covered under the highest levels of government cover. Since 2011 the number of tons (1000 kg/2200 lbs) captured and clearly documented coming from Venezuela exceeds 1500 Tons. Please do the math using street value and understand the magnitudes.

    USA can and should use not only diplomacy but all levers possible to control the negative influences that can come from a cancer

    The population in Venezuela is not able to handle or promote change and will not happened organically due to multiple factors

    So Yes I kind disagree Venezuela is dangerous for the continent and have long term impact potential

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