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):
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.