Tightening The Screws On Venezuela Makes Sense – Even If It Doesn't In Cuba

Dec 6, 2017

COMMENTARY

For those of us who favor loosening the screws on Cuba but tightening the screws on Venezuela, this week presents a nagging question: At what point do we become guilty of a double standard?

Venezuela’s regime just made an announcement that should cause some geopolitical navel-gazing in that regard. To wit: the ruling socialists, or Chavistas, said they’re considering not holding presidential elections next year as long as the U.S. keeps its financial sanctions against Venezuela in place.

This, I can almost guarantee you, means the Chavistas will not hold presidential elections next year. Which, I can just about guarantee you, means they will not hold another legitimate presidential election again as long as they’re in power.

All of which, I can definitely guarantee you, will involve the Chavistas blaming the “imperialista” U.S. sanctions for leaving them no choice but to cancel democracy and ramp up the leftist dictatorship they revved up this year.

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They of course learned that trick from communist Cuba, which for 55 years has scapegoated the U.S. trade embargo for its political and economic repression. The embargo is a 1960s economic sanctions relic, and that’s largely why most Americans – even most Cuban-Americans – say it’s time to scrap it, despite Cuba’s lingering dictatorship, and reform the island via engagement instead of isolation.

But that leaves the minority –  especially those who want President Trump to get tough on Havana again – with a valid question: Why should we drop the punitive approach to Cuba if we think it can eventually work against Venezuela?

Three answers: time, degree and clout.

Why should we drop the punitive approach to Cuba if we think it can work against Venezuela? Because it already failed with Cuba – but could still work with Venezuela, if done smartly this time.

When Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, normalized relations with Cuba three years ago this month, his core rationale was time. More than half a century had clearly demonstrated “that isolation has not worked,” he said. “I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing…and expect a different result.”

He was right. The fact that Cuba had found ways to survive all that time despite the embargo had already proved he was right. We had to admit that, get a foot inside Cuba’s door and work on changing the island from the inside instead of screaming at it from the outside.

But the situation in Venezuela, where democracy and the economy have collapsed, is fresher. There is still time to devise a smart – I repeat, smart – sanctions strategy that restores democratic institutions and market economics, if not regime change. That’s especially true given the Chavistas’ financial house of cards. When a country says, as Venezuela just did, that it’s creating a crypto-currency to stave off massive foreign debt default, it’s a good sign it’s pretty close to massive foreign debt default.

PERSUASIVE PLAYBOOK?

As for degree: Obama’s and now Trump’s Venezuela sanctions aren’t as blunt and heavy – and therefore not as strategically cumbersome – as the Cuba embargo. Like the current sanctions against Russia and other global scofflaws, they’re more surgical, more targeted at officials, institutions and instruments, such as acquiring new debt. That has the added value of not exacerbating the economic hardship for all Venezuelans as severely as the embargo has burdened all Cubans.

It also makes them more internationally palatable. Hence the issue of clout.

The U.S. failed miserably at getting the rest of the world to sign on to Cuba isolation. (Canada today is a top U.S. and Cuba trade partner.) The embargo alienated other nations because it was so heavy-handed. But the more measured, calculated Venezuela playbook feels more persuasive. Blocs like the European Union – which just approved an arms embargo against Venezuela – and even other Latin American governments think it’s a more workable pressure tactic.

Venezuelans lash out at National Guard troops last year in Caracas during protests against chronic food shortages.
Credit Ariana Cubillos / AP via Miami Herald

That doesn’t mean it will work, of course. And the longer it doesn’t work – and the longer it becomes apparent that Venezuela, like Cuba, does not have an effective political opposition – the stronger the U.S. urge to swing a heavier cudgel. Like an embargo on Venezuelan oil.

Which then turns up Venezuela’s scapegoating of the U.S. – to the political benefit of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. In fact, a new VeneBarómetro poll this week already shows that despite his abysmal 31 percent approval rating, Maduro would now win re-election if an election were held today.

That is, if an election is ever held.