The region should ignore ill-advised American sanctions and hold Nicolás Maduro to account
IT WAS the kind of diplomatic clumsiness for which the United States has a unique capacity. On March 9th Barack Obama issued an executive order declaring “a national emergency” because of the “extraordinary threat to the national security” of the United States posed by Venezuela. Really? Is Uncle Sam scared of a country with a government that is incapable of organising a reliable supply of toilet paper, an army whose best-known capabilities are coups, petrol smuggling and drug trafficking, and a president who spent most of January touring the world to beg for cash?
The explanation is that American law requires the administration to use such language if it wants to impose sanctions on individuals in another country. Congress has voted to do this in the case of Venezuela. Critics of this initiative argued that its only practical effect would be to give Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s embattled president, a propaganda tool. That is what it has done.
For the opposition, the timing of Mr Obama’s order could hardly have been worse. The arrest on February 19th of Antonio Ledezma, the opposition mayor of Caracas, on trumped-up charges, had provoked unusually wide criticism across Latin America of Mr Maduro’s authoritarian government. It prompted the South American Union (Unasur) to reactivate a mission by the foreign ministers of Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador, who last year tried and failed to broker a dialogue between government and opposition to end protests that left 43 people dead.
According to one source, the ministers left Caracas reassured that the authorities will soon set a date for a parliamentary election, which polls suggest the government will lose. Mr Obama’s order, which goes beyond the sanctions passed by Congress, allowed Mr Maduro to change the subject. In a pantomime of “anti-imperialism”, he staged military manoeuvres involving 80,000 troops and Russian observers and called for an emergency meeting of Unasur, which grumbled about “an interventionist threat” to Venezuela’s sovereignty. He used the American “emergency” as a pretext to obtain wide-ranging powers to rule by decree for the rest of the year. The opposition fears these will be used to impede it in the election.
The sanctions order targets just seven senior officials involved in repressing last year’s protests or harassing the opposition. It is not directed at the government, nor does it seek regime change, American officials insist. It is hard to disagree that the United States has the right to bar undesirables from visiting its territory or doing business with its citizens and even to freeze their assets. But far from provoking cracks in the regime, as the administration hopes, the sanctions are likely to solidify it.
Polls suggest that Mr Maduro, whose approval rating has sunk to 20%, has twice as much backing when he poses as a defender of national sovereignty. He will do so at next month’s Summit of the Americas. Rather than a celebration of the thaw between Cuba and the United States, this now risks degenerating into a clash over Venezuela. Cuba’s president, Raúl Castro, delivered an old-fashioned tirade against the sanctions on March 17th, a day after his diplomats held a third round of talks with the United States.
Unasur has murmured its support for the parliamentary election. But if Venezuela’s slide to dictatorship is to be reversed, the region needs to shout for the release of political prisoners and fair conditions for the election, on pain of the country’s suspension from regional bodies.
On paper all of Unasur’s members are pledged to democracy and human rights. In practice, many of the region’s left-wing governments put more store by the atavistic principles of anti-imperialism and non-intervention. Why? The appeal to nationalism is always powerful in Latin America. There is also a generational issue: the formative years of several presidents were spent fighting right-wing dictatorships backed by the United States.
Other factors may be at work. With the end of the commodity boom and easy economic growth, several left-wing incumbents are no longer popular. They fear the street—an irony, since four left-wing presidents came to power as an indirect result of mass protests against centrist governments. There is a tension between self-proclaimed “revolutions” and the alternation of power that is inherent in democracy. Inability to contemplate electoral defeat is magnified when the consequence may be jail for corruption.
Leftist leaders are being short-sighted. The left has much to gain by insisting that the rules of democracy should be the same for all. And this is the only way to ensure peace in Venezuela.