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Venezuelans Are Suffering, but More Sanctions Won’t Help

A man in shadow, holding a Venezuelan flag. All that can be seen are his legs, his feet, a corner of the flag, and a section of the black steps on which he is sitting.

                                                                Credit…Javier Campos/Getty Images



President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela isn’t even pretending to play fair anymore. In October, he promised to take steps toward holding free elections, including allowing the opposition to pick a candidate in a primary process of its own choosing, with the lifting of some American sanctions as an incentive. But the ink was hardly dry before his government upheld a ban on running for office that had been placed on María Corina Machado, the overwhelming victor of that primary. Then it arrested her allies and campaign staffers, accusing them of an anti-government plot. Some have sought asylum at the embassy of Argentina. The Maduro regime has even refused to register the candidate that Ms. Machado deputized to run in her stead.

The Biden administration now has little choice but to follow through on its threats to restart the sanctions it had lifted on Venezuela’s oil and gas industry, even though those sanctions have become deeply unpopular with the Venezuelan people. They are expected to resume after April 18.

It’s a stark reminder that the sweeping power of U.S. sanctions can do great harm but rarely delivers the political results that American officials seek. The Biden administration essentially offered Mr. Maduro a deal: sanctions relief in exchange for freer and fairer elections. It was worth a tryA similar bargain helped Poland break free of its autocratic system in the 1980s. Had Mr. Maduro taken it seriously, Venezuela would have had a path out of its protracted political and economic crisis. But Mr. Maduro won’t risk losing to Ms. Machado. If he loses power, it would increase the chances that he would have to face justice in an international court for brutally suppressing mass protests and other alleged crimes against humanity.

He may have also noticed that the sanctions haven’t turned out so well for the United States, either. Crushing sanctions on the country’s oil sector — designed by the Trump administration to shut down Venezuela’s economy and push Mr. Maduro out of power — are partly to blame for the migrant crisis at the U.S. border, a major political problem for Mr. Biden during an election year. They exacerbated the economic collapse that Venezuela was already experiencing. They curtailed investment in the country’s most important industry, curbed access to the hard currency needed to import food and medicine, and made it virtually impossible for Venezuela to refinance its debts.

As a result, the Venezuelan economy experienced the single largest peacetime collapse of any country in at least 45 years. Millions of Venezuelans have fled to Peru, Colombia, and other Latin American countries, while hundreds of thousands have ended up on the doorsteps of the United States. For years now, Venezuela’s most noteworthy export has been people, not oil. About a third of Venezuelan households get remittances from abroad.

The oil sanctions have hurt ordinary people, as many predicted they would, and they have failed to topple Mr. Maduro, which was also predictable. Yet, the funny thing about sanctions is that, once they are imposed, they become politically impossible to lift without getting something in return. That’s one reason American officials were so keen to try to extract some kind of promise from Mr. Maduro about the elections.

In addition to harming ordinary people, sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry harm U.S. interests in the face of changing geopolitical realities. They pushed Venezuela further into the arms of Russia and China, which are more than happy to fill the vacuum the United States leaves behind. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, has visitedCaracas twice in less than a year, promising strategic cooperation to help Mr. Maduro weather whatever sanctions the United States throws his way. That’s not a recipe for restoring Venezuelan democracy.

In 2022, Mr. Biden allowed Chevron to resume its work under a special license, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine left U.S. officials scrambling for a replacement for Russian oil. Then he made another exception to allow European companies to invest more freely there. But on paper, the sanctions remain in place. In response to Mr. Maduro’s crackdown, U.S. officials are likely to resume some restrictions on foreign companies, but the impact may be limited, by design. “The U.S. has decided that it needs to engage on some level with the Maduro government, even if it doesn’t like it, and it has decided that it wants to allow Venezuela to export oil,” Francisco Rodriguez, a Venezuelan economist at the Josef Korbel School of International Studiesat the University of Denver, told me. “But it needs to find a way not to appear to be caving in to Maduro.”

It’s a stark illustration of the limits of American leverage. Dictators do dictatorship, whether they are under U.S. sanctions or not. In many cases, sanctions tighten their grip on power. There simply aren’t many sharp tools in the diplomatic toolbox for changing another country’s politics. Individual sanctions on people in the Maduro regime would avoid the widespread collateral damage, but many members of Mr. Maduro’s governmentsare already on the sanctions list.

U.S. officials should continue to cooperate with Venezuela’s democratic neighbors, especially Brazil and Colombia, to send the message that Americans aren’t the only ones who are alarmed by Mr. Maduro’s crackdown. The entire region is suffering the consequences of the mass exodus of the Venezuela people, which serves as embarrassing proof of how deeply Mr. Maduro has failed.

Therein lies the real hope for change in Venezuela.

Even though the election, slated for July 28, is sure to be deeply flawed, it could still move the needle in the right direction if the opposition unites behind a single candidate on the ballot and turns out in numbers that can’t be ignored. “The opposition has a massive opportunity here to make it clear Maduro isn’t wanted,” Phil Gunson, a Caracas-based researcher with the International Crisis Group, told me.

Next year’s elections for national lawmakers, governors and mayors hold out more hope, since Mr. Maduro will not be on the ballot. When change finally does come to Venezuela, it will be because of the perseverance, courage and resourcefulness of Venezuelan people, not U.S. oil sanctions.



Farah Stockman joined the Times editorial board in 2020. For four years, she was a reporter for The Times, covering politics, social movements and race. She previously worked at The Boston Globe, where she won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2016. @fstockman

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