While Venezuela’s dysfunctional economy is primarily the responsibility of the country’s leader, Nicolas Maduro, the United States needs to acknowledge that its financial and sectoral sanctions have had a hand in Venezuela’s undoing.
Blocked access to US financial markets and the ban on dealings with state-owned oil company PDVSA, along with corruption and mismanagement, have brought oil exports to a 70-year low, with Venezuelan people suffering the consequences of lost revenue.
At the same time that the economic impact of the pandemic has reduced vital remittances from abroad, sanctions have also made it considerably harder for civil society and humanitarian organizations to receive badly needed funding to engage in life-saving work.
As a former ambassador to South Africa, from 2013 to 2017, I am well aware that economic pressure, when aligned with diplomacy, can sometimes support dramatic political progress.
As president of the Open Society Foundations, which is supporting responses to the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, I have also seen the opposite — broad sanctions hurting ordinary people, and entrenching the power of those at the top. This is what is happening now in Venezuela, with the odds stacked against free and fair legislative elections in December, and an opposition divided and tarnished by scandals.
It is time for the United States to stop being part of the problem and be part of an international effort to address ongoing humanitarian catastrophe.
Unfortunately, there seems to be little hope of this happening under the Trump Administration, especially with some members of the Republican Party eager to use fantasies of military intervention or regime collapse to inspire Florida voters in November. On their part, the Democrats should keep their options open, and avoid a battle to out-tough President Trump on Venezuela.
The need to lift all sanctions contributing to the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela is clear. Remaining sanctions, targeting corrupt and abusive officials, should align with diplomacy.
More broadly, it is time for Washington to take a step back and review its approach to the use of sanctions globally — with the State Department, House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Senate Committee on Foreign Relations working to develop a set of principles to prevent a mess like Venezuela from happening again.
From there, together with the European Union and Latin American governments, the US should work with all political factions to build a path to free and fair elections.
US interests would be best served by prioritizing what Venezuelans need most to reclaim their destiny: address the humanitarian crisis that has caused millions to flee, and eventually support Venezuelans in designing their own way back to the ballot box — in that specific order.