Is Venezuela a Security Threat?

Presidency of Venezuela / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Q: U.S. President Barack Obama on March 9 signed an executive order declaring Venezuela a national security threat and imposing sanctions against seven officials in the Andean nation. The move angered President Nicolás Maduro, who asked the country's National Assembly to grant him decree powers in order for him to "confront the aggression" of the United States. What will the White House's action accomplish? To what extent is Venezuela a national security threat to the United States? What will Maduro do with decree powers?

A: Peter Hakim, member of the Advisor board and president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue: "The United States blundered. The sanctions themselves are inconsequential. Like the two earlier rounds of sanctions, they will do nothing to change the course of events in Venezuela. Nor will they motivate Latin American governments to engage more forcefully. And they do not do much, if anything, to raise U.S. credibility on human rights. Slaps on the wrist to seven mid-level officials are hardly a serious defense of human rights, rule of law or any other principle. The fact is that the United States shot itself in the foot, not because of the sanctions themselves, but because U.S. law required accompanying language declaring Venezuela an imminent threat to U.S. security. This is tough language. It prompted the Maduro government to launch another flurry of accusations against the United States for promoting regime change and made the charges sound a bit more plausible. After loudly applauding President Obama for his bold decision to normalize U.S.-Cuba ties, Latin American governments were confused and troubled by the White House's overheated rhetoric on Venezuela, which no one believes is a threat to the United States. That rhetoric came as an unwanted shock to the growing chorus of former Latin American presidents who are highly critical of the Maduro government and urging stronger regional efforts to deal with Venezuela's political turmoil. U.S. criticisms and sanctions have made their task harder. Instead, the United States should focus on defusing Venezuela's increasingly explosive situation and restoring some greater measure of civility, democratic governance and economic rationality to Venezuela. These should also be the goals of Latin America's governments. The U.S. misstep does not justify their inaction on Venezuela, which needs the help of its neighbors to resolve its deepening crisis."

A: Gustavo Roosen, member of the Advisor board and president of IESA in Caracas: "Before March 9, the U.S. Congress was the branch of power that principally showed concern about human rights violations and corruption in Venezuela. In December, Congress enacted legislation empowering the executive branch to sanction perpetrators of human rights abuses and corruption. Heretofore, the policy of Obama's government was to mostly ignore the constant attacks of Maduro's administration. The March 9 executive order is a quantitative leap forward since it now considers that Venezuela has become a threat to U.S. national security. Strong and convincing evidence of the threat must support this language. The executive order so far has resulted in sanctions against a group of prominent Venezuelan military officials and a prosecutor. As a consequence, Maduro has labeled Obama's action as the worst aggression ever to Venezuela and has shrewdly manipulated the support of all Latin American heads of state, has neutralized Venezuelan opposition and has even sponsored a national campaign to collect 10 million signatures requesting Obama to cancel the executive order. Further, Venezuela's National Assembly granted Maduro special powers to combat foreign aggression. These powers will enable him to rule by decree and continue implementing a communist system model while blaming private enterprise and the United States as the combined forces gathered to conspire to overthrow his government. In fact, it is Maduro's economic incompetence and lack of action to combat insecurity that have weakened his popular support to less than 20 percent."

A: Julia Buxton, professor of comparative politics at the School of Public Policy of Central European University in Budapest: "The executive order is ill-conceived and counterproductive. The relationship between means and ends are unclear. Multiple negative impacts can be anticipated and are already being felt. The most significant is the widespread derision that has greeted the announcement, no matter efforts by the State Department to play down the severity of the assumed national security threat through reference to procedural recourse. We live in an age of multiple and complex security risks. The inclusion of Venezuela alongside Islamist terrorism and cyber warfare erodes the credibility of U.S. threat assessments and prioritization of risk. Moreover, in a week when a U.S. district judge ruled that more than 2,500 photographs of the U.S. military abusing Iraqi and Afghan detainees must be released, the United States is as ever vulnerable to claims of abject hypocrisy in its criticism of the human rights record of other countries. The order is not a tool for substantively improving human rights observance in Venezuela, or of weakening the Maduro government—if that is the intention. Rather, the measure has served to unify Latin American governments against this display of U.S. unilateralism in hemispheric affairs. Within Venezuela, the order has exacerbated fissures in an opposition movement that is already fragile going into parliamentary elections at the end of the year, it detracts attention from serious debate and scrutiny of Maduro's record, it is hugely unpopular among the Venezuelan population, and as with so many aspects of U.S. policy, will serve only to galvanize national sentiment behind the Maduro government."

A: Maria Velez de Berliner, president of Latin Intelligence Corporation: "Albeit required by the language of U.S. sanctions, calling Venezuela a threat to the security of the United States was a diplomatic blunder because it flew in the face of reality. How could a country that lacks beans, rice, toilet paper and diapers, deep in foreign debt, and whose leader has an approval rating of 20 percent, be a direct threat to the United States? Venezuela is in no position to threaten or harm the United States, but the United States can harm Venezuela, more than the sanctions, by stopping imports of Venezuelan oil, something not in the cards for now. Maduro would probably have gotten his 'Enabling Law' from a National Assembly packed with Chavistas. But the U.S. sanctions have strengthened Maduro's anti-U.S. hand. He can now govern by decree until Dec. 31, or longer, if Venezuela's opposition continues being fragmented under Maduro's repression. This means Maduro can claim a state of emergency caused by 'U.S. intervention in Venezuela's affairs' and cancel the October parliamentary elections where the opposition could have made significant gains, if they could form a united front against a government that has led Venezuela to implode financially, politically and socially. Given the unfortunate, sometimes disastrous, history the United States has in Latin America, the language of the sanctions led the region to distance itself from supporting the United States, instead calling for Venezuelans to solve their problems alone. Given the slow-motion implosion of Venezuela, it behooves Venezuelans to ensure that whoever replaces Maduro, whenever that happens, can govern the country out of the debacle Chavismo created. Unfortunately, sanctioned drug traffickers and criminals will continue to thrive in Venezuela as long as drugs and criminality remain an accessible and highly profitable economic alternative in a destroyed economy."

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