Assessing United States Sanctions in the Hemisphere: Cuba and Venezuela

the Ward PostAmbassador Curtis A. Ward

 In response to my recent article assessing the “Security Agenda in United States–Caribbean Relations,” I was asked to consider the current bilateral political issues between the United States and Venezuela and their implications for the Caribbean.  As the Caribbean region is impacted by the political, economic, and security responses of the United States to the entire hemisphere, I could not isolate United States-Venezuela relations from other geopolitical issues in the region, in particular United States-Cuba rapprochement.  Given the relationship between Cuba and Venezuela, it is paradoxical if not strangely coincidental that as relations between the United States and Venezuela deteriorate United States-Cuba relations are headed in the opposite direction.

President Obama is determined to reign in Venezuela’s reckless course in the region and internationally – not just on the issue of human rights, but also on Venezuela’s flirtation with Iran and presumably because Venezuela is providing operating space for Hezbollah, the Iran-sponsored terrorist group’s presence in the hemisphere.  In his Executive Order imposing the sanctions on Venezuelan officials, President Obama sets out the situation in Venezuela in stark terms stating that, “the Government of Venezuela’s erosion of human rights guarantees, persecution of political opponents, curtailment of press freedoms, use of violence and human rights violations and abuses in response to antigovernment protestors, as well as exacerbating presence of significant public corruption, constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.” While there is no mention of Iran’s presence it cannot be ignored.

Seventh Summit of the Americas

Denial of “citizen participation” in the political process and the lack of “democratic governance” are two of the issues on the Seventh Summit of the Americas (SoA-7) agenda.  These issues constitute a part of the dynamic in U.S.-Venezuela relations and rationale for the United States to target selected Venezuelan government officials who are responsible for executing state policy.  No matter how one chooses to characterize the Jamaican meetings with President Obama, these meetings are a prelude to the SoA-7, and Caribbean Heads of Governments should be prepared to discuss these issues in the context of United States sanctions against Venezuela.  These are major concerns for the United States and are a part of hemispheric geopolitical dynamics which presents a dilemma for Caribbean governments.

Certainly, with President Barack Obama’s scheduled meetings with Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller and with CARICOM Heads of Government in Jamaica on April 9, 2015, and with the SoA-7 in Panama following immediately thereafter, Caribbean leaders may be encouraged or feel obligated to address the Venezuela issue in their meeting with President Obama, or later during discussions at the SoA-7.  I have searched for a coherent CARICOM policy on United States sanctions against Venezuelan officials but I have not found any; at least no regional policy that could be derived from pronouncements of individual Caribbean political leaders.  There may be judicious reasoning by those who have chosen silence over bluster.  However, while silence may be good politics it may no longer be sustainable.

United States or Venezuela?

Let me posit at the very outset, Caribbean governments should not be asked to choose between the United States and Venezuela on this issue, and I have no evidence to suggest that they are being asked to do so.  However, with the sensitivity of this geopolitical standoff in the hemisphere, Caribbean governments may have to strike a balance between their risky economic reliance on Venezuelan energy supply under Petrocaribe vis-à-vis their support for the United States’ stance on human rights violations and lack of good governance in Venezuela.  What cost protecting human rights?

It should be clear to objective observers of United States politics that President Obama does not act on impulse.  He is very deliberate and intellectually sound in his policy formulation and execution.  President Obama is confident and firm in his decision-making and resolute in his chosen course of action.  He holds strongly to his principles, even in the face of strong opposition, both in terms of his domestic policies and his responses to global issues.  Opposing President Obama’s policies on ideological ground will not hold sway with him.  Arguments against his policies must be based on well thought through reasoning, including how such policies are likely to have an adverse effect on the region, if at all.  Of even greater importance to President Obama is the impact his policies will have on current and future United States security and foreign policy and the consequences of his failure to act.

Given the current domestic crisis and economic instability in Venezuela, which already threatens Petrocaribe, and President Obama’s stated resolve to assist Caribbean countries to attain energy security, it is an opportune time for the United States to offer Caribbean states an alternative that does not disrupt critical energy supplies to those participating in Petrocaribe. Caribbean governments must make the case.  The United States is cognizant of the instability that would arise in global energy supply and prices should there be major disruptions in Venezuela.  Reliance by governments in the region on future oil supply from Venezuela is a tenuous undertaking.

Caribbean interlocutors should know that President Obama will be very understanding of the issues confronting small developing states such as Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean.  He will be well briefed on the security challenges confronting the region, the reliance of most states on Venezuelan energy supplies, the risks attendant to climate change, and the social ills impacting Caribbean societies.  He will be briefed on occasional vocal outbursts of some Caribbean leaders on issues not even remotely connected to them and on which they are not fully briefed.  He is not fazed by ideological arguments not grounded in reality.

The meetings in Jamaica come at a time when United States–Venezuela relations have reached new lows.  This negative trend in United States–Venezuela relations will overshadow the SoA-7 and, by extension, the meetings in Jamaica, even as the United States under President Obama’s leadership has been broadening its engagement throughout the hemisphere.  More specifically, President Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba has already changed the geopolitical dynamics in the region.

United States-Cuba Rapprochement

President Obama’s easing of tensions between the United States and Cuba began soon after he was sworn in as president.  The first of a series of amendments to the Cuba Assets Control Regulations issued by President Obama, effective September 3, 2009, began a process of easing of restrictions on Cuba.  Amendments in 2010, 2011, 2012, and the latest effective January 16, 2015, broadened the category of Americans who can now travel to Cuba; removal of certain restrictions on provision of financial services, shipping, trade and communication services; increase significantly the amount of remittances that can be sent to Cuba; and allow American citizens to engage in micro-financing, business and commercial activities.  Discussions are ongoing between the United States and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations.  As the United States and Cuba move progressively closer in their bilateral relations, the U.S. and Venezuela drift further apart.

United States Moved to Sanction Venezuela

President Obama did not reach the point of frustration with president Maduro and other Venezuelan government officials overnight.  Contentious issues in the bilateral relations between the two countries have been festering over a long period of time.  There was hope, if not expectation, that when President Maduro succeeded President Hugo Chavez he would abandon his predecessor’s antagonistic stance against the United States.  That did not happen.  The anti-U.S. rhetoric seemed to have grown exponentially with the deteriorating Venezuelan economy.  Human rights violations in Venezuela seemed to have followed the same trajectory as, and tied to the deteriorating economy.  The rhetoric and actions of President Maduro towards the United States continued to grow.

The United States Congress responded to Venezuela’s government with sanctions legislation which President Obama signed into law, on December 18, 2014, the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014 (Venezuela Defense of Human Rights Act – VDHRA).  On March 9, 2015, President Obama signed Executive Order 13692 giving effect to the VDHRA and expanding its scope, “authorizing the imposition of sanctions against individuals involved in or responsible for the erosion of human rights guarantees, persecution of political opponents, curtailment of press freedoms, use of violence in human rights violations and abuses in response to anti-government protests, and arbitrary arrest and detention of anti-government protestors, as well as significant public corruption in Venezuela.”

A senior Obama administration official stressed in a telephone briefing that the Executive Order does not target the people or the economy of Venezuela but that the United States is “committed to advancing respect for human rights, safeguarding democratic institutions, and protecting the U.S. financial system from the illicit financial flows from public corruption in Venezuela.”  Seven high-level government officials, in particular members of the military and law enforcement services have been designated as targets for the sanctions. These individuals will have their property and interest in property in the United States blocked or frozen and U.S. persons (individuals and entities) are prohibited from doing business with them.  The EO also suspends the entry into the U.S. of  these designated individuals.

United States unilateral sanctions imposed on Venezuela are premised on the human rights violations being perpetrated on the people of Venezuela by elements of Venezuela’s military and law enforcement services, and other agencies of the government.  These are all agents of the government of President Nicolas Maduro and they presumably act on his behalf.  While some may disagree with the conclusions of the United States, there seems to be an abundance of independent reports supporting the view that the people of Venezuela are being denied fundamental human rights – the right to assemble in peaceful protest against government behavior, the right to free speech, the right to due process, and denial of redress of grievances.  There are reports of opposition members being jailed on trumped up charges, if they are charged at all, subject to indefinite detention without due process; and, most egregious of all, reports of protesters being killed by the security forces.

The Human Rights Debate

No country comes to the table with absolutely clean hands on the subject of human rights, and all violations of human rights must be challenged and condemned in the appropriate forum.  Responding to the issue of human rights violations is the prerogative of states at the unilateral and bilateral levels and in multilateral fora.  All human rights violations should be condemned and all governments should protect their citizens from human rights violations.  It may seem odd, however, that countries seem to view human rights violations through different prisms and come to different conclusions.  For the purists, the idealists if you will, in the human rights community, human rights is sacrosanct; for realists there are different degrees of human rights violations which should attract responses based on how egregious the violation is.

As a strong supporter of human rights for all peoples, I expect all governments to act responsibly and ensure the protection of their citizens and all individuals subject to their jurisdiction from human rights violations.  As a realist, I support the concept that “the punishment should fit the crime.”  The United Nations has clearly pronounced on the responsibility of all states to protect their citizens from human rights violations and the obligation of the international community to step in when governments fail to act within their capabilities to protect their citizens amid gross violations of human rights.  I am fully on board with this concept and all circumstances must be evaluated on their own merits.

Imposing sanctions against individuals and governments for human rights violations is nothing new for the international community or for the United States.  As a matter of fact, short of using force to coerce behavioral change by a government, group, or individuals, imposing sanctions measures are the desired course of action both at the unilateral and multilateral levels.  Sanctions are not always effective but they remain the best option between words and war.  The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has a long history of turning to sanctions in response to human rights violations.  Denying Rhodesia’s black majority population their basic human rights Ian Smith’s government’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence November 11, 1965 impelled the UNSC to impose sanctions against Rhodesia in 1966.  This was followed by sanctions against South Africa in 1977 for human rights violations associated with the apartheid regime.

The 21st anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, which began on April 7, 1994, resulting in the slaughter of some 800,000 Rwandans, is a stark reminder of the failure of countries with the capabilities to act, such as the United States and others, as well as the international community collectively, against gross human rights violations in Rwanda in the early 1990s.  The United States and the rest of the international community learned consequential decision-making lessons from inaction in the face of human rights violations.

The United States with the ability to enforce sanctions effectively is at liberty to use sanctions unilaterally to further its national political or security agenda, but is far more inclined to use sanctions for the common good of the international community, in particular when the political dynamics in the Security Council prevent a timely response by the UN.  Failure to act against gross violations of human rights is not acceptable and countries with the requisite capabilities to act must be prepared to do so to enforce international norms.

Ambassador Curtis A. Ward