Newton’s third law of physics states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Another action-reaction law regarding human behavior comes from la Guarachera de América, Celia Cruz: “Songo le dio a Borondongo. Borondongo le dio a Bernabé. Bernabé le pegó a Muchilanga” (Songo hit Borondongo. Borondongo hit Bernabé. Bernabé hit Muchilanga). Both of these principles explain President Nicolás Maduro’s reaction to U.S. sanctions against his government. They also demonstrate how counterproductive these sanctions are. They have served Maduro to strengthen the chavista coalition, tightened his hold on power and, now, as an excuse to punish the opposition.
Every time the U.S. imposes sanctions against Venezuelan government officials, Maduro responds in two ways. First, he engages in a trite anti-imperialist rhetoric, accusing the U.S. of trying to destabilize the country by waging an economic war against Venezuela. Maduro has used the sanctions to divert the blame for the country’s precarious economic situation away from himself. Second, Maduro rewards the officials targeted by U.S. sanctions (Newton’s equal-and-opposite-reaction side of his law).
On July 26, the same day the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned 13 active and former government official, Maduro gave replicas of Simón Bolívar’s, the Venezuelan independence hero, sword to eight of these officials during a televised ceremony. The Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional reported Maduro saying, “I have decided to give the immortal sword of the Liberator, Simón Bolívar, to each one of those assailed by the U.S. government.” Upon giving the replica to former Ombudsman, Tarek William Saab, Maduro told Saab, “I know of your life-long anti-imperialist and patriotic values.” Saab replied that the sanctions were a “sentence against loyalty to the Patria, an anti-imperialist, honest and decent history. If that is the sanction, we will receive that sanction like a medal on our chest.” On August 5, Saab was appointed Attorney General by the Constituent Assembly.
David Smilde and Geoff Ramsey of the Washington Office on Latin America explain that Maduro has used the sanctions to unify the fractured chavista coalition. The sanctions have made it difficult for the targeted officials to break with Maduro. These officials, Smilde and Ramsey argue, now “see their political and personal well-being as synonymous with continuance of the Maduro government.” These officials may have distanced themselves from the president as the country was sinking deeper and deeper into the economic, political and social abyss. But once they found themselves at the end of the U.S. Treasury Department’s whip, they became loyal supporters of Maduro’s authoritarian rule, doing anything in their power to preserve and tighten the president’s hold on power.
La Guarachera de América’s song better explains Maduro’s reaction to the latest economic sanctions. These sanctions do not target government officials but the government’s and PDVSA’s ability to borrow money from U.S. financial institutions. Maduro’s rhetorical response to the new sanctions was the usual anti-imperialist rant. But now, he does not have anyone to reward for receiving the “honor” of being targeted by the U.S. Instead, the Venezuelan government is reacting by going against the opposition. The U.S. punishes Maduro’s government. Maduro punishes the opposition (Songo hit Borondongo. Borondongo hit Bernabé).
The Constituent Assembly unanimously approved a decree on August 29 to prosecute opposition politicians for treason. They are accusing opposition leaders of promoting the sanctions and U.S. intervention in Venezuela. The main targets of the accusations are the president of the National Assembly, Julio Borges, the Assembly’s first vice president, Freddy Guevara, and representatives Luis Florido and Juan Requesens.
The government’s reaction is simply another attempt by the chavista leadership to eliminate the opposition. They tried to take away the legislative powers of the opposition-led National Assembly in late March through a Supreme Court ruling. The tactic backfired as millions of people went to the streets to protest the decision. More recently, on August 18, the Constituent Assembly assumed the power to legislate on social, economic and State affairs, striping the National Assembly of most of its authority. The government also issued warrants for the arrest of Chacao Mayor, Ramón Muchacho, El Hatillo Mayor, David Smolansky, and Attorney General and former government loyalist Luisa Ortega Díaz. Through one mechanism or another, Maduro and the Constituent Assembly are annihilating the opposition and the National Assembly. The new economic sanctions provided a lame but effective excuse to accelerate their persecution campaign.
Borges, Guevara, Florido and Requesens could suffer the same fate as other politicians persecuted by the government. They will have to go into hiding or exile like Muchacho, Smolansky and Ortega, or face prison like Leopoldo López, Antonio Ledezma and hundreds of other political prisoners. The implications of the Constituent Assembly’s decision go beyond the four opposition politicians accused of treason. The government could—and will—levy the same accusations against other prominent opponents, especially if the U.S. continues to impose sanctions against the Venezuelan government. Maduro will continue to use the sanctions to gain more loyal supporter within chavismo and as an excuse to cut the opposition down to its bare roots.
The new economic sanctions attempt to limit Maduro’s ability to fund his repressive regime. In the long run, however, the lack of cash will also deepen the humanitarian crisis. Additionally, as Rice University economics professor Francisco Monaldi explains, the sanctions will force the Maduro government to get closer to Russia and China. Both countries have loaned money to the government and have economic ties with Venezuela. Since the U.S. has prohibited its citizens and institutions from engaging in financial transactions with PDVSA and the Venezuelan government, Maduro will have to increase the debt the country already has with China and Russia under very unfavorable conditions. The greater cost of this future debt means that Venezuelans are going to be paying it for generations to come.
At first look, sanctions seem like a good action to take against dictatorial governments. They seek both to financially cripple these governments and deter them from becoming more authoritarian. However, they are having the opposite effect. The new sanctions will not only hurt the government coffers but also worsen the humanitarian crisis and make Maduro more dependent of China and Russia. Furthermore, a report released in January by the Congressional Research Service cited news reports in which U.S. intelligence analysts “appeared to acknowledge that the United States has little leverage in the situation [in Venezuela], maintaining that U.S. pressure alone is not going to resolve the issue.”
So far, the Constituent Assembly’s threats of prosecution have remained only that, threats. No indictment has been filed against opposition leaders. Perhaps, the government is holding back for fear of appearing more anti-democratic than it already is. Prosecuting the leaders of the National Assembly would certainly cause international condemnation and isolation for the Maduro government. Thus, instead of the U.S. taking unilateral actions against Venezuela, a concerted effort by Latin American countries to find a negotiated solution to the political crisis is the best path forward. Our regional partners can be more effective at pressuring the government to free political prisoners and allow for fair and free elections. I just hope they have the same willingness to act as the U.S. government has had up to now.