Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Sanctioning Failure in Venezuela

By Richard LiPublished August 21, 2021

In the 2019 Doha Forum in Qatar, Steve Mnuchin, United States Secretary of the Treasury under President Trump, made the statement: "The reason why we're using sanctions is that they are an important alternative for world military conflicts. And I believe it's worked." Mnuchin's statement repeats a common misconception from both Democrats and Republicans that sanctions are effective. Sanctions have become the one-size-fits-all tool in fighting autocratic regimes. Is a leader rigging an election? Sanctions. Is a country selling weapons to warlords? Sanctions. Are certain government officials working with shady businesspeople? Sanctions. U.S. leadership should take a second look at its cavalier strategy, as a University of Chicago study finds that sanctions had only been successful in 5 out of 115 cases. In addition, American political scientist Thomas Biersteker concludes that, when sanctions are used, there is an increase in corruption 69% of the time, strengthening of authoritarian rule 54% of the time, and negative humanitarian consequences 39% of the time. Richard Haass from the Brookings Institute explains that these consequences are due to sanctions creating scarcity, enabling governments to tighten their control of the distribution of essential items. Furthermore, Daniel Larison from The American Conservative concludes that, overall, “economic sanctions are effective at depriving innocent people of necessities and cutting them off from the outside world.”

Despite all of robust research about the inefficacy of sanctions, the U.S. still uses sanctions as a tool of policy coercion against Venezuela. Under the Trump administration, the U.S. went from targeted sanctions on Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro's inner circle to a full-blown trade embargo. 

These sanctions have played out poorly. American economist Mark Weisbrot finds that sanctions have not impacted the corrupt government elites but rather by the civilian population. Since the beginning of Venezuela’s economic decline, wealthy Venezuelansespecially corrupt government officialshave avoided sanctions and have already stored their money overseas in investments such as real estate. Thus, sanctions disproportionately harm the poorest Venezuelans: hindering imports of necessities such as food and medicine causes starvation, increases disease and mortality, displaces millions of Venezuelans, and creates an overall less dynamic Venezuelan economy. Specifically, Miami Herald reporter Nora Gámez Torres finds that sanctions set up unreasonable barriers when businesses and exporters try to access international markets, punishing ordinary people in the process. Even if sanctions targeted the government, if the government does not have the cash needed to pay for foods and medicines, citizens cannot access necessary goods and life-saving treatments. Venezuelans reported losing an average of 24 pounds in body weight and suffering 40,000 total deaths due to sanctions in 2017 and 2018, and more than 300,000 Venezuelans were put at health risk. 

Have these sanctions even moved Venezuela any closer to regime change? There is not much evidence to show, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reported that the U.S. had not seen any substantial signs that Maduro is willing to allow free and fair elections. Maduro's inner circle has not felt the need to defect because of sanctions, since their positions of power are not at stake with their money offshore. Even in the public sector, sanctions have been counter-effective in removing Maduro. Madeline Roache from Al Jazeera reports that economic sanctions have helped solidify Maduro's support, as the population increasingly perceives the U.S. embargo as the primary cause of their suffering rather than Maduro's disastrous policies. 

Furthermore, sanctions complicate negotiations. A report from the Centre of Humanitarian Dialogue concludes that sanctions have provided disincentives for targeted parties to make compromises and reach an agreement. Maduro’s reaction is a perfect example supporting this claim because the failed Venezuelan government now has someone to demonize for all the strife and anguish. Desperate for a solution to their struggles, Venezuelans believe Maduro’s rhetoric that the U.S. is guilty of their hardships. International sanctions coming from multiple sources also have no formal institutional association with the peace mediators trying to negotiate a conflict resolution. Furthermore, there is evidence that sanctions have rolled back progress in negotiations. Maduro has been a flaker in negotiations, as he continues to pull his people out of talks and cites the sanctions as the cause. For example, Maduro left the negotiating table in the 2020 Barbados talks and declared that he would not negotiate until the U.S. lifted some sanctions as a sign of good faith. Venezuela also announced that it would not be sending delegations in following negotiations, due to the brutal aggression carried out by the Trump administration against Venezuela. Most importantly, Maduro's government has completely suspended negotiations to protest new sanctions implemented by President Trump.

So, have sanctions worked on Venezuela? Nope. Will the U.S. lift them? They probably should.