BY JOSEPH HARRINGTON
On May 20,Venezuela held its presidential election despite warnings from several countries that it would not be recognized by the international community. Newly re-elected President Nicolás Maduro proclaimed, “The revolution is here to stay!” but the election was allegedly rigged in Maduro’s favor from the start.
The current government, which is completely controlled by the United Socialist Party, barred all other candidates who could have stood a chance against Maduro from running. It was even implied that citizens could lose their welfare privileges if they did not vote for him, so it is no surprise that he ended up with a whopping 68 percent of the vote share.
The large vote share is less an indicator of massive support or election fraud than it is of the impact of the movement to boycott the election. For the significant portion of the population who chose to boycott the election, the result was a great success. With an official estimate of only 46 percent of Venezuelan voters participating and many independent estimates being as low as 17 percent—a far cry from the 80 percent who voted in 2012. The opposition strongly demonstrated the people’s disillusionment with their current government’s rigging of the election and gained international support.
As a result, the United States, European Union, and the Lima Group all denounced the election results as illegitimate, with U.S. President Donald Trump tightening economic sanctions against Venezuela. The new sanctions prevent U.S. citizens from purchasing any bonds issued by the Venezuelan government, a huge barrier to Venezuela’s hopes to revitalize its suffering economy and provide relief to its citizens.
But these sanctions will affect the Venezuelan people far more than they will the Maduro regime. Venezuela is already in a massive humanitarian and economic crisis with food and medicine shortages, hyperinflation, an unemployment rate of over 25 percent, and a GDP that has plummeted 50 percent since 2013. Although 64 percent of Venezuelans say Maduro should either resign or be removed from office this year, 57 percent oppose sanctions against the Maduro government and instead favor dialogue between the government and the opposition. One survey found that 71 percent of people said that these talks should focus on working together to improve Venezuela’s economy.
The magnitude of the opposition to Maduro’s regime is monumental, yet the spirit of chavismo created by his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, still has a surprisingly strong presence within Venezuelan culture. Chavismo is a mixing of Simon Bolivar’s notion of anticolonial pan-Latin American identity combined with Marxist-inspired socialism. To the people of Venezuela, it represents a reversal of neoliberal ideals, rejecting the domination that Latin American countries experienced at the hands of Western powers for centuries, and instead promoting a more egalitarian society. Chavez was such a strong and charismatic leader to the people of Venezuela that he remains a symbol of revolutionary hope to the people of Venezuela, depicted in murals and songs across the nation. For this reason, a majority of Venezuelans still support the ideals of his Bolivarian revolution, even though they no longer support Maduro’s control of his political party.
In essence, the U.S. is using sanctions as a tool to encourage regime change, a tactic that harkens back to its imperialist endeavors of the 1970s and 1980s—especially the bloody ousting of Chilean socialist leader, Salvador Allende, in 1973. Though Chile’s exchange of power was carefully planned and backed by the CIA, the strategy behind these sanctions today seems to be rooted in the same principles of manipulating public opinion by exercising economic leverage. Then, Nixon’s plan was to “make the economy scream,” resulting in food shortages, strikes, and chaos in the streets. Now, as before, the hope seems to be that as the country spins further and further into catastrophe, the people have no other choice but to overturn the government in violent revolution.
The idea that these sanctions will force Maduro to step down from power is a farce. As times get worse, he will likely only become more and more desperate, clinging to power by whatever means necessary. The only effect of the sanctions is a riling up of the people of Venezuela who will live in even greater fear and poverty as the country’s economy spirals even further, unable to pay its debts.
Sanctions must be used along with a way out of sorts. The country who has sanctions imposed on it must be able to reasonably change its ways in order to have the sanctions lifted; otherwise, they only incentivize authoritarian rule, not stop it. For example, in Iran, sanctions were used as a way to get the Iranian government to the bargaining table; the clear way out was to find a deal concerning their nuclear program, and when they did, the sanctions were lifted. On the other side, there have been sanctions against Cuba for decades with no sign of stopping and virtually nothing within a reasonable realm that the country can do to end them. This strategy of sanctioning authoritarian states indefinitely, in some cases purely for ideological difference, does more to hurt people around the world, especially those living in authoritarian states, than to protect them from authoritarian rule.
Venezuela needs a way out. Rather than worsen the crisis with sanctions, the international community must come together and find a real solution which provides relief to its starving and sick population. Instead of cutting off the Venezuelan economy, those countries threatening sanctions should increase their economic involvement in Venezuela. Maduro’s greatest tactic is claiming that Western powers like the United States are conspiring to sabotage his country. Sanctions only play directly into his hand. If they instead show the Venezuelan people that the United States and others are trying to help the people, the opposition to Maduro will gain more traction while simultaneously rebuilding the Venezuelan economy.
If the international community continues constricting Venezuela’s struggling economy, exacerbating its humanitarian crisis, and pushing President Maduro to hold on ever tighter to his weakening control of his country, the world will have a failed state in much worse shape than Syria. A Venezuelan civil war would destabilize the whole of Latin America, leading to an unthinkable refugee outflow. Already, numbers of Venezuelan refugees rival that of Syria. An estimated 5,000 refugees leave Venezuela every day, making the total number of refugees around 1 million.
Poverty levels have already skyrocketed to 80 percent this year, and those numbers are bound to increase if relief is not given, immensely burdening the other countries of Latin America. Assisting the people of Venezuela and rebuilding its economy are moral imperatives. The consequences of making a bad situation even worse will be far too great to bear.