"A new degree of pettiness": Why is the U.S. really sanctioning Venezuela?

While the administration claims Venezuela poses a dire threat to our security, the facts show a different reality

Published March 13, 2015 12:30PM (EDT)

Barack Obama                            (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Barack Obama (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

A number of reporters seemed shocked on Monday when President Obama's Executive Order imposing sanctions on Venezuela cited a threat to the United States to justify the action. "I, BARACK OBAMA ... find that the situation in Venezuela, including 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 protests, and arbitrary arrest and detention of antigovernment protestors, as well as the exacerbating presence of significant public corruption, constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States," the Executive Order reads, "And I hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat."

How could Venezuela, struggling with the effects of the crash in oil prices, post an "extraordinary threat to the national security of the United States"?

In fact, most sanctions Executive Orders make the same claim, which -- given the ineffectiveness of most sanctions efforts and the extended period they've been in place -- suggests the U.S. has to be inflating its claims about "unusual and extraordinary threats" to U.S. national security. Persons undermining democratic processes in Zimbabwepersons (who are not Israel) undermining the sovereignty of Lebanonpersons (who are not Saudi Arabia) threatening the security of Yemenpersons undermining democratic processes in Belaruspersons contributing to the conflict in the Central African Republic, and persons contributing to the conflict in Cote d’Ivoire have all been deemed extraordinary threats to U.S. national security, many of them for years.

The standard practice of naming sanctions targets a threat to U.S. national security was a point an anonymous senior administration official noted in a briefing on Monday explaining the sanctions -- though the SAO added in economic threats not mentioned explicitly in this EO. "[M]ost of our sanctions programs began with the declaration by the President of a national emergency that results -- that’s a threat to the national security, foreign policy, or economy of the United States."

But, perhaps because those covering our long-sour relationship with the Bolivarist regime in Venezuela found the claim, at this moment, to be so absurd, the claim has focused more attention on the dubious claims about national security made to sustain the sanctions. Especially given America's obvious interest, whether or not backed by actions, to end President Nicolas Maduro's rule.

In February, apparent intelligence authorities detained Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma Diaz. Since then, Venezuela's President Maduro has been claiming Ledezma was involved in a coup plot hatched in the U.S., alleging the same kind of phone contacts that the U.S. points to when it arrests terrorist targets. Given that one of the seven people targeted by the sanctions is the prosecutor, Katherine Nayarith Haringhton Padron, prosecuting Ledezma, this might be regarded as a direct attempt to influence that prosecution.

Yet given Maduro's past claims about a coup -- and U.S. involvement in the 2002 coup attempt against Maduro's predecessor, Hugo Chávez, it's understandable why Venezuelans and others in Latin American might believe Maduro's claims. Indeed, reporting suggests the sanctions may have backfired in the region, raising new concerns about U.S. big-footing in the region.

Otherwise, you're left with the litany of crimes laid out in Obama's statement: "erosion of human rights guarantees, persecution of political opponents, curtailment of press freedoms, ... as well as the exacerbating presence of significant public corruption."

There's just one problem with that list. Venezuela is in no way the most egregious human rights violator. U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Egypt are worse, as are Mexico and Colombia. Those countries the U.S. has already overthrown -- Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya -- rank among the worst human rights violators. Indeed, Saudi Arabia just convicted a key human rights and opposition leader, Mohammed al Bajadi, as a terrorist, with no squeak from the administration about how an oil country's persecution of its opposition leaders pose an exceptional threat to U.S. national security.

If this is about human rights, the U.S. should be sanctioning a long list of countries before sanctioning Venezuela, regardless of some real reason for concern.

Perhaps for that reason, in Monday's briefing, an anonymous SAO emphasized Venezuela's corruption. "Venezuela is considered the most corrupt country in Latin America and one of the most corrupt in the world by Transparency International," said the top official who would not permit his or her name to be used in print. "This executive order allows us to target the corrupt figures who deprive Venezuela and the Venezuelan people of needed economic resources, and will also help protect the U.S. financial system from the illicit financial flows from public corruption in Venezuela," the SAO emphasized, as if Venezuela's corruption would significantly affect a very corrupt Wall Street.

With corruption, too, the evidence suggests regime change by the U.S. may exacerbate corruption, as it has in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Perhaps the most intriguing claim from the administration attempts to rebut the claim it is interfering in Venezuelan affairs -- basically an attempt to rebut Venezuelan citizens' concerns about American imperialism. This is, one of the SAOs refusing to go on the record Monday explained, about U.S. sovereignty. "The actions we take today are clearly sovereign actions by a country about its own financial system," the SAO claimed these sanctions were about protecting American banks. "They’re not actions taken to involve ourselves in another country."

That's simply not credible.

Worse, at a time when America's dominant position in the world's financial system is newly contested, such a claim may not only intensify Latin American opposition to U.S. intrusions, but also ignite Russian and Chinese efforts to establish alternatives to U.S. default financial tools.

For years, the U.S. has used its dominant position in the global financial system to use sanctions to punish people it doesn't like -- without much evidence those sanctions help to change the underlying behavior. The Venezuelan sanctions reflect a new degree of pettiness, given Venezuela's own fragility in the face of depressed oil prices. And because of a confluence of issues -- including the obviously bogus rationalization for these sanctions -- these sanctions may backfire on several levels, both in U.S. efforts to undermine Maduro's rule, but also in U.S. efforts to pretend its sanctions represent anything but an easy way to selectively enforce obedience to its demands.

By Marcy Wheeler

Marcy Wheeler writes at EmptyWheel.net and is the author of "Anatomy of Deceit."

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Barack Obama Bolivar Corruption Foreign Policy National Security Sao Threat U.s. Venezuela