Venezuela and the ‘Politics of Pain’

Instead of making policy decisions in the best interests of the United States and the people of Venezuela, our government caters to the obsessions of unrepresentative hardliners and exiles.

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William Neuman makes a compelling case for lifting broad sanctions on Venezuela:

The oil embargo and other general sanctions targeting the economy are deeply unpopular in Venezuela. Many opposition politicians have come out against them, although Guaidó and some others still call for continued or even stronger sanctions. But advocating more suffering is not a winning message to send to voters in Venezuela. “To make politics with people’s pain,” Torrealba told me, “is a mistake.”

So what should Biden do? First, he must acknowledge that US policy toward Venezuela is broken and the sanctions-heavy approach, carried out on the fly and distorted by political aims, has failed. Any change carries political risks so tweaking the margins doesn’t make much sense.

Neuman has written the book on Venezuela’s crisis, Things Are Never So Bad That They Can’t Get Worse, and in it he documents how the Venezuelan government created terrible economic conditions that U.S. sanctions have severely worsened. It should be required reading in the Biden administration and Congress. He describes the policymaking process in the US this way:

It was like watching the Venezuelanization of US policy making. So much was improvised, done without thinking things through, without preparation, ignoring the facts, hoping that it would all work when your own experts said that there was little chance of success.

This description could be applied to many of the big US foreign policy blunders of the last twenty years, but it is certainly an accurate assessment of the slapdash way that Trump and his officials made Venezuela policy. Regime change policies seem to suffer from these flaws more than most, because they involve seeking a goal that is either unrealistic or unwise (or both) in a country that the regime changers don’t really understand. They either don’t know enough to realize regime change is folly or they are so bent on it that they ignore everyone that warns them against it. Instead of relying on regional or country experts, regime changers routinely listen only to the people that are telling them what they want to hear, and what they want to hear is that regime change will be quick, easy, and advantageous. The Trump administration imagined that they would be able to score a cheap foreign policy “victory,” and then when that didn’t happen they lost interest and left their destructive policy on autopilot. The sanctions that were supposed to deliver the coup de grace have instead become a permanent feature of the landscape. Once they are imposed, sanctions are rarely lifted.

Venezuela’s crisis is one of the clearest examples of how US economic warfare makes an awful situation even worse. The frustrating thing is that this was all obvious and it was all predicted beforehand, but the people that could foresee the disaster that would follow were not the ones deciding on the policy. The policy was set by hardliners in the Trump administration egged on by regime changers in Congress, and Trump endorsed it primarily to win votes in Florida. As Neuman notes, the policy was a total failure, but the political pandering was successful. Now Biden is reluctant to reverse the policy that he called a failure because he does not want to antagonize the voters that are already voting for the other party. Instead of making policy decisions in the best interests of the United States and the people of Venezuela, our government caters to the obsessions of unrepresentative hardliners and exiles. As Neuman writes, the 2020 election results in Florida “stunned” Democrats, and now the Biden administration sees Venezuela policy as a “third rail.”

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Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.