CARACAS — Since the appointment of Hugo Chavez’s handpicked successor, Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro has been a point of contention for democratic nations worldwide. Maduro’s tightening of repressive policies is indicative of the country’s descent into dictatorship.
The latest election, which many accuse of being fraudulent, saw Maduro replace the entirety of the legislative body with a Constituent Assembly of loyalists with plans to rewrite the country’s constitution. In July, Maduro’s actions prompted the U.S. to freeze the assets he has under U.S. jurisdiction with the caveat to expect harsher consequences if his behavior continued.
Indeed, early in August the U.S. followed through with that threat and has barred purchasing new debt from the Venezuelan government as well as the state-owned oil supergiant Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A., or PDVSA. Now, the world is watching closely and is once again calling into question the impact of sanctions and their effectiveness in coercing a country’s behavior.
Sanctions have always been used by the international community as a diplomatic power move to coerce policies, constrain undesirable activity and stigmatize violations of universal norms. Having gained popularity since the end of the Cold War, sanctions are often seen as a tactful middle ground between passivity and military force. It is believed to be a more humane way to effect change, when war is a disagreeable outcome; however, the impact of sanctions has little empirical evidence.
Each time a sanction is imposed it is often in conjunction with other tactics, and there are many unique and complex dynamics at play. The nuances of each circumstance make it painstaking to isolate a sanction’s power from other factors which may contribute to the outcome, like military involvement, the extent of economic resources and even geographical and historical factors. These elements combined make no two sanctions alike, so there can be no foolproof way to guarantee the success of a sanction.
The Targeted Sanctions Consortium attempts to bridge the gap between uncertain speculation and scientific certainty surrounding the efficacy of sanctions. It is the first quantitative database on targeted sanctions imposed by the U.N. from the end of the Cold War to 2014. The database analyzes the impact of sanctions based on their purpose (either to coerce, to constrain, to stigmatize or a combination of the three).
Across the 64 sanctions researched, they were found to be effective in coercing a desired behavior only 10 percent of the time. They were more successful in constraining and stigmatizing behavior, but even then, they were only found to be successful 28 percent and 27 percent of the time, respectively.
Although those statistics may seem disheartening, they are not meant to discredit the instances throughout history in which sanctions have been successful. In 1965, the U.S. canceled food and military aid to India in an attempt to sway its agricultural policies and to express dismay at its involvement in the Pakistan war. Being highly dependent on those aid sources, India changed its agriculture policy in 1966, with the U.S. resuming its aid the following year.
Another pertinent case to consider is one that closely resembles the current situation with Venezuela. In 1993, Guatemalan president Jorge Serrano dissolved his congress and declared he would rule by decree. Sensing the rise of a dictatorship, the U.S and European nations threatened Guatemala with harsh sanctions. Fearing what effect these sanctions would have on their assets, wealthy businessmen worked to throw Serrano out of office and elect a new president.
Could the new sanctions the U.S. is imposing on Venezuela have a similar outcome as Guatemala? The Trump Administration has been vocal in its steadfast conviction that they will, insisting that the U.S. will not condone the development of a dictatorship by lining the pockets of its leaders. That being said, when sanctions are aimed at core economic sectors like oil, as this new round of sanctions is, the brunt of the impact is often felt by the broader population. In recent years, economic sanctions caused Iran’s inflation rate to jump 40 percent, crippling its healthcare system and its already struggling employment rate.
With unprecedented food and medicine shortages barraging Venezuela’s already broken economy, it is unclear how the impact of sanctions on PDSVA will affect the impoverished citizens. Some are apprehensive, expecting that things will probably get worse before they get better. Indeed, Maduro has openly threatened war with the United States in response to the sanctions. Nevertheless, they are hopeful that perhaps these sanctions will provide the pressure necessary to throw Maduro out of office and restore Venezuela’s prosperity.
– Micaela Fischer