How U.S. Sanctions Against Venezuela Backfired

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By Matthew Smith

Harsh U.S. sanctions, a crumbling economy, and near collapsed petroleum industry have done little, if anything, to loosen President Maduro’s grip on power in Venezuela. It appears that one of Latin America’s most reviled heads of state has not only outmaneuvered his domestic opponents but beaten U.S. sanctions designed to remove him from power. By December 2020, Maduro had taken control of Venezuela’s National Assembly, the only major state institution not controlled by the government and United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). In last year’s election, which was boycotted by most opposition candidates including Juan Guaidó, Maduro’s party won 256 out of the 277 seats available in the legislative body. This not only consolidated Maduros’ power over the crisis-ravaged Latin American nation but demonstrated that harsh U.S. sanctions are failing to remove him from power. Taking control of the National Assembly was particularly important for Maduro because the legislative body is required by Venezuela’s constitution to ratify international treaties and approve oil contracts with foreign energy companies. The law-making body has long been a thorn in Maduro’s side and the latest development essentially cements his control of Venezuela. This is an especially important development because it coincides with Maduro’s plans to revive Venezuela’s economically crucial oil industry by opening it up to foreign investment. In his annual accountability speech earlier this year Maduro stated that he planned to rebuild Venezuela’s shattered oil industry with the assistance of foreign partners and boost crude oil production to 1.5 million barrels daily. To achieve this, Maduro needed control of the National Assembly to gain approval for foreign investment in oil projects, which is currently capped at 49% with the remainder awarded to national oil company PDVSA. When coupled with Maduro’s anti-blockade law, which is intended to promote the free trade of strategic goods such as gasoline, it indicates that Venezuela is open for business and willing to accept foreign investment in its economically crucial hydrocarbon sector. By gaining control of the legislative body Maduro can remove the cap on foreign investment in oil projects and approve full ownership to international energy companies, making Venezuelan oil projects more attractive to foreign investors. Those outcomes have further sidelined opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who is internationally recognized as Venezuela’s legitimate interim president. By taking control of the National Assembly Maduro has effectively nullified Guaidó’s power base further fracturing his support and putting his claim to Venezuela’s presidency in question because he will no longer be the assembly speaker.

These are important developments for Maduro because Venezuela’s economically vital oil production fell to an average of 431,000 barrels daily during December 2020. The oil rich Latin American country is pumping crude at volumes not seen since the 1940s. The near collapse of Venezuela’s petroleum industry is responsible for the implosion of its economy, which has triggered one of the worst humanitarian crises since World War Two with 96% of Venezuelan’s now living in Poverty. This is an extraordinary development when it is considered that Venezuela was once the wealthiest country in Latin America and in 1950 the world’s fourth richest by capita. Even Maduro’s allies of convenience Russia, Cuba, China, and Iran have been unable to arrest the disintegration of Venezuela’s oil industry and prevent the country’s near economic collapse. Joint ventures between Russian state-controlled energy major Rosneft and PDVSA failed to prevent the oil industry’s catastrophic disintegration. This highlights that Venezuela needs to attract massive transfers of capital, technology and expertise if Caracas is to rebuild the economically vital oil industry to spur on economic recovery. Western oil majors such as Chevron, which has a century long history of operating in Venezuela, are best positioned to provide the necessary investment and resources. For that to transpire, Washington must ease sanctions against Venezuela, notably those which prevent Caracas from accessing global energy and financial markets as well as those blocking foreign companies from operating in the country. That could very well occur under a Biden administration. Biden has flagged that he will take a more diplomatic and humanitarian approach toward Venezuela which could include an easing of sanctions. Maduro’s ability to not only cling to power but strengthen his position despite a decaying economy, substantial internal opposition, international criticism and a severe humanitarian crisis indicates that U.S. sanctions have failed.

The primary objective of Washington’s current policy toward Venezuela is to precipitate regime change. While it has effectively crippled Venezuela’s economy and petroleum industry, causing considerable suffering for every-day Venezuelans, it has only made Maduro’s regime more resilient. As modern history demonstrates, economic sanctions on their own usually fail to trigger regime change. Former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz once described sanctions and punitive trade policy as a wasting asset that over time has less impact as the targeted people and organizations find alternatives to go around them. This is exactly what has happened in Venezuela. Maduro and his supporters found other sources of support, notably forming alliances with Russia, China, Cuba and Iran. Those countries have also provided financing in exchange for oil, military assistance and even facilitated the avoidance of U.S. sanctions.

The latest events demonstrate that Washington needs to take a different approach to deal with Venezuela, particularly when it is considered that growing Russian and Iranian influence has the potential to destabilize Latin America. A decision needs to be made soon because time is running out for Venezuela’s vast petroleum reserves. PDVSA’s rapidly corroding energy infrastructure, declining global demand for sour heavy crude oil, and the emergence of peak oil demand are causing the value of those crude oil reserves to deteriorate and could eventually see them become a stranded asset.

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