Top-down, personal sanctions the best hope for Venezuela

Top-down, personal sanctions the best hope for Venezuela
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Amid talks about the possibility of an intervention in Venezuela, even if far removed from reality, we can’t forget that individual sanctions are still the most powerful tool the U.S. and the international community has at their disposal.

Tuesday’s new sanctions on top Venezuelan government officials by President TrumpDonald John TrumpHR McMaster says president's policy to withdraw troops from Afghanistan is 'unwise' Cast of 'Parks and Rec' reunite for virtual town hall to address Wisconsin voters Biden says Trump should step down over coronavirus response MORE are a step on the right direction, but they still only scratch the surface. 

The solution to ending this humanitarian crisis and massive exodus of refugees is the restoration of democracy in Venezuela. This is a responsibility of all Venezuelans, including the military.


The military, corrupted and politicized by Chavez and his successors, has turned a blind eye to the progressive destruction of all the democratic institutions of the country and to the instauration of a cruel dictatorship.

Low- and middle-ranking government officials and military personal are not immune to the humanitarian crisis and threats of political persecution. Yet, the costs of turning their backs on Maduro and restoring democracy are huge; both in terms of coordination and of punishment should they fail. 

A little bit of game theory might help produce a solution. How can the U.S. and the international community create enough incentives to overcome the possible costs of acting to restore democracy? Individual sanctions are a great tool, if designed the proper way. To that end, here’s an idea:

Individual sanctions should be designed to include government officials and military officers progressively from the top of the chain of command to the bottom. They also should be preannounced.

The offer to be taken off the sanction list before the sanctions kick in and the inclusion of a prize, such as being offered generous terms in any transitional justice scheme, must be there (along the lines of what Vice President Pence announced — that sanctions aren’t permanent).

The idea would be to provide a clear incentive to people in the government and military to act in order to restore democracy.

The U.S. could announce that starting in Oct. 15, for instance, all government ministers and generals in the military (and homologue ranks) will face individual sanctions. The announcement should also include that a month after that, all vice ministers and all other general ranks will be included.

A month later, high-ranking directors in government ministries and agencies, as well as colonels and similar ranks and so on. This way, the incentive is to act in order to restore democracy before sanctions kick in.

The importance of using “carrots,” not just "sticks," is increasingly necessary for the lower ranks, who have fewer assets and thus are less likely to be affected by sanctions. 

Thus, personalized sanctions should continue. They should be pre-announced to kick-in progressively, both in terms of time and rank, from top to bottom.

In parallel, the U.S. should be gathering more support for sanctions from Latin American countries and other nations. The sanctions should not be only financial, but also directed at keeping Venezuelan high-level government officials from going on luxurious vacations to destinations in Latin America and in other regions, paid for using stolen money. 

Will this strategy work? We don’t know. If individual sanctions are not used only as a punishment, but also as a way of incentivizing deviation, it might be one of the most effective ways through which the U.S. can help the Venezuelan people in restoring democracy.

If it doesn’t work, then it will punish, rightly so, those who are conspiring with the regime in maintaining the deepest humanitarian and refugee crisis the hemisphere has ever seen.

Dany Bahar is a fellow in the Global Economy and Development program at the Brookings Institution. An Israeli and Venezuelan economist, he is also an associate at the Harvard Center for International Development. Follow him on Twitter @dany_bahar