The coronavirus has led to growing demands to relax American sanctions and to scale back the “maximum pressure” campaign against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. In one of these instances, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights called for an urgent reevaluation of sanctions. While Venezuela must confront the pandemic with one of the most fragile health systems in the world, the United States is right to set conditions on sanctions relief for the country. To do this unconditionally would not only fail to ameliorate the suffering of Venezuelans but reward the criminal regime for holding them hostage in such terrible conditions.
The administration has instead kept its foot on the accelerator. The Justice Department unsealed indictments against the regime, significantly upping the ante by placing a bounty on several figures. Meanwhile, buoyed by an auspicious geopolitical environment, the administration unveiled the new democratic transition framework, a power sharing agreement demanding Maduro to exit in exchange for an ease in sanctions. Under the proposal, a council of state with five members would rule Venezuela and oversee free and fair elections, clearing the way to medical supplies, humanitarian aid, restoration of water and power grids, and the eventual lifting of sanctions.
The reasons for sanctions are practical. They are meant to enforce the law and prevent the Venezuelan criminal state from funding its machinery and erecting more financial laundering schemes to line the pockets of regime insiders. Maduro has displayed the exact type of repression that sanctions relief would fund by using the pandemic as a pretext to initiate “Operation Knock Knock,” a door to door round up of political opponents carried out by his menacing secret police force, which stands accused of committing thousands of summary executions by the very same United Nations high commissioner for human rights who is now advocating sanctions relief.
The current sanctions architecture has paused ties between the Russian and the Venezuelan state owned oil companies, thus denying the regime access to its primary conduit for crude oil exports. Importantly, however, American sanctions exempt both key food imports and medicine imports. The toxic presence of Maduro unfortunately blocked $5 billion in potential emergency funding from the International Monetary Fund. His callousness by continuing to deny entry to most humanitarian aid remains the primary obstacle to providing relief for millions of Venezuelans across the country.
Unsurprisingly, the renewed calls for lifting sanctions are eerily familiar to those made before the outbreak of the pandemic. Many of the advocates remain the same, yet the push now comes wrapped in the blanket of the coronavirus. Maduro has amplified these calls with his multimillion dollar lobbying campaign in Washington aimed to lift sanctions. Unconditional sanctions relief would reward the regime for unfathomable kleptocracy and predatory management of so many valuable Venezuelan resources.
Meanwhile, Maduro squanders these resources by providing tributes to Cuba, which lends thousands of spies to backstop his internal security apparatus. Maduro has ordered more than a dozen cargo containers to the island, depriving suffering Venezuelans of medicine and equipment, while the foreign minister had complained about an “economic blockade.” Moreover, the domestic agriculture and medicine budgets are practically nonexistent, while the subsidized food program not only serves as a tool of control but makes overnight billionaires of a corruption network which exploits a starving population. In truly dire times, Maduro is certainly not concerned with the health of Venezuelans. His top priority is continuing such repression and satisfying the rapacious desires of his inner circle.
There is a better way to aid Venezuelans without forfeiting the leverage of sanctions to encourage a necessary political transition. The United States provides more than any outside donor to assist Venezuelans, however, the opposition should serve as a watchdog to ensure the delivery of aid does not further bolster the control of Maduro. The Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control can clarify the licensing exemptions for medical supplies needed for the pandemic response. Humanitarian organizations and United Nations agencies on the ground in Venezuela should continue receiving the funding they need to address the complex emergency, like the 90 tons of United Nations medical supplies that arrived last week with key support from the United States Agency for International Development.
The administration is correct to demand that Maduro spend less of crucial funding on Cuba and paid lobbyists and more on equipping hospitals with running water and testing kits. Lifting press restrictions, releasing political prisoners, halting free giveaways to Cuba, and establishing a timetable for free and fair elections are all actions that the regime can and should agree to immediately. Sanctions relief for Venezuela is indeed possible, however, it has to be paired with a feasible path toward democracy to truly end the national nightmare and bring lasting relief to the people of this country.
Ryan Berg is a research fellow focused on Latin American government and security studies at the American Enterprise Institute based in Washington.