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Sanctions on Venezuela Aren’t Promoting Democracy, They’re Killing Venezuelans

Biden has largely kept Trump’s policies in place, leading to widespread suffering of the Venezuelan people.

Activists with the Anti-Imperialist Action Committee rally at Congressman Jim McGovern’s Northampton, Massachusetts, office urging him to sign a letter condemning U.S. sanctions on Venezuela on May 5, 2023.

Venezuela’s former so-called “interim president” Juan Guaidó had barely gotten a word out during an event at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. before a group of activists leapt from their seats in order to confront and denounce the far right opposition figure. Among them was Leonardo Flores, a Venezuelan political analyst and activist living in the United States.

“Juan Guaidó, you’re a liar, a thief, return to Venezuela to face justice!” yelled Flores in Spanish before repeating himself in English.

The Guaidó-friendly crowd, which included notable Venezuelan opposition activists and sympathizers, shouted back. Among them was David Smolansky, a member of Guaidó’s Popular Will party, who let the disruption get the better of him and opted to deputize himself as a bouncer and forcibly removed one of the protesters, a man much older and smaller than himself. Smolansky grabbed the activist and attempted to put him in a chokehold before someone in the event hall yelled out his name several times in an effort to settle him down.

Inside Venezuela, Flores says far right figures like Guaidó and Smolansky are careful about where they hold public appearances, lest they face the wrath of Venezuelans who reject their violent methods of regime change. Popular Will is the party of far right activist Leopoldo López, who is currently in exile after fleeing house arrest the morning of April 30, 2019, when he and Guaidó led an unsuccessful military coup. López was also recently in Washington, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in March, where he called for an expansion of the sanctions on Venezuela that have already caused widespread hardship for the Venezuelan people.

In Washington, however, these figures from Venezuela’s far right felt safe showing their faces just about anywhere. After all, it was only a few years ago that Guaidó was invited to attend the State of the Union, where he received a standing ovation, with applause coming from both Democrats and Republicans.

Why Is the U.S. Rolling Out the Red Carpet for Juan Guaidó?

“This was really the first time we had gotten the chance to confront any of the Venezuelan opposition people in D.C. and we felt we really had to take advantage because when Guaidó comes to D.C., it’s like he gets the red carpet rolled out for him and he doesn’t hear any sort of voices that dissent to his so-called interim government or dissent to his plans to overthrow the Venezuelan government and submit the Venezuelan people to these horrible sanctions,” Flores told Truthout.

Juan Guaidó first came to prominence in 2019 when he declared himself the interim president of Venezuela based on a dubious reading of the Venezuelan Constitution. Members of the opposition and their U.S. allies argued that because they did not recognize the results of the 2018 election that saw President Nicolás Maduro reelected to a six-year term, the presidency was “vacant” and therefore had to be filled by the then-president of the National Assembly. Despite strong diplomatic support from the U.S., Guaidó was unable to consolidate his coup and failed to oust Maduro.

Guaidó’s talk at the Wilson Center on May 3, billed as “The Battle for Democracy in Venezuela,” happened to coincide with the three-year anniversary of a failed mercenary invasion of Venezuela known as Operation Gideon, backed by Guaidó and his political allies, which attempted the infiltration of the country via Colombia with the aim of capturing or assassinating President Maduro.

“We’ve had four years of Guaidó now calling for more sanctions, calling for a military invasion, calling for coups; trying to do whatever he could to overthrow the democratically elected and legitimate government of Venezuela,” said Flores.

“It’s clear that he has betrayed the country.”

Flores highlights Guaidó’s support for Operation Gideon among the many reasons why he felt compelled to tell the opposition figure to return to Venezuela to face justice. Guaidó slipped out of the country last month, entering Colombia without authorization and creating a potential headache for Colombian President Gustavo Petro. He claimed he had traveled to Colombia in order to take part in an international conference on Venezuela hosted by Petro, but both the Venezuelan government and opposition were intentionally excluded from the day’s activities in order to keep the focus on building a regional consensus on solutions to the political crisis in Venezuela. With the support of the U.S. and accompanied by U.S. agents, Guaidó subsequently fled for Miami.

“When Guaidó comes to D.C., it’s like he gets the red carpet rolled out for him.”

Guaidó’s self-imposed exile to the U.S. is hardly surprising. In December, his fellow opposition politicians withdrew his status as the so-called “interim president.” Although he never commanded any real authority inside Venezuela, his ouster nonetheless was a blow to Guaidó and his Popular Will party.

The vote to oust Guaidó as “interim president” was cast by members of the now defunct National Assembly, who were first elected in 2015 and whose term expired in 2020, replaced by a new assembly elected in 2020. As recently as January, the U.S. Department of State has officially backed the 2015 National Assembly’s decision to unilaterally extend its authority.

Celina della Croce, director of publications at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, called U.S. support for the defunct National Assembly “wildly hypocritical” considering that the U.S. has released statements claiming that its policy is driven by an interest in democracy promotion inside Venezuela.

The U.S. Has Economic Motives for Its Sanctions Against Venezuela

U.S. policy toward Venezuela and the political interests of the opposition are deeply intertwined. Since the election of Hugo Chávez in 1998, Washington has been at odds with the leadership in Caracas, backing efforts at regime change, including support for the 2002 coup that briefly ousted Chávez from power before he was restored after mass mobilizations inspired loyal security forces to rescue the then-president.

Della Croce argues that U.S. interference in Venezuela is driven by policy makers’ interest in securing access to the country’s vast natural resources. Venezuela counts on the largest proven reserves of oil in the world.

“They know that they would have much better luck in terms of accessing Venezuelan oil and Venezuelan gold under the opposition,” della Croce told Truthout.

Sanctions against Venezuela were first implemented in 2015 under the Obama administration. However, U.S. sanctions and efforts at regime change in Venezuela were dramatically expanded during the Donald Trump administration.

U.S. sanctions and efforts at regime change in Venezuela were dramatically expanded during the Donald Trump administration.

Under Trump, the U.S. was a driving force behind efforts to have regional governments recognize Guaidó and his so-called “interim government”; the U.S. froze Venezuelan funds and seized assets abroad, handing control of them over to the far right opposition; the Treasury Department implemented what amounted to a blockade of the oil industry, preventing Venezuela from selling its number one export in international markets; and it imposed a laundry list of sanctions that severely curtailed the ability of firms to conduct business in Venezuela.

This onslaught of measures came to be known as the “maximum pressure” strategy, one aimed at creating mass suffering in order to hasten the exit of Maduro from power.

Biden Has Continued the Harmful “Maximum Pressure” Strategy Against Venezuela

When Democrats returned to the White House after the 2020 election, President Joe Biden’s team indicated their interest in reviewing U.S. policy toward Latin America. However, three years later, U.S. policy toward Venezuela has remained largely unchanged. After the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine, the U.S. and Venezuela appeared to be headed to a détente, with two high-level U.S. delegations traveling to Caracas to meet with counterparts in Venezuela. Those meetings only produced modest results, with U.S. sanctions on Venezuela remaining firmly in place.

Della Croce says it would be correct to argue that the Biden White House has maintained the “maximum pressure” strategy in relation to Venezuela and that his administration must take responsibility for the effects that U.S. policy has had on the Venezuelan population.

A recent study by Venezuelan economist Francisco Rodríguez for the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a progressive D.C.-based think tank, looked at the effects of economic sanctions on living standards in target countries. Rodríguez’s analysis of 32 studies on the matter concluded that 30 of these studies found that “sanctions have negative effects on outcomes ranging from per capita income to poverty, inequality, mortality, and human rights.”

The deadly effects of sanctions are something that Hector Figarella, an activist with the Anti-Imperialist Action Committee, is personally familiar with. Figarella says he has lost multiple family members as a result of the U.S. sanctions. In 2017 his father died from a blood clot in his heart, a death that would have been easily preventable had he had access to anticoagulants, but none were available due to sanctions on the country that make medicine scarce.

Figarella recently took part in a protest outside Congressman Jim McGovern’s Northampton office, urging him to sign a letter to President Biden calling for an end to sanctions on Cuba and Venezuela. McGovern has been one of a handful of U.S. lawmakers seeking to change U.S. policy toward Venezuela, having already penned several letters to Biden asking him to lift sanctions. Cognizant of the devastating impacts sanctions have had on his country and his family, Figarella says he would like to see McGovern do more in order to keep the pressure on Biden.

U.S. Sanctions Against Venezuela Are Escalating the Migrant Crisis

Activists throughout the U.S. seeking an end to sanctions are motivated by a sense of urgency, not just because of the humanitarian toll they have on the country’s population but because they perceive a shift in the political landscape that could allow for a change in U.S. policy toward Venezuela.

On the one hand, the region has undergone a significant political change. Many of the right-wing, U.S.-friendly governments in Latin America that backed Guaidó have been voted out and replaced with progressive and leftist leaders who are working to restore diplomatic and economic ties with Caracas. This change has left the U.S. largely out of step with the vast majority of Latin America’s elected leaders.

On the other hand, one of the effects of the economic crisis spurred by sanctions has been a mass exodus of people from Venezuela who felt they had no other choice but to leave and seek opportunity elsewhere. While many of them have chosen to resettle in countries throughout the region, the U.S. southern border has seen a large influx of Venezuelan migrants and refugees.

Figarella tells Truthout that even conservative members of Congress in the U.S. have recognized the impact of the sanctions on the migrant crisis.

“Time is pivotal right now, to put pressure on the Biden administration. We need to have members of Congress lean on the administration and push the administration, and demand that these cruel and illegal sanctions be lifted,” said Figarella. “The climate seems ripe for change, for a new policy toward Venezuela.”

Lifting the Sanctions Will Require Grassroots Pressure

Recently, a group of 21 Democratic members of Congress submitted a letter to President Biden urging him to lift sanctions on Venezuela and Cuba in order to stop increased migration to U.S. borders, though that letter received pushback from conservative Democrats like Sen. Bob Menéndez.

U.S. officials have also claimed that they want a solution negotiated by Venezuela’s political actors. Representatives from the Venezuelan government and opposition have participated in talks hosted by Mexico in order to establish a common agenda and establish consensus on the framework for constitutionally mandated presidential elections in 2024. One major breakthrough at the negotiating table was an agreement to establish a fund containing $3.2 billion in U.S. currency, to be administered by the United Nations and drawn from frozen Venezuelan assets abroad, which would be used to attend to some of the country’s most urgent social needs, such as the repair of infrastructure and investment in the country’s hospitals and schools. Despite having reached an agreement in November, the U.S. finally signaled that it would release the money on May 18.

One of the effects of the economic crisis spurred by sanctions has been a mass exodus of people from Venezuela.

Leonardo Flores attributes the delay in the release of the funds to the U.S.’s support of the opposition. He argues that the funds would deliver “an immediate material benefit that can be measured” to the Venezuelan people.

“So they don’t want to see these improvements in the day-to-day lives of Venezuela heading up to the 2024 elections because any sort of improvement the Maduro administration is going to take credit for. And rightly so, because this is money that the Venezuelan government would have had access to beforehand had it not been frozen by the United States in the first place,” Flores told Truthout.

Activists were disappointed to see U.S. officials again embrace Guaidó during his visit to Washington this May. Flores views it as evidence of Washington’s stubbornness and unwillingness to admit it was wrong.

Pointing to the opposition’s support for violent regime change efforts, Figarella says the characterization of people like Guaidó as promoters of human rights and democracy is “laughable.”

Flores argues that people in the U.S. have been “duped” for decades about the nature of the Venezuelan opposition. Far from being the promoters of human rights and democracy that U.S. politicians and pundits claim them to be, according to Flores, the opposition is instead concerned with securing power by any means necessary.

He also admits that it will be an “uphill battle” to secure a change in U.S. policy but agrees that there is presently a political opening.

For her part, Celina della Croce argues that U.S. residents would not support the current U.S. policies in Latin America if they knew the harm they actually caused, but that changing people’s minds will require grassroots organizing. She posits that in the midst of rising inequality and poverty in the United States, people could draw inspiration from the Venezuelan people’s determination to defend their sovereignty and develop an economic model that puts people first.

Hector Figarella says he believes Venezuela would “flourish” if freed from sanctions.

“I think it would be a new beginning, a rebirth. Lifting the sanctions would allow for the Venezuelan socialist revolution to actually actualize, so it would be able to build a better future for the Venezuelan people, a future with self-determination, without U.S. interference,” concluded Figarella.

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