Washington, D.C.— On February 7, talks between the Venezuelan government and the opposition over the country’s ongoing political crisis were suspended, and the government of Nicolás Maduro is moving ahead with plans to hold presidential elections on April 22. Elections under rushed conditions without the necessary institutional guarantees would deprive Venezuelans of their fundamental right to freely choose their own leaders. The international community should express its collective rejection of anything short of a free, fair, and transparent election, while avoiding measures that could worsen Venezuela’s crisis.
Given the deeply irregular process by which the Venezuelan government called for early elections, as well as the questionable commitment of Venezuela’s electoral authority to ensure a fair process and to prevent fraud, it is crucial that the United States, the European Union, and the growing “Lima Group” coalition of Latin American countries monitoring Venezuela’s crisis make clear their refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the elections scheduled for April 22. In doing so, the international community must maintain a united, coordinated response to the situation, and avoid unilateral actions that risk deepening the crisis even further.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent visit to the region to confer with Latin American leaders about Venezuela, among other issues, was positive in the sense that U.S. policy towards Venezuela that is developed in coordination with governments in Latin America and elsewhere will be more legitimate and effective.
However, one policy option currently being discussed would clearly be counter-productive. Sanctions on either Venezuelan crude exports or imports of refined oil would inevitably worsen the already tragic toll of the country’s ongoing economic collapse. As WOLA and partner human rights organizations in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Peru have stated, such sanctions would exacerbate the grave humanitarian situation faced by Venezuelans.
Such sanctions would also be deeply unpopular in Venezuela and across the region. Mexico’s government has already signaled that it would not join the United States in adopting such sanctions, and is concerned about their impact.
Regional governments are not alone in rejecting such measures. Polls show that a majority of Venezuelans oppose broad economic sanctions. And in August 2017, 59 Venezuelan civil society organizations signed an open letter to the international community, demanding that it block “the approval of unilateral or multilateral sanctions against the whole of the nation on behalf of governments of the region, which escalate the existing humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.” It is important to note that these civil society organizations that reject a proposed oil blockade are the same ones condemning the break in constitutional order and the erosion of democratic institutions in Venezuela.
The history of economic sanctions in Cuba, Zimbabwe, North Korea, and elsewhere shows that dealing a devastating blow to the people of a country does not necessarily dislodge an authoritarian government. It often strengthens it. This makes it all the more urgent that the United States continue to coordinate with governments across the Americas and Europe to develop a peaceful, strategic, and multilateral approach to Venezuela’s crisis.