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The U.S. Was Ready to Impose Sanctions on Ukraine. Why Not Venezuela, Too?


In the past month, two governments have embarked on remarkably similar crackdowns against entrenched protest movements. Last week, the world watched as Kiev's Independence Square burned, while in Venezuela, motorcycle-mounted national guardsmen fired on student protesters. All told, at least 17 people in Venezuela and at least 77 in Ukraine died in the violence. But whereas President Barack Obama threatened, before the ouster of Ukranian President Viktor Yanukovych, "There will be consequences if people step over the line," the U.S. government's response to the Venezuelan crackdown has been notably anodyne. In a press briefing the day after some of the worst violence in Venezuela took place, State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said little more than “we believe the most appropriate way to resolve differences is through consultations and dialogue…not the arrest of people who may be political foes.” (In the same briefing, Harf called the crackdown in Ukraine "completely outrageous.")

It's not that the U.S. government has any love for Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro's regime; Secretary of State John Kerry later clarified that the violence in the country was "unacceptable." But the rhetoric has yet to be matched with any concrete action to influence the Maduro regime besides a tit-for-tat dismissal of three Venezuean diplomats after Maduro sent three U.S. diplomats home for alleged involvement in the protests. Compare that to Ukraine, where the U.S. and European Union were already preparing sanctions in January and, after violence erupted on February 18, 20 government officials were swiftly hit with travel bans.

Even more important were diplomatic efforts by the U.S. and EU to seek an end to the crisis. The State Department was in close contact with the opposition in Ukraine, and Kerry even met with protest leaders Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Vitali Klitschko in January. The now notorious "Fuck the EU" call between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt revealed, if nothing else, how deeply the United States was involved in trying to forge a deal on creating a new government in Ukraine.

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has taken the State Department to task for this disparity. In a torrent of tweets and public appearances over the past two weeks, Rubio has railed against the violence perpetrated by the Venezuelan government, which he sees as a puppet of Cuban dictator Raul Castro. After Kerry expressed "increasing concern" over the situation in Venezuela, Rubio told CNN, "They shouldn’t be concerned about what is happening in Venezuela, they should be outraged about it. And it should be getting the same level of attention as what’s happening in Egypt, or what’s happening in Ukraine, or other parts of the world because this is actually closer to us."

But the U.S. has severely limited options when it comes to leaning on the Venezuelan government. In a Senate resolution introduced yesterday, Rubio and Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey called on President Barack Obama to immediately impose measures similar to those levied against Ukraine, freezing the assets and visas of government officials involved in the crackdown. This would help show that the U.S. takes violence against protesters seriously wherever it occurs, but it is unlikely to have a significant impact on the Maduro regime.

That's because, whereas Ukrainian sanctions accompanied ongoing multilateral talks, the U.S. and Venezuela have had little to no diplomatic contact throughout the 2014 protests. The already strained U.S.-Venezuela relationship deteriorated even further after the U.S. questioned the legitimacy of Maduro's election in 2013. There hasn't even been a U.S. ambassador to Venezuela since 2010. And despite the Obama administration's relative lack of action, Maduro has already accused it of "financing, promoting and defending members of the opposition."

In his interview with CNN last week, Rubio suggested that a sanctions package could include a "moratorium on private investment." But Harold Trinkunas, an expert on Latin America at the Brookings Institution, says economic sanctions would have limited practical effect. "Most U.S. businesses are already holding off on new investments in Venezuela because of the poor business climate and inability repatriate profits or purchase inputs needed to operate a business in Venezuela," he explained. The core chavista policy of nationalization rose to perverse extremes last November when Maduro took over a chain of electronics stores because he believed it was overcharging customers.

Even an embargo on Venezuela's all-important oil exports would likely have much less impact than hoped. While still the fourth-largest supplier of oil to the United States, Venezuela's share of the American market has fallen steadily since Hugo Chavez came to power, to a mere 8.3 percent in 2011. That amounts to 40 percent of the oil Venezuela exports worldwide, but in the event of an embargo, "China would be very happy to take more" at a discounted price, says Jacqueline Weaver, a professor specialising in energy policy at the University of Houston Law Center. It's also unclear how an embargo would affect CITGO, the Houston-based supplier to 14,000 U.S. gas stations that is wholly owned by Venezuela's national oil company.

More importantly, an embargo would probably have the opposite of the desired political effect in the eyes of the world, turning Venezuela into a cause célèbre and the United States into a imperialist bully. The U.S. embargo of Cuba is already loathed by nearly the entire world and all of Latin America. Installing a new embargo, this time against a government that, though throughly undemocratic in many ways, was installed by popular vote, could be devastating for our foreign policy image while doing little to influence the Maduro government.

The Venezuelan government sees America the way many western Ukrainians see Russia—as an erstwhile hegemon and untrustworthy actor with an ugly past of self-serving intervention. Most Latin American leaders have stood behind Maduro since the crackdown began, either out of agreement with Venezuela's leftist anti-gringo stance or in hopes that the cheap Venezuelan crude won't stop flowing their way. (The State Department's statements on Venezuela look positively censorious next to Mexico's curt two-line press release on the crackdown.) Serious sanctions will only play into this narrative, while achieving little in the way of concessions.

Ukraine is the exception. In the case of Venezuela, realpolitik trumps human rights once again.