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The Trump administration adds even more sanctions to try to push out Venezuela’s Maduro

Experts aren’t really sure these new penalties will work.

Nicolas Maduro (R) President of Venezuela smiles prior a meeting with EU special adviser for Venezuela Enrique Iglesias at Miraflores Government Palace on July 9, 2019 in Caracas, Venezuela.
Nicolas Maduro on July 9, 2019.
Matias Delacroix/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

The Trump administration has put tough new sanctions on Venezuela’s government, escalating its pressure campaign aimed at forcing President Nicolás Maduro to step down.

President Donald Trump issued an executive order on Monday that freezes and blocks the transfer of all Venezuelan government property and assets in the United States; importantly, the sanctions apply not only to Maduro’s government but also to any US individuals or entities that try to do business with it.

This is the latest in a string of measures the administration has taken against Maduro’s government in the months-long standoff over the country’s leadership. Earlier this year, the US and many of its allies recognized Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president, but Maduro continues to hold on to power as a humanitarian and economic crisis ravages his country.

The US has sanctioned more than 100 Venezuelan individuals and imposed financial penalties on Petroleos de Venezuela, the behemoth state-owned oil and natural gas company that Maduro has long used to reward his cronies and buy loyalty. The US also backed — at least rhetorically — a failed military uprising Guaidó launched in April.

Yet none of these measures have so far convinced Maduro to leave. These latest sanctions, then, are meant to put even more economic pressure on Maduro and his cronies.

But although the Trump administration has tried to characterize the new penalties as a full-scale “embargo” — that is, a strict ban on all financial and commercial transactions with the country, like the one the US has long imposed on Cuba — some experts flatly dismiss that characterization.

“This is a simple, boring blocking order that probably won’t have much of an effect. It is not an embargo,” Richard Nephew, a sanctions expert at Columbia University, told Vox.

Trump’s policy puts more pressure on Venezuela, but it probably won’t change the status quo

Trump’s hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton, who has been heavily involved in crafting the administration’s policy toward the country, has classified Venezuela as a member of what he terms a “troika of tyranny” in the Western Hemisphere, along with Cuba and Nicaragua.

Speaking in Lima, Peru, on Tuesday, at a gathering of members of the Lima Group, a consortium of countries seeking a resolution to the crisis in Venezuela, Bolton discussed the new sanctions, proclaiming that “this is the first time in 30 years that we are imposing an asset freeze against a government in this hemisphere.” Bolton was likely referring to US actions in the 1980s, including freezing the assets of Panama’s government under Manuel Noriega in 1988 and a trade embargo against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

“The Maduro dictatorship is on notice,” Bolton added.

He also warned Russia and China against their continued “intolerable” support for the Maduro regime. “We say again to Russia, and especially to those who control its finances: Do not double down on a bad bet,” Bolton said. “To China, which is already desperate to recoup its financial losses [from the billions of dollars it has loaned Venezuela] the quickest route to getting repaid is to support a new legitimate government.”

The Trump administration seems to be betting that piling additional sanctions on the Maduro regime and penalizing those that do business with it will eventually convince those countries still backing Maduro — most notably Russia and China — to decide he’s not worth it and abandon him.

Of course, this strategy, especially when applied unilaterally by the United States, hasn’t proven to be all that successful in the past, despite what the Trump administration, and Bolton in particular, may be selling.

“It worked in Panama, it worked in Nicaragua once, and it will work there again, and it will work in Venezuela and Cuba,” Bolton said of sweeping economic pressure, putting a remarkably optimistic spin on a more than half-century-old Cuba embargo that definitely hasn’t worked.

John Polga-Hecimovich, a Venezuela expert at the US Naval Academy, told Vox that the “potential problems” with the Trump administration’s strategy “are manifold”:

First, as the Trump administration’s experience with Iran shows, there is no guarantee that Venezuela’s allies would comply with secondary sanctions. Second, in terms of bringing about change, the move may actually backfire, since it is likely to alienate Lima Group and EU allies who oppose this type of policy response. Third, it allows Maduro and his administration to credibly blame the US for any worsening of economic and humanitarian conditions since general sanctions tend to exacerbate existing problems and simultaneously strengthen the authoritarian governments already in power.

In other words, these latest measures don’t seem likely to change the status quo in Venezuela.

Guaidó hasn’t been able to usher enough support from the military or intelligence services to seize power, and Maduro continues to hold on to support, using the US’s imperialistic meddling as a frequent talking point.

Meanwhile, the Venezuelan people continue to suffer from a prolonged political and economic meltdown. Millions of refugees have fled to neighboring countries, including Colombia, which just this week granted citizenship to 24,000 babies born to Venezuelan refugees who’ve fled their homeland since 2015.

Alex Ward contributed to reporting on this piece.

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