Venezuela: Jacobson’s Diplomatic Faux Pas Impedes Opportunity for Targeted Sanctions

What Roberta Jacobson did in her appearance before the Foreign Relations Committee on May 8 is both incomprehensible and unfortunate. The US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs signaled that, at the request of the opposition in Venezuela, President Barack Obama has for now ruled out sanctions on officials in Nicolás Maduro’s regime who have been involved in abuses and human rights violations.

Jacobson said that “certain members of civil society” asked the United States not to take action against the Venezuelan government “yet.” Such action might interrupt negotiations led by UNASUR between the government and the opposition, which, as of yesterday, are suspended anyway. Jacobson did not provide specific names, but said the request came from those who were negotiating, presumably representatives of the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD). She added that there was great division within the Venezuelan opposition.

So, was it a “white lie” to reinforce her own cautious position regarding the approach the Obama administration should take toward the Venezuelan government? Was it, instead, a half-truth, in the sense that some members of the opposition could have perhaps made this request, although not officially through the MUD? Could it have been a simple reporting error or misunderstanding from her sources that she should not have relayed?

Ramón Guillermo Aveledo

It’s hard to say. What is clear, however, is that it was a diplomatic flap that has created confusion and negatively affected the image of the US government and the Venezuelan opposition. The MUD Secretary General Ramón Guillermo Aveledo immediately released a statement, saying emphatically “no MUD spokesmen has asked any North American official what was reported today in the media. If an organization or an individual of a civil society organization did so, they did so done on their own and should say so.” According to the MUD, Aveledo clarified, individual sanctions are fine, as long as they do not affect the country as a whole.

The assistant secretary then responded to Aveledo’s statement with a brief statement of her own and said, “The opposition has not specifically suggested we refrain from sanctioning individuals.”

This was an inadequate and confused response from Jacobson, and it only furthers rumors that discredit the MUD and deepen divisions within the opposition. Up until now those divisions have been based more on style than substance, differing primarily on strategy.

At the end of the day, all factions of the opposition have a common interest: the return of democracy, an end to the destruction wrought by the “revolutionary” regime, ousting Nicolás Maduro in a democratic way, and similar ideas for modernization and national development. That stands even while members of the coalition differ on precise ideology.

Assistant Secretary Jacobson, and the entire Obama administration in general, should state clearly and unambiguously their real reason for their refusal to sanction Venezuelan officials. It appears to be a fear of a possible boomerang effect, that sanctions could prove to be counterproductive for their intended purpose.

Certainly, even “smart sanctions” (economically targeting specific individuals and not the entire population) can be counterproductive, and could slow the momentum of the opposition in Venezuela, just as Maduro’s popularity is at its lowest levels in history. They could potentially give the regime an excuse to justify the failure of 21st Century Socialism, therefore strengthening Maduro’s weakened government, as Adam Dubove explained in a recent article in the PanAm Post.

It all depends, however, on when the sanctions are initiated. The measures need to be introduced by a bipartisan group of US legislators, supported by a large segment of the Venezuelan people, and demonstrate outrage on behalf of the Obama administration toward the brutal repression, torture, and violence of Maduro’s regime.

If launched at the right moment, sanctions could be useful, further weakening the regime both economically and politically. They could also generate momentum to help other governments take the same or similar measures. After all, human rights are a universal issue and all governments that claim to be democratic should be committed to enforcing them and rejecting, in some way, their violation.

That moment could be near now that the MUD has frozen negotiations on account of the government’s lack of responsibility and sincerity in the dialogue. A month after talks were initiated, the government still has not responded to a single request from the opposition.