Mismanagement and Corruption

Hugo Chavez, who took executive power in Venezuela in 1999 and orchestrated a coup attempt 7 years earlier, inherited one of the world’s largest oil and mineral reserves. However, the oil and mineral industries, which were owned mostly by foreign multinational companies, were soon nationalized, which led to the downturn of the Chavez regime. Friends of Chavez were appointed to key posts and corruption was rampant. The regime’s mismanagement of both industries was catastrophic for all Venezuelans, then and now, and Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, has still not rectified the problem. This led to Venezuela being named one of the 5 most corrupt states in the world by Transparency International in 2020. 

As a result, basic access to essential goods and services is highly contentious, and medicine is in chronic shortage. Economic and financial markets have also tanked, with inflation reaching 65,374 percent in 2018. As a point of reference, Canada’s inflation rate is usually between 1 and 4 percent. In light of that fact, hundreds of companies have exited Venezuela, and 5 million people have fled their homes to neighbouring countries, such as Colombia and Brazil, in the last 10 years. Many of these immigrants are refugees and stateless, as neither country wishes to take them. This whole ordeal is really a by-product of the incompetency of both the Chavez and Maduro governments. 

In 2018, Maduro was re-elected as President, despite the election having a very low turnout.  Some estimates point to a turnout of about 15 percent, but there were massive irregularities. Consequently, Juan Guaidó, the leader of the opposition, declared himself President of the Republic of Venezuela until free and fair elections were held. Maduro, while contesting this development, still remains in control of Venezuela’s government, bureaucracy, and military functions. This prompted Canada and the United States, among others, to push for a new election and regime change by supporting politician Juan Guaidó. The manner in which both governments have pushed for and implemented a regime change policy, however, is mixed.

Canada: Firm Claims, Softer Measures

Canada, like the United States, recognizes Juan Guaidó as the legitimate interim President of Venezuela. The government does not recognize the 2018 elections as legitimate and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has repeatedly defined the Maduro regime as a dictatorship. Furthermore, Canada has been the leading voice of the Lima Group, a multilateral organization made up of American countries dedicated to backing the Guiadó government and the holding of new elections. There are currently no formal diplomatic relations between the Canadian and Maduro governments. In light of its stated commitment to “the promotion and protection of democracy and human rights,” the Canadian government has also imposed several rounds of targeted sanctions against the Maduro regime. These sanctions include the banning of various high-level government and military officials and the freezing of their assets.

Canada has also lobbied for the International Criminal Court to investigate members of the Maduro regime on charges of crimes against humanity. The list of crimes includes the “systematic and widespread” use of sexual violence (including rape), torture, incarceration, and extrajudicial killings against both civilians and democratically-elected officials. Canada has also sent $55 million in aid to individuals and organizations within Venezuela. Despite Canada’s seemingly altruistic and principled approach to the situation, concerns have been raised positing that the Canadian government may, either overtly or covertly, be plotting for military intervention in Venezuela. Yet, while heading the Lima Group meeting in 2019, Chrystia Freeland reassured critics by firmly stating that “[Canada is] absolutely not considering a military intervention.”

United States: Same Old, Same Old

The US strategy on Venezuela, at least during the Trump administration, resembled that of Cold War-era administrations. Various high-level officials, including the President, denied any intentions for military intervention, yet plans for an intervention were still being crafted and carried out. In May 2020, a coup attempt was executed by a group of American Silvercorp contractors, including Canadian-born U.S. Special Forces operative Jordan Goudreau. The operation definitely bears resemblance to an infamous coup attempt in Cuba many decades prior, resulting in it earning the nickname “Bay of Piglets”. Despite the operatives’ close ties to the U.S. government, military, and the Trump campaign, the Trump administration vigorously denied any involvement in the coup attempt. 

The coup attempt was in line with what the Trump administration called its “maximum pressure” campaign. The campaign necessitated the implementation of quite harsh measures: economic and military sanctions were put in place on several occasions, not only targeting key government officials but also various companies and broad industries like the oil and financial sectors. Moreover, only minor American aid and assistance projects remain to respond to critical supply shortfalls of basic goods like food, medicine, and water. The US has made select attempts to help Venezuelan migrants, notably sending the USNS Comfort in support. Yet, major aid and assistance projects undertaken by the USAID (now headed by Obama’s former Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power) have been cut off, with only 2% of the aid said to have reached Venezuela. Most of the aid was sent to neighbouring countries and African nations instead. The Venezuelan government has also blocked shipments of aid coming from the U.S., including shipments of critical medicine, which is illegal under international law.

This issue has not satisfied some of the more interventionist voices in the administration. John Bolton, Trump’s former national security advisor, has argued for the continuation of the “strongest possible sanctions” against Venezuela and the deposition of the Maduro regime. Bolton further contended that “the time for dialogue is over. Now is the time for action.” In addition, Elliott Abrams, a Cold Warrior allegedly behind the funding and training of right-wing militants throughout South America during the Cold War, served as the Trump administration’s Special Envoy to Venezuela. Some worry that Abrams was also behind the support given to various military factions and groups in Colombia, mirroring Cold War tactics. Mike Pompeo, Trump’s former CIA Director and then-Secretary of State, emphasized the Maduro regime’s export of revolution, highlighting its alleged support of various guerrilla and terrorist groups in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and Hezbollah. 

The Sanction Regime Doesn’t Work

Notably, targeted and broad sanctions have been central to the overall strategy adopted by both Canada and the US in addressing the Venezuela crisis. They represent a key theory of US (and Western) foreign policy that has been upheld for a number of decades: sanction regime theory. At the centre of sanction regime theory, also called economic warfare by some, is the notion that regimes can be successfully coerced into reforming or collapsing through a bold campaign of sanctions and pressure. These economic sanctions and measures would, in theory, put a stranglehold on the problematic government until such a government abdicates or is overthrown by its people (or even by intelligence agencies). In the short-term, it may produce a favourable result—meaning the overthrow or reform of a repressive and adversarial foreign government. This model, however, does not work in the long-run.

On the contrary, this model of broad and intense sanctions and pressure can destabilize countries and regions by leading to expeditious disenfranchisement of an entire people (or peoples). While, in theory, sanctions are aimed at targeting high-level government and military officials, they often bring tremendous harm to civilian populations, in practice. Grievances held by the populace will not be answered, but be emboldened and given bureaucratic and military power. Inhabitants of these target countries will inevitably turn to violence and extreme ideologies, creating rogue and even terrorist states. Current examples of this consequence include Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, Lukashenko’s Belarus, Rouhani’s Iran, and the junta in Myanmar

Rather, the sanction regime should be replaced by a more compassionate and comprehensive form of diplomacy—one that brings these difficult regimes to the negotiating table and ensures a peaceful transition from, or an address of, societal grievances. The sanction regime theory only reduces the chance of such a peaceful exit. Genuine diplomacy and negotiating will also prevent these regimes from further isolation or, worse, turning into rogue and terrorist regimes like those in Iran and North Korea. Therefore, the sanction regime must come to an end.

Granted, this does not mean that pressure on high-level governments and military officials should stop. Pressure should be kept on those supporting criminal or even terrorist actors, including members of the Maduro regime who have been in close contact with the FARC and Hezbollah, two of the largest terrorist groups on the planet. However, pressure should not be extended to the entire government, to broad sections of the local economy, nor to the populace the Western coalition is trying to help. Otherwise, doing so could defeat the aforementioned goal of advancing democracy, human rights, and long-term stability in the region. 

We should abandon short-term thinking on foreign policy, which has long destroyed and destabilized countries, regions, and hemispheres. Instead, the best approach to bring reform is to opt for a tried and tested approach that emphasizes compassionate diplomacy and long-term objectives. 

Joseph Bouchard

Joseph is a Senior Writer with Spheres of Influence, covering geopolitics, crime, and democracy in the Western hemisphere. He has spent over a year in Latin America, notably working as a freelance journalist...