Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro started this year facing a political crisis. The economic depression the country is going through affected Maduro’s public approval. And Latin American leaders, like Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff and the former Uruguayan President José Mujica, sent letters to Maduro expressing their concern for his treatment of the Venezuelan opposition.
But in the middle of this crisis, Maduro received help from an unexpected source: President Barack Obama. On March 10, the U. S. government declared Venezuela to be a “threat to national security,” and announced sanctions against seven Venezuelan officials for alleged human rights violations and corruption. One month after the announcement it seems that, paradoxically, the sanctions ended up helping Venezuela’s leader.
Citizens and politicians in Latin America criticized the sanctions against Maduro’s Government. The Union of South American Nations that gathers 12 countries officially called for the revocation of sanctions and said Obama’s announcement “constitutes an interventionist threat to sovereignty and the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries.”
Uruguayan president Mujica, who sent a letter of concern to Maduro, organized a march in solidarity for Venezuela. Hundreds of Uruguayans attended. “To say that Venezuela is a threat the United States security you need to be have a screw loose,” Mujica said at the rally.
Latin American diplomats are now focused on the sanctions, not on Maduro’s treatment to the opposition. In an interview with Democracy Now!, Ecuador’s foreign minister explained that the Summit of the Americas, which will be held in April, is now an opportunity to find a diplomatic solution between Venezuela and the United States. It was supposed to celebrate the new relations between the U. S. and Cuba.
Maduro’s popularity has not risen dramatically within his country after the sanctions. According to the local pollster Datanalisis, the president’s popularity increased to 25 percent after the U. S. declared Venezuela a security threat. The same poll had announced that Maduro’s popularity was 23 percent in February. The increase is not remarkable yet, but it is not good news for the opposition either. Maduro’s popularity could keep rising as he capitalizes an anti-American sentiment. He is constantly talking about the sanctions on public radio and state television stations as he works to gather ten millions signatures and demand Obama to take back the sanctions. Millions of Venezuelans have already supported Maduro’s initiative, since many don’t forget the U.S. supported the coup d’état against former President Hugo Chavez.
“Obama’s sanctions reveal how little he cares for Venezuela,” a reporter from Caracas said. According to her, after the Republican Party criticized Obama’s position towards Israel’s leader Benjamin Netanyahu, the negotiations with Iran, and the diplomatic relations with Cuba, Obama’s sanctions were seen by some people within Venezuela as a political move to please the Republican Party with one foreign policy decision. Republicans have always opposed Venezuela’s socialist leaders like Maduro and former President Hugo Chávez.
“With Venezuela Obama has nothing to lose because he knows the economic relations will be maintained,” she said. Despite the anti-American rhetoric and former tensions, Venezuela remains the U. S. third largest trading partner in Latin America, behind Mexico and Brazil, exporting $11,339 millions on goods last year. Most of the exports were agricultural products. Venezuela exported $30,219 million goods towards the United States on the same year, 90 per cent being oil.
Not even the Venezuelan opposition supported Obama’s action. The country will hold legislative elections at the end of this year and the opposition has not gained the majority in Congress since 1998. The economic crisis–which consists of high inflation and scarcity of basic goods–increased the opposition’s possibilities to gain power, as did the public outrage created by the arrest of leaders of the opposition. But after Obama’s sanctions, opposition leaders had to express their rejection to the U. S. decision. “This announcement is not helping the Venezuelan opposition by interfering in internal problems,” an opposition leader and Governor of the Lara region, named Henri Falcón, said.
Experts on Latin American politics criticized Obama’s sanctions for being hypocritical. After security forces disappeared and possibly killed 43 students in the Mexican’s region of Ayotzinapa last September, the U. S. Government did not announce similar sanctions against Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.
“The reality is that in Mexico 43 students disappeared in Ayotzinapa in the state of Guerrero, and hardly a peep from the U. S.,” professor of Latin American Studies at Pomona College Miguel Tinker Salas said. “It took weeks for the State Department to actually respond. So we have a duplicitous policy, on the one hand highlighting human rights issues in Venezuela, while on the other hand turning a blind eye to what is really a humanitarian crisis in Mexico, with over 80,000 dead, 40,000 disappeared and 15 million people being expelled from their own country.”
Obama also ignored Colombia’s human rights record as NYU history professor Greg Grandin explains. “The most dangerous consequence of this action is to put Colombian peace talks between the government and the FARC [guerrillas] in jeopardy,” he said. The left-wing guerrillas are supporters of the Venezuelan government. Since Colombian President Santos is the United State’s most faithful ally, an escalation of the tensions between Venezuela and the U. S. puts him in an uncomfortable position during the peace process.
Obama’s sanctions will probably be a bump on the road, but will not determine the future of Venezuelan politics. The opposition still has a change to win the legislative elections if inflation continues to rise in Venezuela, and the support to President Nicolas Maduro and the Bolivarian Revolution does not depend only on Obama’s decisions. But the fast reaction against any form of U. S. intervention shows how important the ‘scars’ of past interventions in Latin America are. During the Cold War, the U.S prevented left-wing leaders from reaching power by supporting right wing dictatorships or death squads. Without acknowledging this traumatic history of U. S. unilateral interventions, Obama missed the opportunity to seriously talk about and to Venezuela.