The White House move to impose sanctions on Venezuela was a badly timed swipe against the authoritarian government that may have imploded on its own. Instead, the U.S. gave it new life.
SANTIAGO DE CHILE — It may be difficult to blame the United States for the way it runs its domestic affairs, but it's equally difficult to defend its foreign policy choices. For example, Washington is largely responsible for the regional war that seems about to erupt in the Middle East and North Africa, both because of what it has done and because of what it has failed to do. What this alternating action and inaction have won the United States is hostility from all sides — from Benjamin Netanyahu to ISIS.
In Latin America, the list of U.S. errors is long. In the 1970s, Washington helped install several right-wing military regimes that suppressed democracy and its attendant social and political liberties. In the next decade, covert U.S. intervention in Central America prolonged civil wars whose consequences can still be felt in the form of poverty and crime.
Erratic U.S. policies in Haiti have helped ensure that the country is poorer today and much more dangerous than in the years of the Duvalier dynasty. Its fanatical war on drugs has made the United States No. 2 in the world in terms of percentage of its population in jail, and it has helped created drug empires in neighboring Mexico. The empire of crime next door has enough clout and sway to impede all attempts to fight corruption — as the unresolved disappearance, and likely massacre, of 43 students in Iguala has demonstrated.
The most recent example of this mistaken foreign policy would be laughable, were it not so lamentable: the White House's attack in mid-March on Venezuela's socialist government.
That's when the U.S. Congress approved sanctions against seven senior Venezuelan officials accused of quashing opposition protests in February 2014, which had provoked 43 deaths. The sanctions forbid them to enter the United States and to engage in business with U.S. citizens. But to impose such sanctions, U.S. laws require first a State of Emergency to be declared in response to a national security threat. That's what the White House did, clumsily.
Oxygen for the dying
Until this unfortunate move, the government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was imploding, being roundly criticized for arresting the dissenting mayor of Caracas in February. Even Argentine President Cristina Kirchner didn't defend Maduro, her government's anti-imperialist ally.
The U.S. move gave Venezuela's tottering strongman a new anti-imperialist argument. He happily seized on the declaration of a national emergency and turned it into an "interventionist threat" against Venezuelan sovereignty. It allowed him to claim, and receive, special powers to rule by decree to the end of 2015. In addition, in a move addressed more toward Venezuelans than the United States, he launched military maneuvers for 80,000 troops.
The move from Washington came at the worst possible time. Maduro's approval ratings stood at just 20%, and after the arrest of the Caracas mayor, the Venezuelan government was signaling that it might soon call parliamentary elections. The U.S. sanctions have since provided a motive for discarding election prospects, because Maduro's popularity rises every time he dons the toga of national defense against imperialism.
Another effect of these sanctions was to push back one recent advance of U.S. foreign policy: its rapprochement with Cuba. The island's aging President Raúl Castro denounced the sanctions in late March, precisely on the day a third round of talks were to start with Washington.
It's difficult to explain why U.S. foreign policy has been so consistently misguided. Certainly, governments change, and the Democrats and Republicans have differing perspectives and priorities. At other times, like now, the executive and legislative branches square off.
Democracy is seldom unanimous. But for whoever is in the White House, the country's foreign policy outlines should follow the principles drawn up by Thomas Jefferson, that all people are equal and have inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.