Photo by: U.S. Department of State

El Virus, el Bloqueo, y los Ideólogos: U.S. Sanctions on Venezuela and Pandemic Politics

by Natalie Caloca        
          July 11th, 2020



U.S. justifications for increasing sanctions on Venezuela in recent months have been ideological as well as humanitarian. Venezuela, which has experienced a shocking descent into political and economic chaos over the past decade, has a history of emancipatory struggle and socialist revolution which informs every decision U.S. policy architects make when dealing with the turbulent country. Under President Trump’s administration, the strength of the United States’ capitalist and democratic convictions has collided with the authoritarian, centralized nature of the Maduro regime in a way that has exacerbated, rather than alleviated, the immense stress on the Venezuelan population. Combined with the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, these sanctions and ideological battles are proving deadly to the country’s citizens and its budding government opposition. The Critical Theory of International Relations demands that we as Americans re-evaluate our attitude towards Venezuela, keeping in mind the moral responsibilities we have to encourage freedom and justice. It is time to heed the call of a new moral expectation: to relieve Venezuelans’ suffering and rewrite our policies in a new era of global challenges.

I. Introduction and Background

There is something about a global pandemic and economic recession that makes Americans squirm at the thought of imposing sanctions upon a country already suffering an unprecedented crisis. After more than a decade of slowly escalating restrictions on Venezuela, the U.S. government faces a new question in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic: will humanitarian realities force us to abandon the politically-motivated sanctions we have imposed upon this country for so long, and if so, why has it taken us until now? Critical Theory of international relations (IR) seeks to explain why an equal and just world has been unattainable over the course of history,   and modern U.S.-Venezuela relations offer a puzzling example of this question. 

Venezuela was once barreling towards wealth and regional influence reflective of their massive oil reserves, which are the largest in the world. Following a decade of decline in oil income and unpopular austerity measures at home and the collapse of the Soviet Union leading to the rise of the United States as the undisputed world hegemon abroad, General Hugo Chávez was finally elected president of Venezuela in 1998. Chávez called his rise a “Bolivarian revolution,” an homage to Simón Bolívar, El Libertador–the great liberator of the 1800s for whom the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela named itself and its currency. Chávez presented the rise of his socialist party as the second coming of Venezuela’s struggle for liberation, this time from social inequality and poverty. On some level, he succeeded by lifting countless Venezuelans out of poverty. That proud, affluent history is a far cry from the penniless petrostate we observe today. The economic freefall precipitated by Hugo Chávez and extended by current President Nicolás Maduro has contributed to a humanitarian crisis of historic proportions. The corresponding degradation in democracy has set the stage for a still-deepening disaster described in its essence by Latin America policy scholar David Smilde as a blend of “economic collapse, institutional fragmentation, decaying infrastructure and social conflict.” On January 23, 2019, President Juan Guaidó of Venezuela’s National Assembly declared himself interim President of the whole country, and soon achieved formal recognition as such in the eyes of more than fifty countries, including the United States and Canada. This infuriated the Maduro establishment, which maintains its status as the only legitimate government of Venezuela. That day, the slow simmer of popular opposition to the Maduro government began to boil over, and it has been violently visible ever since. Once again, many Venezuelans are fighting for liberation, and as National Assembly member Miguel Pizarro has said, fighting to protect the few freedoms that remain under the current government. Revolutions, no matter how momentus and urgent, must step aside for pandemics and not the other way around if public health is to be preserved. However, U.S. sanctions and diplomatic involvement have been another constant since the beginning of the virus’ spread. 

An old cliché asks: what is stronger–an immovable object or an unstoppable force? Over the last month and a half, forces seeking emancipation have come up against a U.S. economic blockade that refuses to budge. Now, with a deadly illness ripping through the country–in which eighty-four beds in intensive care units are available for its population of 28.87 million–the game has changed. Sanctions are becoming less justifiable as the death toll rises, while the suddenly quiet streets of Caracas betray the fear of a vulnerable population. Whether the COVID-19 crisis becomes an opportunity for the Trump administration to save lives by relieving the pressure on Venezuela or whether hundreds of thousands will die in the grip of authoritarianism, inequality, and COVID-19 in the country remains to be seen. 

The three main factors contributing to the uncertainty under which millions of Venezuelans live are all their own anomaly. The virus itself has already killed thousands in countries with far more resources than Venezuela. Prior to COVID-19, the country’s medical services were already limited by “El bloqueo” or the blockade, a term popularized by Venezuela’s Cuban allies and used by President Maduro      to describe the U.S.-imposed economic restrictions on his cabinet and his state’s oil ventures. Venezuelan sanctions have been in place in some form since 2006, and the Trump administration most recently ramped them up this February. As for ideology and its practitioners, there is no denying that socialism plays a role in the decision-making process of leaders in both countries, even though it has largely become unrecognizable in Venezuela’s government. According to Miguel Pizarro, who also serves as the Guaidó government’s Commissioner to the United Nations, the days of the Bolivarian revolution are long gone and the only ideology left in Venezuela today is “corruption and money.” Over the last month or so, as COVID-19 has made its foray into the pressure cooker of Caracas, already steaming with external and internal financial and political instability, conditions have worsened for Venezuelans. While emancipation from these complex and brutal circumstances does not seem attainable, it may be if the United States abandons cold political calculations and reshapes its sanctions and other policies based upon moral ones, with a focus on helping people in their struggle for freedom and equality.

II. The Virus 

At an event hosted by Inter-American Dialogues this February 18th, attorney and former adviser to the Organization of American States and the U.S. State Department Michael Camilleri addressed the fledgling COVID-19 outbreak and the potential effects of an epidemic on Venezuela:

"The pandemic issue is….there, as we’ve been reminded by the coronavirus [COVID-19]. Essentially, [Venezuela is] a country with a collapsed public health system. We’ve seen outbreaks of measles, of diphtheria, of yellow fever. So, you know, God forbid something like the coronavirus were to make landfall in Venezuela, the ability to then respond and isolate people and do the kind of response that you would want to do….that scenario is one that certainly is pretty scary to contemplate.”

In other words, it has been clear to policy experts that a pandemic would be disastrous for the Venezuelan people since before the virus even arrived in Latin America around March 3rd. In addition to the shocking lack of ICU beds in the country, one in three Venezuelans is food insecure, putting Venezuela in an especially vulnerable position when it comes to maintaining public health. The results of the outbreak have therefore been predictably devastating. According to Venezuela’s deputy Pizarro, the Maduro government has responded by restricting the public’s access to information related to the outbreak, insisting upon Venezuela’s “prepared and sufficient” health system. However, according to sources outside of Caracas, hospitals in Venezuela have been under-equipped to treat the ill since the beginning of the recent economic decline and the emigration of upper class Venezuelans, including doctors, over the past few years has not helped. Some are even referring to the COVID-19 outbreak as “an emergency within an emergency.” In addition, some healthcare facilities face water shortages

The Maduro government refuses to acknowledge any of these problems, and the internal and external response has been one of outrage and anxiety. The interim government of Juan Guaidó has coordinated with groups from around the world who can help Venezuela implement best practices to stop the spread of COVID-19. However, the Maduro government has a history of declining aid. Last February, when trucks full of U.S. aid arrived at the Venezuelan border, the Maduro government blocked their entry with barricades. This April 30th, two flights meant to repatriate Venezuelans stuck in the United States and Americans stuck in Venezuela suffered a similar fate. It has become clear that this virus, in conjunction with the way the Maduro government has responded to it, have become repressive elements for the Venezuelan people. 

Critical Theory seeks to identify and interrogate sources of oppression, and it is clear that the COVID-19 situation in Venezuela has become one. The lack of health services caused by complicated political and economic realities combined with the repression of information that could improve prevention efforts is a massive disservice to the Venezuelan people. To further exacerbate the situation, the opposition (or “emancipatory”) movement trying to oust the Maduro regime from within had been gaining traction from massive, nearly daily protests which are no longer an option in the new era of social distancing. The COVID-19 pandemic has added new dimensions to the political machine currently oppressing Venezuelans, removed access to a dimension of their resistance, and most of all, it has exposed their vulnerabilities as a population in the face of the current pandemic. 

III. The Blockade

Given the already devastating conditions in Venezuela, as outlined above, it is worth examining the U.S. sanctions that have been slowly increasing over the last decade or so. Beginning in 2006, the United States has imposed various terrorism, drug trafficking, and human rights-related sanctions on individuals and corporations in Venezuela, along with some broader sectoral restrictions. A year after Nicolás Maduro ascended to Venezuela’s presidency in 2013, the U.S. Congress passed the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act in response to the violent repression of a protest by President Maduro’s National Guard and security forces resulting in the deaths of forty-three people. The law gave the United States’ president the directive to freeze the assets of and impose visa exclusions upon any person affiliated with Venezuela’s government who was responsible for human rights violations in any capacity. 2014 was also the year during which Venezuela declared itself to be in an economic recession (following a brief recovery from the global recession of 2008 to 2010) and reduced its oil exports by a significant percentage since the implementation of Hugo Chávez’s economic model. The Obama administration went on to extend personal sanctions to “those involved in undermining democratic processes or institutions; [perpetrating] serious human rights abuses, prohibiting….freedom of expression or peaceful assembly, and [participating in] public corruption” through executive action in 2016. Sanctions were not extended to larger industries in Venezuela until Donald Trump took office in 2017. The President has since signed multiple executive orders blocking Venezuela’s access to U.S. financial markets, including for the state-run oil company, PDVSA, which is responsible for a significant portion of the country’s economic activity; banning various Russian and Cuban banks and corporations that were aiding Venezuela with its oil exports from U.S. jurisdiction; and sanctioning more Venezuelan individuals. The most recent sanctions were imposed upon Russian-owned oil subsidiary Rosneft Oil, which was handling up to seventy percent of Venezuela’s oil shipments to the rest of the world before February 18th, 2020 when the Trump administration cut off its access to markets under U.S. jurisdiction. 

The United States’ slowly mounting suffocation of Venezuela’s oil trade through sanctions has coincided with a dramatic decline in the quality of life for Venezuelans that begs the question–is it worth it? Now that COVID-19 has struck, Venezuelans suffering due to hyperinflation, lack of healthcare, and loss of jobs are also facing their own mortality. For the sake of perspective, the United States was experiencing a period of economic growth and stability prior to the spread of COVID-19. Since measures were implemented to limit the spread of the virus, 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment, a number which represents almost nineteen percent of our labor force. The impact of this virus and its countermeasures are likely even worse in Venezuela–a country with a misinformed population and no oil money left to pay its people unemployment benefits. These benefits are sorely needed in a country where much of the population lives paycheck-to-paycheck and the government does not have the money it needs to incentivize those workers to stay home. Venezuelans are facing some terrifying possibilities when it comes to surviving the COVID-19 crisis, and U.S. sanctions are an additional stressor they do not need. 

The normative domain of Critical IR Theory focuses on the ethics of world citizenship, or “the individual’s, state’s, and group’s shared understanding of and commitments to international justice.” After more than a decade of sanctions, the most recent of which are not specifically targeted at members of the Maduro regime, the current pandemic has prompted a growing response from the world community–a call for relief. The U.N. Secretary General and members of several human rights and policy advocacy groups have recently made impassioned appeals for the U.S. government to remove obstacles to success for countries such as Venezuela and Iran, if only for the duration of the pandemic. Critical IR Theory places importance upon shared moral understandings. It has come time for the U.S. government to get on board with the consensus that imposing economic sanctions, which are dramatically reducing a state’s ability to respond to a global crisis, is wrong and runs contrary to effective world citizenship. The other two domains of Critical Theory are the sociological and the praxeological domains, which encompass the social determination of international structures and the actions taken to enforce principles of justice, respectively. Neither are as relevant to the question of Venezuelan sanctions as the normative domain. The social determinants of inequality between the United States and Venezuela and the organizations that reinforce that inequality are myriad and outside of the scope of this format. As for the latter, an analysis of actions taken to implement the principles of justice require the powers that be to have the intention of doing so. Without much more in-depth analysis, it cannot be assumed that the U.S. and Venezuelan governments have the express intention of implementing equality through formal institutions. 

In addition to being a normative good, the easing of sanctions would also make sense according to ethical measurements of cosmopolitanism, a strand of moral thought encompassed by Critical IR Theory. Ethical cosmopolitans insist upon all people’s equal moral standing and do not accept the borders or cultural divides between two countries to serve as an excuse for any two people to be treated differently because we all have equal duties to each other as human beings. While ethical cosmopolitanism is compatible, in the opinions of many theorists, with the sovereign state model, it is hard to argue that it would be compatible with a sanctions regime targeted by one state at another in a time of crisis. Sanctions make sense from the perspective of U.S. political interest, as they are one way to put pressure on an unfriendly regime that have had a proven political impact in the past. In the Soviet Union, for example, economic pressure from the United States alone played a vital role in their eventual collapse. The United States clings to the hope that the same tools will work in Venezuela and has even leveraged the lifting of restrictions against the Venezuelan government in return for regime change. 

On March 31st, well into the COVID-19 crisis and a month after the most recent oil sanctions were implemented, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a new framework for Venezuela. The basis of the proposal was that the United States would be willing to begin the process of lifting sanctions on Venezuela if the Maduro government was willing to step aside for “a broadly acceptable transitional government to administer fair and free presidential elections.” In his announcement, Secretary Pompeo also added “....sanctions will remain in effect, and increase, until the Maduro regime accepts a genuine political transition.” This statement is a remarkable admission: the United States has made it known that its goal is not to see a rapid increase in Venezuelans’ quality of life under any circumstances, but to prioritize regime change in Caracas. Aside from the issues with sovereignty that this creates (the preservation of sovereignty at all costs is not a tenet of Critical IR Theory), the political calculations it makes are not sufficient for decision-making. As Steven C. Roach puts it, “the focus on states’ political interests presented its own limitation: it ignored arguably the most important agent of the emancipatory project, namely, the individual citizen….” The emancipatory project, an idea which originated from the work of theorist Jürgen Habermas, refers to the process by which people seek to liberate themselves from oppression as it is understood discursively. The political choice the United States has made to ramp up sanctions on Venezuela in the name of emancipating its people from an oppressive regime ignores their immediate need for release from economic chokehold. Unsurprisingly, the Maduro government rejected the United States’ conditions, and neither economic or political freedom has been advanced a single step by Secretary Pompeo’s plan. U.S. sanctions on Venezuela during this particular historical moment, when seen through the lens of Critical Theory, are shockingly unsavory and ineffective as tools of emancipation. The United States should lift its non-personal sanctions on Venezuela without attempting to enforce regime change as a condition of the decision. The policy should continue even after the pandemic comes to a close, as sanctions are putting far too much economic stress on many Venezuelans for them to effectively join a collective struggle for emancipation.

IV. The Ideologues

What is notable, if one examines the history of President Maduro’s socialist party in Venezuela, is that a movement intended to emancipate people from poverty and injustice ended up being led by a regime which is overseeing the rejection of vital humanitarian assistance and contributing to misinformation about a crisis. In part, Critical Theory of IR articulates how the countering of oppressive state power drives the human struggle for justice and equality–or the long-ignored “humanistic” element of IR, and how it conflicts with the power and function of states. In other words, the yearning for honor, dignity, and respect among the masses leads to the emancipatory project, which is the undertaking involved in delivering oneself and one’s own from oppression as oppression is understood and shaped by society and its discourse. This humanist element has driven a great portion of Venezuela’s history, including the rise of Western socialism, and the party of Chávez and Maduro in the country. According to critical theorists, however, the modern era during which this rise has occurred may have contributed to its ultimate failure. As Steven C. Roach explains, “rather than liberating man from oppression, technology, market forces (e.g. consumerism), and liberal tenets of individual freedom had conspired to suppress the political consciousness of man.” The broad-based goal of Critical IR Theory is to expose the many sources of oppression through active analysis of “the social genesis of norms and events/crises.” When it comes to Venezuela, the market forces he mentions are most visible in the oil industry. Under Chávez, international oil money funded socialist projects which lifted people out of poverty. Under Maduro, the money has served mostly as a spring-well for corruption. Critical Theory borrows from Marxism on this point–according to the first generation of Frankfurt School theorists, modern technology and capitalist forces of profit conflict with the struggle for freedom and equality. Therefore, Critical Theory can explain why, even in Venezuela—where there exists a legacy of popular struggle—emancipatory attempts have ended poorly. It is the nature of capitalist world markets, such as the oil market, to suppress the instincts of those who seek out liberation, and corrupt socialist and other emancipatory efforts. 

When it comes to the United States, the justification for sanctions and general poor sentiment towards Venezuela is wrapped up in ideology. In President Trump’s most recent State of the Union Address, at which Venezuela’s interim President Juan Guaidó was in attendance, Trump referred to smashing the “socialist dictator” Nicolás Maduro’s grip on power. The Guaidó government’s Commissioner to the United Nations, however, has said that the only ideology left in Venezuela today is “corruption and money.” The Trump administration is extending its ideological attacks on President Maduro’s regime, even as the Maduro regime slips further and further away from its ideology. Socialism has been a sensitive subject for U.S. citizens since the Cold War, and President Trump knows that countering it drives up his popularity. If anything, President Maduro benefits from being called a socialist. It draws him closer to the legacy of Hugo Chávez and removes him from the greed, lack of social progress, and preventable deaths to which his regime has led. Once again, a political calculation by the Trump administration comes at the cost of an accurate, effective response to the horror of Venezuela’s current situation. Venezuela’s opposition, especially the Guaidó interim government, relies on international support to keep its struggle alive. The Trump administration should cease its inaccurate ideological attacks and instead focus its criticisms of the Maduro regime on the oppressive realities of Venezuela today in order to ensure that our support for the opposition is understood and justified in the eyes of a global community, which is still struggling to come to a consensus on the matter.

V. Conclusion

Critical Theory of international relations grew popular alongside Venezuela’s modern political system, though its principles are noticeably absent from the United States’ decision-making process in relation to Venezuela. The main tools the Trump administration currently has in place to achieve its thinly-veiled goal of regime change in Venezuela are an ever-growing sanctions regime and a series of ideological attacks. Neither are effective. The former ignores the human aspect of the situation in Venezuela and actually harms the people who are struggling to be emancipated from an oppressive regime. The latter is an inaccurate media campaign which exploits Venezuelan issues for the political gain of the Trump administration in Washington. Both are poor choices, especially when looking through a Critical Theory lens, and both are being made less justifiable by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the face of a compounding crisis, the Trump administration should ease non-personal sanctions on Venezuela in order to save lives and advance Venezuelans’ emancipatory project in the long run. Also in the long run, the administration should adopt a more nuanced criticism of the Maduro regime which focuses on the issues of Venezuelans rather than American political gains and therefore more effectively represents the issue in the international arena.


Author's Notes:


The chapters of International Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversity  (Fourth Edition), edited by Tim Dunne, Milja Kurki, and Steve Smith referenced in my analysis are: “Normative International Relations Theory,” written by Toni Erskine, and “Critical Theory” written by Steven C. Roach.


Seeing as Venezuela has two contested presidents, I refer to them both by their names along with their titles. “The President” is used to refer to U.S. President Donald Trump.

Acknowledgements:  Thanks to Dr. Lawrence Olson for his instruction and assistance with the content of my analysis. I also want to thank Haitong Du for the valuable input and Elad Raymond at the Onero Institute for giving a platform to undergraduate students writing about our changing world.
About the Author:  Natalie Caloca is a rising junior at the Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington D.C. Her focuses are in conflict resolution, international politics, and Latin American politics. She recently completed an internship at the Center for Democracy in the Americas which inspired her to further her academic study into the specificities of U.S. policy impacts on Venezuela.

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