August 2, 2017 | Policy Brief

The U.S. Sanctions Venezuela’s President

August 2, 2017 | Policy Brief

The U.S. Sanctions Venezuela’s President

On Monday, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. The designation came a day after a nationwide referendum where voters chose 545 representatives, from a government-vetted list of 6,000, who will form the controversial Constituent Assembly. The new assembly, made up of staunch government supporters, will have extensive powers to change the country’s constitution, dissolve the democratically-elected National Assembly, and cancel scheduled elections.

The Assembly’s creation, following four months of violent protests and the deaths of nearly 121 Venezuelans, was met with intense international criticism, with many countries refusing to recognize the outcome of Sunday’s election. Sanctions on Maduro represent a ratcheting up of U.S. pressure on the regime, following the designations of thirteen current and former government officials last month.

According to the U.S. Treasury, Maduro’s push to form the Constituent Assembly “undermine[d] Venezuela's democracy and the rule of law,” and earned him the title of “dictatorfrom National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. While Maduro claims that the vote was meant to bring “peace,” opposition leaders claim that it was aimed to avoid holding regularly-scheduled elections. Maduro’s party, which has a 20 percent approval rating, was expected to lose heavily in light of disastrous economic conditions and continuing allegations of human rights abuses. Maduro’s actions are based on the legal precedent set by former President Hugo Chavez’s 1999 Constituent Assembly. This Assembly allowed Chavez the ability to rewrite the country’s constitution in support of his socialist revolution.

Maduro’s government reported that nearly 8.1 million people, roughly 42 percent of eligible voters, voted in Sunday’s elections. Based on this number, Maduro has hailed the turnout as the largest during the 18 years of the Bolivarian Revolution. Meanwhile, outside observers estimate the number at approximately 3.6 million, a turnout level that pales in comparison to the 7.2 million Venezuelans who voted nearly unanimously in a nonbinding, opposition-led referendum to reject the creation of the Constituent Assembly earlier in July. The legitimacy of Sunday’s vote was further called into question by reports of government employees being intimidated into voting, as well as an opposition-led boycott on participation.

Diosdado Cabello, second-in-command of Maduro’s party and recently labeled the “Pablo Escobar of Venezuela” by U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, has announced that the Assembly would establish a “truth commission” to prosecute political opponents. Such arrests have already started as two of the leading opposition politicians have been re-arrested in the middle of the night from their homes by Venezuelan intelligence security agents.

With his new powers, Maduro will likely make significant changes to the country’s constitution and eliminate political opposition. This could start with dismissing the rebellious Attorney General Luisa Ortega and following through with the Supreme Court’s previous attempt to dismantle the National Assembly. Continued domestic opposition to Maduro’s power grab raises the possibility of protracted violence.

Maduro joins three other sitting heads of state to be directly sanctioned by the U.S., including Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. If Maduro continues to disregard the rule of law and human rights, Washington has made it clear that it intends to continue pursuing “strong and swift economic actions,” including a possible oil embargo. Washington has also signaled that it plans to continue imposing sanctions on high-ranking officials, including “anyone who participates” in the “illegitimate” Constituent Assembly.

The collapse of Venezuela’s democracy presents a threat to U.S. national security. To protect its interests and values, the U.S. government should continue sanctioning Maduro’s authoritarian regime.

Michaela Frai is a research associate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and Alex Entz is a research analyst at FDD’s Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance. Follow Michaela on Twitter @MichaelaFrai.

Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD.