Unsurprisingly, the bold move of Guaidó to swear himself in as interim President of Venezuela has divided progressives. The question of Guaidó’s legitimacy is complicated, as is that of Maduro. Guaidó is the President of the National Assembly of Venezuela, Venezuela’s unicameral legislature that has been sidelined by the Maduro regime since a coalition of opposition parties, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (DUR), won the legislative elections in a landslide on December 6th 2015. The senior judiciary have been largely a handmaiden of Maduro’s executive in this period. Shortly after the December 2015 elections the highest court – the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (STJ) – barred three DUR representatives from taking place on disputed grounds of electoral irregularities, resulting in the DUR losing its supermajority. The STJ ruled repeatedly against legislation passed by the DUR-controlled National Assembly on often tenuous grounds of unconstitutionality, including striking down a law that would have facilitated access of humanitarian aid to Venezuela, which was and continues to suffer from a stark economic crisis alongside the political one. Shortly after his election as President of the National Assembly, in a move orchestrated by a divisive opposition leader in close coordination with international allies and especially the Trump regime, Guaidó was sworn in by National Assembly allies as interim President of Venezuela on the grounds that Maduro’s legitimate claim to the Presidency was based on the 2013 Presidential elections following the death of erstwhile leader Hugo Chavez and thus ended on January 9th 2019.

A large part of the controversy thus turns on the legitimacy of the Presidential elections of May 2018, which returned Maduro to Presidential office with 67.8% of the vote. These elections however, were widely decried as being neither free nor fair. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, for instance, has drawn attention to “credible reports of hundreds of extra-judicial killings”, and the severe restriction of “freedom of expression, opinion, association and peaceful assembly”, concluding that “that this context does not in any way fulfill minimal conditions for free and credible elections”. In protest, the main opposition group, the DUR, boycotted the elections. Consequently, many democratic countries, predominantly in the Americas and in Europe, refused to recognize the legitimacy of the election. Besides the election itself, Maduro has been increasingly acting like a tin-pot dictator. Freedom in the World 2019 bluntly reports that in 2018 the “Maduro administration continued its brazen crackdown on the political opposition, employing frequent arrests, torture, and temporary disappearances to quash dissent”.

Yet, progressives are divided on how to respond to the political crisis in Venezuela. Guardiola-Rivera in a recent Guardian op-ed, decried the move as a coup against a “revolutionary republic born of a people’s war”. In the pages of The Nation, Ciccariello-Maher called it a “brazenly unconstitutional power grab”. A letter signed by over 70 scholars and experts published recently on OpenDemocracy sums up the opposition strategy as “ousting the Maduro government through often violent protests, a military coup d’etat, or other avenues that sidestep the ballot box”. To me, some of these voices reflect hard-left nostalgia for a Fidel-esque autocratic regime that those committed to democracy know to ignore. But it is no help that prominent early supporters of Guaidó were far-right nationalists like Trump and Bolsonaro, despite Guaidó belonging to a centre-left party (Voluntad Popular, the third-largest party in the broad DUR alliance). Then again, that a motley crew of autocrats headed by Putin, Jinping and Erdoğan lined up behind Maduro should give us pause. It is tough to make something straight out of this crooked timber.

Two main things give progressives pause. The first is an understandable knee-jerk rejection of Trumpist foreign policy, especially when it echoes hawkish neocon rhetoric. One part of this is simply the instinct that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. Good for what it’s worth, but in the complex web of 21st century international relations, often not worth much. It is also difficult to forget that the excuse of democracy promotion is often used to justify military action, especially by the United States. And it should not be forgotten. The list is long, but George W. Bush’s Orwellian use of the statement “the greatest power of freedom is to overcome hatred and violence” to justify waging war on Iraq sticks most in my mind. Trump’s insistence that “all options are on the table” sounds like the prelude of another lamentable display of American military imperialism. Democratic internationalism has a bad name.

The second worry is that even when one firmly rejects military intervention (as one should) the kind of economic and political sanctions that remain to try to influence democratic transition often backfire. There are at least four potential pitfalls.

First, sanctions are imposed inconsistently. The decision of whether or not to impose sanctions can be heavily determined by the economic interests in play. For instance, it is much easier for the EU to lean on Belarus than Azerbaijan, given their interest in oil and gas in the Caspian sea. But such inconsistency undermines the message that democratic actors care about democracy.

Second, instead of harming autocrats, sanctions can play into their hands. Writing in The Nation last November, Nicholas Mulder pointed out that where sanctions isolate autocratic countries, as has been the case with recent US sanctions on Iran, political elites are free to extract ‘monopoly rents from a population that is deprived of access to foreign goods, services, and news’. It is therefore unsurprising that sanctions often increase income inequality. In the context of Venezuela, Special Rapporteur Idriss Jazairy, who reports to the Human Rights Council, recently warned that “sanctions which can lead to starvation and medical shortages are not the answer to the crisis in Venezuela”. Geoff Ramsey, the assistant director for Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America, has a similar perspective – as reported by the Guardian on Sunday – “it’s hard to see these sanctions doing much apart from increasing the suffering of normal people”.

The third problem is that sanctions don’t seem to be very effective. The economic impact of sanctions is a double-edged sword, generally harming sanctioners as well as the sanctioned. Worse, they only very rarely to achieve their objective: one important study identified only 13 successful sanctions in the entire period from 1914-2008.

Finally, in the context of democracy promotion, sanctions are a blunt instrument. Although the precise nature of the relationship is subject of unending controversy, political scientists agree that there is a positive relationship between economic growth and the democratic consolidation. Slowing economic growth in a target country, as sanctions are liable to do, can harm democratic prospects there in the long run. And it’s hard to see how alternative political sanctions such as travel restrictions help towards the goal of creating open societies.

It is tempting in the face of these defaults to abandon sanctions and to maintain a safe distance from the internal politics of autocratic countries, as New Zealand did when it refrained from taking a position on the Venezuelan crisis. But this is a mistake. It would be a mistake to let the progressive agenda for democratic internationalism be captured by neocons, neoliberals and hawks. Economic and political sanctions are key tools of democracy promotion, if used well.

One general principle to govern when and how sanctions should used against autocrats like Maduro to promote democratic transition is: don’t empower autocrats. When democratic states sanction autocrats, they should do so consistently, even – perhaps especially – when there are costs involved.

That sanctions are somewhat zero-sum shouldn’t come as a surprise. Sanctions are not fines. Limiting the inflow of Venezuelan oil and freezing the assets of Petroleas de Venezuela, as announced this week is likely to harm US economic interests. A full oil embargo, which Trump is said to be considering, would do so even more. But all that tells us is that the current trade relationship with the autocratic Venezuelan state is one that profits the US. Unsurprising, but hard to square with a commitment to avoid empowering autocrats. In focusing with tunnel-vision on the effects of sanctions, progressive analysts sometimes forget that not sanctioning can be extending a status quo wherein democratic countries are complicit in and profit from trade with autocratic states.

The same principle can be employed to assuage very real fears that indiscriminate sanctions target the worst-off, increase income inequality, and hand autocratic elites further power to treat their countries’ markets and resources as their private pantry. Economic and political sanctions ought to monomaniacally target autocratic elites’ interests. Wherever possible, working people must be spared (further) economic disruption. This is not a new point, indeed it dominated debates over how to reform the way sanctions were employed around the turn of the century. One Policy Brief from the Brookings Institution in 1999 pointed to failures in Haiti, Bosnia and Pakistan to argue for a thoroughgoing review of how the United States used sanctions, especially with regard to their generality and unilateralism.

Sometimes it will not be possible to impose sanctions on autocrats with no cost to working people. This is the problem of dirty hands in politics. Where this is the case, democratic internationalists should put their money where their mouth is. Every cent denied to autocrats ought to be diverted to pro-democratic and civil society actors in the same country. UN Special Rapporteur Mr. Jazairy is right that ‘precipitating an economic and humanitarian crisis… is in violation of all norms of international law’. Past sanctions regimes have decreased long-term GDP growth and increased economic inequalities: the opposite should be the case — no or minimal impact on GDP, but a decrease in inequality by redirecting resources from autocratic leaders to their oppressed peoples and to those civil society actors advocating for democratic change from the inside. This support of the civil societies of autocratic states is vital and will be resisted, as we saw in Venezuela when the Supreme Tribunal of Justice struck down laws facilitating the entrance of humanitarian aid, but more recently with the shocking recent news of the Venezuelan army sealing off border crossings with Columbia to prevent humanitarian aid coming in. Often the economic bill of such a strategy will be high, as democratic states will be trading a profitable relationship with an autocrat for costly support of their civil society. But that’s what is required. There’s no such thing as a free democratic transition.


By Tom Theuns, Utrecht University