Behind the White House's Sanctions Against Venezuela

04/08/2015 01:44 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2015

Since the Obama administration decided last week to impose new sanctions on Venezuela, many people, including journalists, have inquired as to what motivated them to do this. Some are curious as to the apparent incongruity between this move and the White House decision in December to begin the process of normalizing relations with Cuba. Others are wondering why the administration would do something that so obviously hurts the opposition in Venezuela, at least in the short run. The main opposition group, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), issued a statement that did not support the sanctions: "Venezuela is not a threat to anyone," it said in response to the White House's absurd claim that Venezuela posed an "extraordinary threat" to U.S. national security. And then there is the problem of Washington's isolation in the hemisphere, which has certainly increased with this latest move.

The contradiction between the Venezuela sanctions and the opening to Cuba is probably more apparent than real. A majority of the U.S. foreign policy establishment has wanted to normalize relations with Cuba since at least the 1990s. There is money to be made there, and most of those interested in getting rid of the Cuban government seem to believe -- correctly or not -- that it will be easier to do so if the island is opened up to commercial relations with the U.S. So beginning to normalize relations with Cuba is generally consistent with the broader strategy of opposition to Venezuela and other left governments that have been elected and re-elected since 1998.

It is only inconsistent if one sees the opening to Cuba as the beginning of a change in overall U.S. strategy for the region, one that seeks to reconcile with the huge hemispheric political shift that has taken place in the 21st century -- sometimes known as Latin America's "second independence." President Rafael Correa of Ecuador succinctly expressed the regional governments' disgust with the latest sanctions, saying that it "reminds us of the darkest hours of our America, when we received invasions and dictatorships imposed by the imperialists." He then asked, "Can't they understand that Latin America has changed?" The short answer to his question is no. Washington is still some ways away from the hemispheric equivalent of Nixon's trip to China in 1972, which was not just about beginning a process of opening diplomatic or commercial relations but also about coming to grips with the new reality that an independent "Communist China" was here to stay.

Even as the normalization of relations with Cuba proceeds, the White House plans to continue funding "democracy promotion" programs within the country -- as well as numerous others in the region.

The explanation of what the White House -- or whoever influenced them -- hopes to get out of these sanctions is less obvious. During the Obama presidency, there has been some struggle over Latin America policy among the various decision-makers. For example, when President Obama wanted to restore ambassadorial relations with Venezuela in 2010, he was sabotaged by right-wing congressional offices and probably their allies in the State Department. Last summer, the administration moved a step closer to full diplomatic relations with Venezuela by receiving a chargé d'affaires at the Venezuelan embassy -- one step below ambassador. This, too, was met with some resistance and attempts from the right to blow up relations, in order to cut off the natural progress toward full diplomatic relations.

The latest sanctions, like the ones approved in December, must be seen in this light. They represent a victory for a political faction that wants to prevent the normalization of diplomatic relations with Venezuela. Although the loudest public voice of this faction consists of the far right in Congress -- legislators like Marco Rubio in the Senate or Ed Royce in the House -- they have important allies within the administration, including in the State Department and Pentagon. Washington's support for the 2009 military coup in Honduras was perhaps the most important of many examples; it was not a result of pressure from the right in Congress, but came from deep within the Obama administration.

These people are playing the long game, and appear to be willing to sacrifice some political capital (in Caracas as well as Washington) in order to try to delegitimize the government of Venezuela. Like much of the opposition in Venezuela, they are not committed to an electoral route to power. Although Venezuela is facing economic troubles right now, nobody knows when oil prices might rebound, or when the government might fix its most important economic problems. Even if the opposition were to win a majority in the National Assembly elections in December, that would not put them in control of the national government, any more than the Republicans' current control of Congress does in the United States. So the hardliners want to strike now, in the hope that this will advance their strategy of "regime change."

The Latin American governments understand this strategy and see it as an ugly threat to democracy in the region; hence their quick response and fierce opposition to the sanctions. Like the Republicans who thought they were being clever with their invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address the U.S. Congress, or their senatorial letter to the government of Iran, the architects of this new sanctions policy will soon find that they have miscalculated.

This article was published by US News & World Report on March 18, 2015.