Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken recently announced sanctions against seven public officials in El Salvador and Guatemala, including five Salvadoran Supreme Court justices, putting them on the State Department’s official list of “Undemocratic and Corrupt Actors.” This round added to the more than 300 individuals the United States had already placed sanctions on in Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala and to U.S. diplomatic and financial sanctions on the governments of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.
While the U.S. government has applied sanctions on nations and leaders around the world accused of human rights abuses and graft, in Latin America, sanctions have become one of the central pillars of U.S. policy to defend democracy and combat corruption. All of these governments and individuals are probably worthy targets of sanctions, but to what end?
Sanctions can be an important diplomatic tool when applied in a calibrated fashion. But they are rarely accompanied by clear measures of their failure or success and criteria for their possible lifting.
The Treasury Department announced months ago that it was reviewing U.S. sanctions’ effects on the well-being of people in the targeted countries. But the review, requested by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, has taken longer than expected and appears to focus on economywide sanctions and not the increasingly common tool of individual sanctions.
One opportunity to reassess and adjust sanctions is occurring in Mexico, as the Venezuelan government negotiates with its democratic opposition. While the Nicolás Maduro regime has said it would not agree to internationally supervised elections until sanctions on the state-owned oil company are lifted, the White House, along with Canada and the European Union, has signaled willingness to loosen some sanctions in exchange for reforms. What those reforms need to be, and which sanctions would be lifted, are not clear.
U.S. sanctions have a long history in Latin America. Cuba is the most obvious example of how sanctions can be piled on, even if they clearly have failed to achieve anything. Originally established in 1962, the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba was codified into law by Congress in 1992 and again in 1996, all with the stated intent of improving human rights and overturning the Communist government. Almost 60 years later, not only does Cuba remain one of the most repressive societies in the world, but in 2018 President Raúl Castro passed the torch to a next generation, with the appointment of the Communist Party apparatchik Miguel Díaz-Canel.
On the campaign trail in 2020, Joe Biden promised to revisit U.S. policy toward Cuba. But rather than seeking a way to scale back President Donald Trump’s restrictions on travel and remittances to the island, after the Cuban government’s crackdown on mostly peaceful demonstrators in July, the Biden White House imposed its own sanctions on four members of the Cuban government and on the national police. It was another ineffective move, since the existing sanctions had failed to prevent the original crackdown.
Central America has also shown how impotent U.S. economic punishments can be. In response to a crackdown against democratic activists by President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, the Trump and Biden administrations have imposed sanctions on more than 100 public officials, including Mr. Ortega and his wife and the vice president, Rosario Murillo. Despite these punishments and the suspension of U.S. development support, seven of Nicaragua’s potential opposition candidates for the Nov. 7 presidential elections are in jail or under house arrest and over 100 political prisoners remain behind bars.
Before Mr. Blinken’s most recent additions, this year the White House had already placed sanctions against more than 55 Central Americans determined to have engaged in corruption. Beyond the risk of just adding more and more people to the list of reprobates ad infinitum under individual sanctions, the economic repercussions of financials sanctions, according to Tufts professor Daniel Drezner, “are likely to trigger repression, corruption and backsliding on human development indicators.”
Over the past decade Venezuela has become the target of the some of the most stringent U.S. coercive measures, starting with a raft of sanctions against individuals under President Barack Obama’s administration. The Trump administration expanded the sanctions prohibiting transactions with Venezuela’s state-owned oil and gas companies after the widely questioned 2018 re-election of Mr. Maduro. By 2017 the U.S. government had put sanctions on over 160 Venezuelans for reasons ranging from narcotics trafficking, corruption, ties to terrorists and human rights abuses. The apparent goal in this cascade of sanctions was to topple Mr. Maduro and put his main opponent, Juan Guaidó, in office.
With Mr. Maduro’s government engaged in its fifth attempt at negotiations with the opposition, the Biden administration has the opportunity to demonstrate a new commitment to use sanctions as a carrot rather than a stick — not just for Venezuela, but for the region.
Before the two sides conclude the current negotiations in Mexico, the White House needs to be clear what specific reforms will lead to the lifting of which specific sanctions. The compromise must include Venezuela’s release of 340 or so political prisoners, the delivery of international humanitarian assistance of food and medicines through independent organizations without government interference, and free and fair voting in the Nov. 22 regional and municipal elections. In return, the U.S. government should agree to lift export restrictions on goods and equipment Venezuela needs to process oil, generate electricity and provide diesel for public transport. To minimize the risk that the oil revenue would boost Mr. Maduro’s corrupt state and his cronies, the United States would need to insist that the bulk of the revenue pay for food imports and critical public services to alleviate the suffering of poor Venezuelans.
But beyond any immediate refinement of Venezuelan sanctions, the White House, Congress and experts in the field need to conduct a public bipartisan review of America’s ever-growing sanctions regime to assess the humanitarian impact and evaluate how well the nation’s goals are furthered by such punitive policies, even as Treasury pursues its assessment.
Such an evaluation should establish other diplomatic tools to lay out concrete, realistic steps toward calibrated relief of sanctions (regime change does not count), diplomatic channels to negotiate through third parties, financial incentives through development aid or assurances to private investors to induce change, and coordinating with other sanction-applying entities in these diplomatic efforts.
Slapping sanctions on corrupt, human rights-abusing regimes and individuals may make diplomats and elected officials feel good. But as this becomes an increasingly central part of U.S. policy in Latin America, we need to understand when they aren’t doing their job and be willing to adjust.
Christopher Sabatini is the senior research fellow for Latin America at Chatham House in London is currently working on a book on geopolitics and human rights.
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