US sanctions must be precise in order to spare innocent Venezuelans

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, flanked by his wife Cilia Flores and National Constituent Assembly President Delcy Rodriguez, arrives for a special session of the National Constituent Assembly to take oath as re-elected President at the Palacio Federal Legislativo in Caracas, Venezuela May 24, 2018.
Editor's note:

This op-ed was originally published by The Hill.

One of the first acts of Maduro after being (allegedly) re-elected as president of Venezuela was to expel the most senior U.S. diplomat from the country. This came after the U.S. enacted further financial sanctions aimed at closing remaining loopholes that would help the Venezuelan government issue more debt.

It seems like we will still see more reactions from the U.S. administration. Vice President Mike Pence tweeted that “[t]his provocation will be met with a swift response. We will continue to pressure Venezuela’s illegitimate regime until democracy is restored.”

Imposing financial sanctions is the right thing to do, even if by now they don’t make a big difference. This is not because the Venezuela government has other ways to issue debt, but rather because it doesn’t even in the absence of sanctions: No investor in his or her right mind would lend a penny to a broken government that has already fallen into selected default and shows no willingness nor ability to fix the economy.

The less targeted [sanctions] are, the more likely they might hurt the Venezuelan people who are already living under one of the worst humanitarian crises the hemisphere has seen.

Imposing broader sanctions to Venezuela might be a proper response, though it is important to be extremely careful when designing them. The less targeted they are, the more likely they might hurt the Venezuelan people who are already living under one of the worst humanitarian crises the hemisphere has seen.

In light of this, I believe there are two main avenues worth exploring for the U.S. administration when designing a comprehensive response to the Venezuelan dictatorship, which has become a threat not only to its people, but to the entire region.

First, while some personalized sanctions have been put in place targeting members of the Venezuelan regime, there is still a lot of room for expanding these sanctions targeted toward particular individuals.

Individualized sanctions should be imposed on middle- and high-ranking government officials and military officers who have effectively hijacked and abused the system in order to stay in power forever while enriching themselves through corruption and illegal activities.

These sanctions should also be expanded toward first-degree family members when evidence of foreign assets and bank accounts under their names is available. To increase effectiveness, President Trump and his administration should coordinate these personalized sanctions with other countries in Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Sanctions could range from freezing bank accounts and other assets to declare these people “personae non gratae” in other countries.

This last step would ban them from visiting other nations, which they frequently do for tourism or even to visit family members living abroad—where they enjoy a lifestyle that could not be afforded by the vast majority of Venezuelans.

Second, the U.S. must lead the international community and find solutions to what will continue to be an important challenge for the region: the Venezuelan refugee crisis.

According to an official report by the U.N. Migration Agency, the number of Venezuelans in South America outside their home country rose from 90,000 to 900,000 between 2015 and 2017. According to numbers from April 2018, Colombia hosts about 750,000 Venezuelans.

The U.S. and the international community should call this situation what it is: a refugee crisis.

The outflow of Venezuelans toward other countries in the region and beyond will likely continue and even accelerate in the foreseeable future, as the situation in Venezuela continues to worsen. Over the next year, it is reasonable to expect another 1 million Venezuelans fleeing their country in search of a better life.

The U.S. and the international community should call this situation what it is: a refugee crisis, especially given the broader definition of “refugee” specified in the Declaration of Cartagena of 1984.

This should be followed by providing a “fast-track” process so that Venezuelan migrants can be legally recognized as refugees, allowing them to reside and work in the receiving countries even if they have no passports, which is a common problem for Venezuelans nowadays.

The United States should also consider accepting more Venezuelans as refugees, or at the very least, provide them an option to apply for temporary protected status so that they can live and work in the United States.

Given that most of these refugees, including many children, cross the border being highly malnourished or suffering from severe health conditions, a more comprehensive system to provide humanitarian aid is required.

Thus, beyond definitions and public declarations, the receiving countries should be able to get more financial assistance from the international community aimed at assisting Venezuelan refugees and integrating them into local communities.

Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Chile, Argentina, and the rest of the region have been incredibly generous and welcoming toward the hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans arriving to their countries in search of a better life. Yet, they simply don’t have enough experience nor resources to deal with this on their own.

The U.S. has so far offered a very generous contribution of $18.5 million, but the amount of money needed to provide basic protections to these refugees is significantly higher than that, and therefore a larger effort will be required.

The U.S. can—and should—lead the international community, including other governments as well as international organizations, to help the Venezuelan people, while at the same time punishing those who have completely destroyed what once was the richest country in Latin America.