David Smilde and Hugo Pérez Hernáiz
Statements by US Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson in a Senate hearing on Thursday upset opposition hardliners and sent leaders of opposition coalition Mesa de la Unidad Democratica (MUD) scrambling for cover. In her testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing on the Human Rights situation in Venezuela, Jacobson said the State Department did not support sanctions at this time since they might jeopardize the dialogues taking place in Venezuela.
When pressed on the issue Jacobson said some members of the opposition had requested the US government “not to work on sanctions [against the Venezuelan government] at this time.” Jacobson refused to name who in the opposition had made the request, but pressed by Senator Robert Menéndez, Jacobson reaffirmed: “we have been specifically asked not to ask for sanctions at this time.”
Senator Menéndez found the possibility that there were “civil society groups” in Venezuela that could argue against sanctions “incredible.”
Opposition radicals immediately took to social media to express their indignation that opposition leaders could have “betrayed” their struggle by asking the US not to impose sanctions. Accusations that the MUD was in bed with the Maduro government, was being financed by “boliburgueses,” or simply lacked the courage to fight the fight dominated Twitter for the next twenty-four hours.
The MUD quickly went into damage control mode. Secretary general, Ramón Guillermo Aveledo said “The MUD’s declarations are public and widely known. No MUD spokesperson has requested from any US official what has been reported by the media today. If any organization or individual from civil society has done it, it is under its or his own responsibility…”
The issue could hardly be more complicated for the opposition coalition. The protest movement began in February not only in opposition to the Maduro government but in defiance of the MUD which had traced a more moderate strategy. From the beginning one of their main slogans has been #SOSVenezuela and main goals has been to generate international attention to Venezuela.
This has been accompanied by a constant flow of politicians, activists and student leaders making the rounds in Washington seeking action in support of their cause. Venezuelan expatriats have gotten into the act as well. This past week a caravan called the “Trip for Freedom” drove from Miami to Washington DC to demand sanctions against the Maduro government.
But ironically, the most tangible result of the protest movement has been the participation of the MUD in dialogues with the government. These dialogues have been seen with skepticism by the students and radicalized sectors of the opposition, who have accused the MUD of grabbing the agenda and ceding too much too soon. Thus the possibility that somebody in the MUD suggested that the US not levy targeted sanctions squarely strikes an existing fault line within the broader opposition coalition.
Later on Thursday, the State Department issued a statement, reposted on the MUD’s web page with a Spanish translation, clarifying Jacobson’s declarations to the Committee. The MUD also issued a press release claiming that “no one within the MUD has asked any North American Official what today the media has been claiming.” However the note also stated that “The Unidad [MUD] does not believe that citizens should pay for the failures and offenses of the Government, and suffer the added harmful consequences of the bad decision taken by the authorities on their lives. Therefore [the MUD] has been consistent with its rejection of measures that could harm the People, such as sanctions or embargoes to a whole nation.”
The next day, May 9, Guillermo Aveledo again insisted in a radio interview that no one in the MUD had asked US officials not to impose targeted sanctions, but that the MUD was firmly against any form of embargo.
Contrary to Senator’s Menédez disbelief, there are indeed important opposition figures critical of the idea of imposing even “targeted” sanctions. On Thursday newspaper editor and longtime government opponent Rafael Poleo wrote a series of tweets that were retweeted hundreds of times.
“US intervention would give Maduro nationalist solidarity, especially among the military. That is why Obama has doubts about applying them.”
“Sanctions position us poorly. They would make the Venezuelan case look like the US Cuba battle. They favor Maduro. That is why Obama does not apply them.”
“Sanctions would be on individuals, but the majority does not see that difference and Chavista propaganda would make them look like sanctions against Venezuela.”
“US sanctions would hurt PSUV bosses, but they would be used by Maduro to excuse the famine that’s coming.”
“It is counterproductive and helps the PSUV that the US’s hand appears in the Venezuelan case, which we Venezuelans are handling just fine.”
In a taste of what is to come, President Maduro has already responded strongly to the possibility of targeted sanctions with this warning: “The People of Bolívar will not be stopped by sanctions from any empire. The Fatherland of Bolívar is standing on its feet and will continue to stand during all of Twenty First century, as an independent, socialist, chavista, Bolivarian [country]. Long live the dignity of the people! Down with imperialism!”
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua also declared yesterday that “any sanction will be answered by the Government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela,” and immediately added that “since the beginning, the Government [of Venezuela] has presented evidence of the active participation of officials of the Embassy of the United State (who) have prepared, financed, and trained the groups that have tried by violent means to drag Venezuela into a civil war and thus overthrow its constitutional and legitimate government.”