The Sanctions Predicament

New sanctions on Venezuelan officials are often cause for celebration at home and abroad, but they are flawed and ineffective. What do effective sanctions look like and where do we start?

Photo: Washington Examiner

Sanctions always bring hope. To many, they’re a sign of the world paying attention to Venezuela, that they’re trying to help; sanctions are often seen as the ultimate show of support a country can make. Like most Venezuelans, every time a new one is announced, I revel in the thought of Diosdado and other enchufados unable to travel to Miami or use their frozen assets. It seems appropriate that they remain trapped in the misery they created, right?


Sanctions are complicated. They’re messy, controversial. The reason? They rarely work.

Recently, the United States, Canada, the European Union and Switzerland have imposed targeted financial sanctions on Venezuelan officers, freezing their assets overseas and prohibiting financial transactions. President Donald Trump has issued three Executive Orders further limiting financial transactions with the Venezuelan government.

Sanctions are complicated. They’re messy, controversial. The reason? They rarely work.

But it’s much easier to implement sanctions than it is to have them succeed. When used as a diplomatic tool, they always carry demands, and the likelihood of those demands being met decreases dramatically if they’re of high cost to the target of the sanctions.

So what makes them effective? Specific and attainable demands.

There’s such a thing as “bad” sanctions, those too broad. An example is the Trump administration’s new demands for lifting the sanctions on Iran. Among them, are huge concessions for Iran’s regional geopolitical influence (like withdrawing all troops from Syria and stopping support for Houthi rebels in Yemen). Meeting these would spell the end for Iran’s political leadership domestically, which has already struggled to find support from political hardliners.

Most sanctions against Venezuela carry demands for free and fair elections and the restoration of democratic rule. And while these are reasonable, they are neither specific nor easily attainable.

Support for Maduro’s government at home and across Latin America dwindles. Every day, the regime is more isolated, and that’s not necessarily good; the more isolated a government is, the higher the costs of exit are, and sanctions have not helped in this respect. In the current political climate, there are massive disincentives for the PSUV leadership to give up power.

There’s such a thing as “bad” sanctions, those too broad.

Now, this doesn’t mean that sanctions are completely useless, but the solution lies in well-crafted demands. Sanctions must offer explicit, accessible alternatives for the regime, otherwise they are worthless in fomenting change. Free and fair elections are a great start, but there needs to be explicit guidelines. Demanding full access to independent international observers that have been jointly agreed upon is an example, the appointment of key opposition members to important government positions is another.

Another option would be to provide a viable exit strategy for the regime, such as a form of power-sharing or amnesty (an appalling, indigestible reality for Venezuelans). Take South Africa’s post-apartheid transition to democracy, after years of international sanctions and pariahship as example. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission generally granted amnesty to those who confessed crimes committed under apartheid. The prospect of clemency in place of retributive justice was a major factor in securing a political solution.

Sanctions have the potential to be effective when applied correctly, and while sanctions against Venezuelan officials should remain a cause for celebration, we should continue to consider the extent of their effectiveness and look for strategies that ensure their success.

Alexander Trivella

Venezuelan student at Harvard Law School. International politics junkie and global history nerd. Caraqueño de por vida.