Open Letters as Political Marketing

The two open letters formally addressed to the White House, one asking for lifting the sanctions and the other demanding the opposite, are giving shape to a new rift in Venezuelan politics among non-Chavistas

On April 14th, an open letter signed by 25 (considerably) well-known people in Venezuela was published online. The letter itself was addressed to President Joe Biden and other notable recipients such as Speaker  of the House sanctionof Representatives Nancy Pelosi, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, and Senate Majority and Minority Leaders Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell, respectively. 

The contents of the letter have reignited a debate that’s been ongoing in Venezuela since at least 2014, when President Barack Obama signed the first major sanctions package against Venezuelan officials into law following hard government crackdowns on civilian protests that year. 

The letter features a rather interesting mix of people like public policy analyst Michael Penfold, pro-business spokespersons Jorge Botti and Ricardo Cusano, a well-known humanitarian activist like Feliciano Reyna, and even a Primero Justicia deputy to the 2015 National Assembly, José Guerra. But despite the notable signatories, the text of the letter itself is incredibly vague and even lazy. The letter also represents a curious intersection of interests being represented by the various signatories and one has to wonder how long such an alliance may last before said interests begin to collide. 

We’ll get into the contents of the letter and its purpose in a little bit, but first, we must note that it didn’t go unanswered. 

On Monday, April 18th, a sort of counter-letter was published online. It was undersigned by 68 individuals (many of whom no longer actually live in Venezuela), among them former Caracas mayor and political prisoner Antonio Ledezma, the leader of the opposition party Vente Venezuela and former presidential candidate María Corina Machado, former governor of Carabobo Henrique Salas Römer, as well as former diplomat Diego Arria, and the editor of El Nacional newspaper, Miguel H. Otero.

While the second letter never explicitly claims to be a response to the first, it’s almost impossible to not see it that way. After all, it was released just four days later, and it argues against the key points on the first letter. Or does it? Oddly enough, it doesn’t, not really. Instead, both letters have a surprising amount of common ground, not just in their content, but also in the vagueness of the text, the lack of useful arguments, and the fact that they seem to be shouting over each other in an attempt to capitalize on their respective political brands. So, let’s take a look and see why neither can realistically hope to achieve their stated purposes and how much they really have in common. 

The Dovish Approach

The first letter argues that the tactic of “maximum pressure” on the government of Nicolás Maduro has failed. I think we have to concede this point, if the U.S.’ foreign policy goal in Venezuela was to achieve the ousting of Maduro and his government, then that simply hasn’t happened. This is why this first letter suggests a change in approach. 

The text states the need to recover the oil sector’s production levels and claims that, in order to do so, Venezuela will need the assistance of foreign companies. While it never says sanctions must be lifted, it’s clear that is the intent here.

After all, with the current institutional sanctions in place, foreign companies can’t hope to work with the Caracas government, which is a requirement when it comes to oil production considering that the hydrocarbon sector is legally reserved to the state. Instead of outright saying commercial sanctions must be lifted, the signatories claim that said sanctions have actually hurt the Venezuelan people. They follow this up by saying that 75% of people in Venezuela oppose “sectoral sanctions.” 

By “sectoral sanctions” they probably mean U.S. sanctions levied on the oil sector, specifically those enabled against the Venezuelan state-owned oil company PDVSA, which has (for certain purposes) been recognized by the United States as being an extension of the Venezuelan government itself. Now, where did they get that number, 75%? It’s most likely this result from August 2021 Datanálisis Omnibus, a poll conducted by Venezuelan research firm Datanálisis. Using this would make sense considering that said firm is run by Luis Vicente León, one of the letter’s signatories. So why didn’t they say that? Why don’t they link to their findings? Why don’t they share their dataset? 

Well, for the same reason they claim sanctions have affected everyday Venezuelans but they don’t actually provide any evidence to support it. For the same reason this is an open letter. It’s not meant to reach Joe Biden and convince him to change the U.S.’ foreign policy approach for Venezuela. It’s meant for us. The point is to get people talking about their claims and stated goals, the point is to generate controversy and get their names into the news cycle. And it works. For the time being, it’s all PR and marketing.

The Hawkish Approach

This second one’s harder to read. I say that because it feels it was written using the notes app and they just ran with the first draft that came out. It features harsher language, with the goal of reminding the United States that they’re dealing with a tyrannical regime in Caracas and that they must be careful not to let “U.S. institutions cover up the cold-blooded murder of hundreds of citizens.” The letter opens saying the signatories “worry over the risks that U.S. institutions will end up protecting one of the most criminal regimes that human history has known.”

After such a strong opening, they proceed to claim that relaxing pressure on Maduro’s government would just lead to its “perpetuation” alongside those who “claim to oppose it, those who will conform themselves with the scraps offered by tyrants in order to ensure their political survival.” 

The timing and tone of the second letter are impossible to ignore. It’s clearly making accusations against the signatories of the first, yet they never come out and say it plainly. What’s more, the language used is so vague that it makes both groups look like they actually agree. 

If the second letter is meant as a response, then it’s a terrible one. It argues Venezuela’s economic demise, the collapse of the oil sector, and the lack of food and medicine, aren’t due to international sanctions. However, the first letter never claimed any of that, so all of this feels incredibly out of place. Once you read both letters, you can’t escape the feeling that they’re just shouting into the void, yelling over each other with no consideration for any serious arguments. After all, their stated objectives desperately need serious arguments considering they’re trying to convince the U.S. government that their approach to dealing with Maduro is the best. An example of this pointless yelling is the fact that the second letter finishes by saying sanctions against individuals should be strengthened, and completely ignores the institutional sanctions the first letter spoke of. Which is the exact opposite of what the first letter did by speaking of institutional sanctions and then completely ignoring individual ones.

The signatories of the second letter do nothing to disprove the claims made by the first, so we end up with text that feels like it had to be written, because the signatories felt they had to write something, anything, or else they’d risk being called out or lumped in with “the other side”. They had to protect their political brand and get their own names back into circulation, and that’s what they did.

All in all, these letters cannot possibly hope to dissuade or convince Joe Biden and the U.S. of adopting a specific approach. But that’s not the point, the point is to draw international attention back to Venezuela. For the time being, with the work behind each stance being so shallow, it’s nothing more than a PR stunt.