Recently, the Obama Administration announced that it was applying sanctions against high-ranking Venezuelan officials. Few people deny that Venezuela’s government has committed human rights violations, as I’ve documented some of them in these roundups, but the main outrage over this move comes because of the hyperbole and the hypocrisy that went along with this move:
But the main object of South American ire may be the language leading off Obama’s order. It describes the situation in Venezuela as constituting an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”
The U.S. government hasn’t typically described Venezuela as a major security threat. The 2015 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community, released last month by the director of national intelligence, devotes two paragraphs to Venezuela, neither of which describe the country as a threat to the United States.
But a senior U.S. administration official told reporters last week that the use of “national security” language is standard when issuing an executive order to impose sanctions. “Most of the sanctions programs that we have, from Iran to Syria, Burma, across the board, rely on these same types of national emergency declarations,” the official said.
Adam Isacson, senior associate for regional security policy at the human rights nonprofit Washington Office on Latin America, explained that under U.S. law, the executive has to declare a national emergency that threatens national security in order to freeze a foreigner’s assets by executive order.
“It has to look like a big, special thing, if you’re going to do it,” Isacson told The Huffington Post. “That’s why it has that stupid language at the beginning. I think the sanctions themselves are pretty legitimate. The United States has the right to decide who gets to do business and own property here in our country, and we should be limiting the number of human rights abusers who get to do that.”
Isacson also suggested that more people were worthy of sanctions. “Just look at New York and all the condos that are owned by Russian oligarchs,” he said. He noted as well the prevalence of human rights abuses in Mexico and Colombia, countries with which the United States enjoys good diplomatic relations.
So why is Venezuela being singled out here? Why are we so willing to damage relations with the region over a country whose record on human rights isn’t any worse than many other countries we remain strongly allied with?
I think part of the answer comes from a phenomenon that’s really well explained in Lawrence Lessig’s recent book “Republic, Lost”. One of the central insights of that book is about understanding the true nature of corruption in this country. It’s not simply a matter of the wealthy writing big checks in order to get what they want out of our lawmakers and other leaders. It’s about a system that relies on campaign funding and essentially forces lawmakers and others running for office to focus their attention and their efforts on the interests of those who can reciprocate.
The end result is that politicians end up in a bubble where they only hear and understand the issues and concerns of those wealthy enough to gain access to the bubble. This is not a phenomenon limited to either party. Democrats can become as captive to their wealthy interests as Republicans.
But the unique thing about Venezuela is that, unlike many other rights-abusing nations in the world, the victims of Maduro’s left-wing regime are often businessmen. Within the bubble of wealthy interests that politicians reside, this becomes seen as a more serious threat than when a regime targets activists or minorities or the press. In this context, the wealthy view themselves and their interests as the interests of the nation – and politicians follow suit. In reality, Venezuela is no more of a threat to U.S. interests than Saudi Arabia, Israel, or Egypt, but gets treated as if it’s far more threatening.
More stories from the past two weeks…