Why Sanctions Are Right in the Case of Venezuela

Venezuela's ex-military intelligence chief, Hugo Carvajal, arrives at the Queen Beatrix International Airport after he was re
Venezuela's ex-military intelligence chief, Hugo Carvajal, arrives at the Queen Beatrix International Airport after he was released by authorities, in Oranjestad, Aruba, Sunday, July 27, 2014. Carvajal, who was designated to be Venezuela's consul to Aruba, was detained at the Caribbean island's airport on a request from U.S. prosecutors. U.S. authorities alleged Carvajal is one of several high-ranking Venezuelan military and law enforcement officials who provided haven to drug traffickers from neighboring Colombia and helped them move U.S.-bound cocaine through Venezuela. (AP Photo/Pedro Famous Diaz)

I beg to differ with liberals who say the recent U.S. sanctions against individual members of the Venezuelan government are counterproductive. By the same token, I disagree with conservatives who dismiss them for being too light and applaud the White House and Congress' efforts to punish Venezuelan drug traffickers and human rights violators for a very simple reason: in the rigged system of justice that Hugo Chavez set up in the country, it is impossible for any member of its repressive political system to ever face justice in a court of law.

The latest sanctions controversy came about last month after a period of relative calm in the stormy relationship between the United States and Venezuela and should serve as a reminder that the interactions between the two countries continue to be prickly and could get worse.

The first confrontation came when the State Department requested the government of Aruba to capture and extradite General Hugo Carvajal, the former chief of intelligence of Hugo Chavez whom the DEA and Interpol accuse of involvement in drug trafficking. Carvajal had just been appointed general consul of his country on the island but had not yet been accredited. Aruba captured him but deferred the extradition decision to the government of the Netherlands who, unexpectedly and disappointingly, denied the request and allowed Carvajal to return home a free man.

The second slap came when the White House announced that it would impose restrictions on visas of a still undetermined number of individuals for fraud or for their part in human rights violations in Venezuela. These are the so-called "boliburghers", or Venezuelan businessmen and officials connected to the Nicolás Maduro administration that launder their money from corrupt government contracts or the drug trade, in the United States, mostly in Florida.

The third blow is yet to come but would be the hardest of them all. Senators Robert Menendez and Marco Rubio have introduced a bill in Congress that would freeze the assets of Venezuelan officials identified as responsible for the repression against the Venezuelan people during this year's demonstrations. Rubio has already named 23 people who could be punishable but the list could and should grow larger.

As expected, President Maduro and Foreign Minister Elias Jaua have declared these moves are part of a renewed assault of "The Empire," against the Bolivarian revolution. That is sheer nonsense.

"Raising concerns about drug trafficking and human rights is consistent with the administration's policy posture," says Michael McCarthy, an expert on Venezuela who lectures at Johns Hopkins. "The timing is also consistent. They waited for a ripe 'low-intensity' moment to send a message -- with the protests losing steam and both the opposition and chavismo undergoing internal debates about their organizational composition, the opportunity to hold the government's feet to the fire presented itself." McCarthy, however, does not believe these sanctions will have a major impact.

Neither does Javier Corrales, another recognized authority on Venezuela who teaches at Amherst College. "I don't think that sanctions are the way to go. They will be counterproductive. The government of Venezuela is always facing the risk of internal disarray, and sanctions will only help unify it and rally the dissenters, which is the worse possible thing that could be done to help the opposition. Having said that, if sanctions are going to happen, I think the approach of targeting individuals -- especially those with demonstrable ties to illicit actions -- is a better approach than to try to sanction the government entirely."

I wish the judiciary in Venezuela would prosecute the military, the heads of the paramilitary squads, the members of the National Guard, the police, the attorney general, the cabinet ministers and governors responsible for killing more than 40 people, and wounding, imprisoning, beating or torturing the thousands who took to the streets to protest against the rising tide of crime, food shortages, spiraling inflation, violations of freedom of speech, press and assembly. Unfortunately, that's impossible in today's Venezuela.

So, the DEA should wait for a second chance to arrest General Carvajal; the State Department should widen the visa restrictions to include the families of the Venezuelan who vacation in the United States, and Menendez and Rubio should use every legal resource available to punish the people responsible for human rights abuses freezing their assets in the U.S. That would only be fair.