US Venezuela Policy Is a Destructive Failure

The US has waged senseless economic war against the people of Venezuela for years in pursuit of regime change. Now that it has embarked on a destructive economic war against Russia, the Biden administration is beginning to entertain easing some of the broad sanctions on Venezuela that have greatly exacerbated the country’s humanitarian crisis. US officials traveled to Venezuela recently to begin talks aimed at bringing more Venezuelan oil on the market, but even this limited engagement has already angered the regime changers here in the US that want to maintain "maximum pressure" on every country they can. The Biden administration can and should go further and fully end the economic war on Venezuela, since it has proven to be a purely destructive and cruel policy. The total failure of "maximum pressure" on Venezuela should also force the US to reconsider its punitive economic warfare against several other countries.

Sen. Bob Menendez, the Democratic Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spoke for the hardliners when he decried the administration officials’ visit. Menendez had the gall to say that easing sanctions risked "perpetuating a humanitarian crisis" when it has been well-established that broad sanctions, especially on the oil sector, have caused tremendous harm to the Venezuelan people. Oil revenue is essential to Venezuela’s ability to import necessary goods, and as a result of sanctions on the oil sector Venezuelan imports have declined sharply. Starving the government of oil revenues not only drains funding for public services, but it also makes it more difficult for ordinary people to get enough to eat. As Francisco Rodriguez explained last month, sanctions "thus helped drive the deterioration of the country’s humanitarian conditions, including through massive increases in undernourishment and mortality."

Marco Rubio predictably joined in the hawkish whining, saying that Biden was "using Russia as an excuse to do the deal that they always wanted to anyway with the Maduro regime." If Biden has been eager for a deal with Venezuela, he has been very effective in concealing it. US policy towards Venezuela has remained unchanged for more than a year, and there were no signs of any sanctions relief being offered by Washington. Until last week, the Biden administration was content to let Rubio and the other Venezuela hawks have their way as US sanctions throttled the Venezuelan people into deeper poverty and hunger.

If the US reaches an agreement with Venezuela, it will still take time for Venezuelan oil production to return to a level that would make a significant difference. While the Biden administration may hope to drive a wedge between Russia and its partners in different parts of the world, any rift that they manage to create is likely to be temporary. As long as the US is intent on forcing regime change in Venezuela, Maduro has few incentives to trust or work with Washington. The Venezuelan leader may be willing to strike an opportunistic bargain in the short term, but he isn’t likely to forget which governments have backed him and which ones sought his downfall.

Sanctions advocates imagined that Venezuela would be one of their quick and easy successes in using coercion against other countries. When the Trump administration intensified sanctions on Venezuela to try to drive Maduro from power, the regime change policy had broad bipartisan backing in Washington. There was a large coalition of other governments in Europe and Latin America that also supported a transition to new leadership. Just a few years ago, it was conventional wisdom in Washington that Maduro’s time was up. It was practically taken for granted that the US would achieve its goal. Instead, "maximum pressure" has been a nightmare for the people of Venezuela, and Maduro is more firmly entrenched in his position than ever. International support for Guaidó has dwindled, and the policy of regime change has flopped. Venezuela is a cautionary tale of the destructiveness and futility of economic warfare in compelling other states to give in to Washington’s demands. It should not surprise us when similar coercive policies fail and backfire in the same way on a larger scale when they are employed against Russia.

One thing that all US economic wars have in common is that they punish ordinary people much more severely than they hurt the powerful and well-connected at the top. However much the leaders of another government may deserve punishment, they are practically never the ones that feel the pain from economic warfare. Once a targeted government assumes that sanctions are never coming off no matter what they do, they will simply dig in and refuse to make any concessions. Once the destruction caused by sanctions becomes the measure of "success," political resistance to offering sanctions relief becomes almost impossible to overcome. US Venezuela policy is what happens when inflicting enormous economic damage becomes an end in itself: sanctions come to be seen as essentially permanent and unquestionable, and the terrible human cost of the policy is cited as evidence in its favor.

The least that the Biden administration can do now is to lift broad sanctions on Venezuela and end an economic war that should never have been waged.

Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.