If Bernie Sanders were to oppose sanctions against Venezuela, what would be his talking points?
As Nicolás Maduro is sworn in for a new presidential term on 10 January, Washington is bound to ratchet up its campaign to isolate Venezuela politically and economically. A few days earlier, US Congressional Representatives belonging to the Democratic Party – with somewhat of a new face – initiated their term 2019-2021. Its Progressive Caucus now has 98 congressional members, by far the party’s largest.
If the Progressive Caucus were to place the issue of Venezuela on the table for discussion as part of its critique of the policies of the Trump Administration, it would be doing a great service to the campaign against the illegal financial sanctions that have caused so much suffering to the people of Venezuela. In particular, Bernie Sanders, who needs to assume bold and principled positions as he did in 2016 to differentiate himself from other Democratic politicians with presidential ambitions, would do well to take up the issue.
Of course, Sanders and other Democrats cannot – even if they wanted to – use the arguments employed by those further to their left. If Sanders were to point to the progressive policies initiated by Hugo Chávez which Maduro has retained, such as his nationalistic foreign policies and social programmes empowering the poor, the Democratic National Committee aided by the mainstream media would show Sanders to the party’s door.
So if Sanders were to take up the issue, how would he respond to the predictable objections from the media as well as political adversaries to his right? The following are the politically-charged questions which Sanders would likely get from the press, along with his possible – and hypothetical – responses.
Press: You oppose sanctions against the Maduro dictatorship, but you support measures against Saudi Arabia for the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Isn’t that contradictory, if not hypocritical?
Sanders: No one in Washington is talking about regime change in the case of Saudi Arabia. That’s up to the Saudi people. In the case of Venezuela that’s what the sanctions are all about: getting rid of Maduro. If there’s anything hypocritical, it’s Washington’s activism in favor of regime change of governments we don’t like, while maintaining friendly relations with others which are anything but democratic. To make matters worse, we provide generous amounts of aid, including military aid, to those same regimes.
Press: Are you opposed to trying to remove an unpopular regime?
Sanders: I wouldn’t say it’s out of the question, but history shows that such a strategy needs to be carefully thought out because the results have often been disastrous. One factor that has to be taken into account is whether there is a united opposition with recognised credibility that can take over and maintain stability. That certainly wasn’t the case in Libya and Syria. And it doesn’t seem to be the case in Venezuela. The Venezuelan opposition is divided between those who favor participation in elections and those who oppose it, between those who support a military option and those who are against it. Furthermore, some of the opposition parties have lost credibility because they went so quickly from backing demonstrations to oust Maduro, which resulted in scores of deaths, to participating in elections. I am told that many of those who are adamantly opposed to Maduro are also extremely skeptical of the opposition.
Press: But shouldn’t Maduro be placed in the same category as that of the Saudi government and other brutal dictatorial regimes?
Sanders: First, let me make clear, I am no defender of the Maduro government. But it seems to me that distinctions need to be made. Khashoggi was murdered even though he wasn’t leading a movement to overthrow the government. In fact, he was a moderate. While police brutality has to be condemned regardless of circumstances – and there’s been plenty of it in Venezuela under Maduro – nevertheless, the context has to be considered. In the protests in Venezuela there have been extremes on both sides. Six national guardsmen and two policemen were killed in the protests in 2014 calling for regime change. What would happen here in the US if protesters attempting to overthrow the government killed policemen? Venezuela and Saudi Arabia are separate cases and have to be considered separately.
Press. Then the US should turn a blind eye to what is happening in Venezuela? Are you an isolationist?
Sanders. Definitely not. I think Washington should play an active role in its relations with Venezuela, but of a different nature. The prime minister of Spain, Pedro Sánchez, is no buddy of Maduro, but he has stated that he wants Spain to help broker negotiations between both sides in Venezuela and reach a consensus as to what needs to be done. Venezuela is in a crisis-type situation economically and no side has magical answers for getting the country out of it. Only through some kind of consensus can the country move forward. If that doesn’t happen, Venezuelans of all classes and political persuasions will suffer and they will continue to leave the country, thus aggravating instability throughout the region. We have to think of an effective approach to reverse this trend. Trump’s policy of sanctions, threats of military intervention and support for a military coup has been anything but effective.
These, in short, are arguments that Bernie Sanders and other members of the Progressive Caucus can use to counter the inevitable barrage of attacks that any opposition to sanctions on the Hill will invite. Fear of facing these issues has made criticism of US policy toward Venezuela virtually taboo, even for bold politicians like Sanders. Given the major blunders in US foreign policy over the recent past, revision and debate are in order. Specifically, in the case of Venezuela, the issue of international sanctions needs to be placed on the table.