The latest sanctions the U.S. government is imposing on Venezuela raise the confrontational level between the two nations to a new high. They generate strong criticism not only from Caracas, but from the entire region.
Nicolás Maduro was beside himself. He described the latest U.S. government action as the most aggressive step the U.S. has ever taken against Venezuela. Barack Obama, he promised, would be remembered the same way in Venezuela as President Nixon is in Chile for the part played by the CIA in the violent overthrow of Salvador Allende in 1973.
Last Monday, President Obama declared the situation in Venezuela to be a threat to U.S. national security and America's foreign relations. Simultaneously, he imposed sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials, accusing Venezuela of human rights abuses by suppressing opposition protests as well as systematic corruption. Obama invoked the 1977 Emergency Powers Act which empowers him to place sanctions without the approval of Congress in the case of a declared threat. Presently Iran, Syria, North Korea and Russia fall into the category of being “extraordinary threats” to U.S. interests.
Congress itself had decided on increasing sanctions on Venezuelan officials last December. At the end of February, Venezuela countered with sanctions of its own after Maduro accused the U.S. government of complicity in recently discovered plans to overthrow the Venezuelan government. Neither side has had an ambassador since 2010 — well before Maduro ascended to the presidency after Chavez died in 2013.
If Obama had hoped to isolate Venezuela by his political rapprochement with Cuba, it backfired. Not a single South American government supported such a unilateral approach. The Union of South American States spoke out clearly against what it described as an “interventionist threat to sovereignty and the principle of nonintervention in the internal affairs of States.” UNASUR General Secretary Ernesto Samper warned that sanctions posed a danger of radicalizing an already polarizing situation, and even José Miguel Insulza, general secretary of the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States, called Obama's presidential decree “pretty hard.”
Criticism even came from the ranks of the opposition coalition “Democratic Unity Roundtable.” The governor of the state of Lara, Henri Falcón, called it a disservice to the Venezuelan opposition.
The Venezuelan government sees Obama's act as preparation for a military invasion, prompting President Maduro to ask the national parliament for extraordinary legislative powers for a six-month period in order to keep the peace.
Ever since the inauguration of Hugo Chavez in 1999, relations between the U.S. and its close friend Venezuela have been strained. The United States supported a failed coup against Chavez in 2002 both logistically and financially. Chavez responded with unfriendly rhetoric. Meanwhile, he managed to significantly retard the advance of U.S. influence in the region. The U.S.-backed free trade zone failed in 2005. The Latin American states founded a number of regional integration coalitions that excluded the United States.
Despite all political differences, economic relations remained intact; Venezuela does more business with the United States than with any other nation. Even though the volume of trade has decreased slightly in recent years, Venezuela is still America's third largest trading partner among Latin American nations after Mexico and Brazil. In 2014, 740,000 barrels of oil flowed northward to the U.S. daily along with 536,000 barrels going to China every day.
After Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009, relations between Venezuela and the United States were expected to relax. Obama promised to deal with Latin America as equals. Today, Obama appears to be more isolated than even George W. Bush ever was regarding Latin America.