Directed at seven obscure Caracas authorities, the sanctions imposed by President Barack Obama against Venezuelans accused of violating human rights and corruption don't have the objective of causing either a scratch on the economy of the Latin-American country or the ability of its government to continue to relate to the world. But its disastrous language gave Nicolas Maduro a gush of oxygen, just at the moment when Brazil had begun to abandon its silence vis-a-vis the country's crisis and had critically outlined the increasing deterioration of democratic guarantees.
In the decree which imposed the sanctions, Obama classified Venezuela as a "threat to the national security" and foreign policy of the United States, declarations which were ridiculed by many and used by Maduro to feed the narrative that the Empire of the North is conspiring against his supposedly popular government. The American government maintains that the language serves a bureaucratic requirement of American legislation, according to which this type of declaration must precede the imposition of sanctions.
The history of American intervention in Latin America does not help the work of Obama aides in trying to convince public opinion in the region that the sanctions are not against Venezuela, but against seven individuals who were involved in corruption and the repression of protests which occurred last year, during which about 43 people died. After the demonstrations, those responsible for Obama's foreign policy resisted pressure from Congress to impose sanctions against the Maduro administration, with the argument that the measures would give the Venezuelan president ammunition and allow him to blame the United States for the economic debacle in which the country is drowning.
But in December, the congressmen approved the "Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014," according to which the president must impose sanctions which prevent entry into the United States and freeze assets of those people in the country who had arbitrarily imprisoned or organized the use of excessive violence against participants of protests which happened on Feb. 4, 2014.
Obama took three months to reach a decision, in a decree which hurts just seven people, but used words which strengthen Maduro's narrative that the USA promotes aggression against all of Venezuela. The law approved in December expressly prohibits the suspension of imports from the country, consisting principally of petroleum. The United States points out that it continues to be the principal trading partner of Venezuela and affirmed it does not have the intention of imposing sanctions against the country.
Maduro ignored the substance and latched onto the language of the decree. On Thursday, the president launched a campaign to collect 10,000 signatures on a document which asks for the revocation of the Obama measure and the end to "United States aggression" against Venezuela. During the last week, Maduro obtained support from the Bolivarian countries and brought the issue to the Organization of American States (OAS). In a session on Thursday almost all of the 34 members criticized the unilateral U.S. sanctions and showed concern about the growing confrontation between the two countries.
The American representative went to extreme lengths to formally state at the OAS that his government was not planning a military invasion of Venezuela, nor was it involved in actions aimed at destabilizing the country or overturning Maduro. The Minister of Foreign Relations of Venezuela, Darcy Rodrigues, asked that these affirmations be recorded in the minutes.
Before the Obama sanctions, the heir of Hugo Chavez was at his worst political moment since his election in April 2013. Polls showed his popularity hovering at about 20 percent, in the middle of an economic crisis, which should be even more aggravated by the fall in the price of gasoline — the principal source of foreign exchange and growth in the country. There is a generalized scarcity of products and an inflation rate of almost 70 percent, one of the highest in the world. But the semantics of the Obama decree gave Maduro the possibility of beginning a media war against the "empire" and diverting the attention of Venezuelans from domestic ills — at least temporarily.