Two years after Juan Guaidó claimed a mandate as interim president of Venezuela in January 2019, the country’s crisis continues and Nicolás Maduro appears more firmly in power than at any point in recent years. As Maduro has continued to consolidate power the Trump administration has responded by advancing a policy of “maximum pressure.” This involved unsealing indictments against the head of every institution controlled by Chavismo, new sectoral sanctions like the oil and secondary sanctions announced in 2019, as well as new sanctions against political, economic, and military elites. 

Since 2018, WOLA has regularly tracked sanctions against individuals in Venezuela in our Venezuela Targeted Sanctions Database. The updated database maps out all of the Venezuelan individuals currently sanctioned by the U.S. government, as well as the specific policy instruments used to implement those sanctions. These are: Executive Orders 13692, 13850, and 13884, the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Sanctions Regulations, and Global Terrorism Sanctions Regulations. Under these measures, those who are sanctioned (referred to as “Specially Designated Nationals” or SDNs) have their assets in U.S. jurisdiction frozen and are denied access to visas. 

The database also tracks overlap between the U.S. and other countries, monitoring which specific individuals have been sanctioned by which governments and bodies, including: Canada, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and Panama. Sixteen countries in Latin America resolved to adopt similar sanctions under the Rio Treaty in late 2019, but this resolution was non-binding and left implementation up to each country “in accordance with national legal systems.” Because regional commitment is unclear, we do not consider the list of officials named in the Rio Treaty resolution to be a “sanctions list” in the same way as the visa ban and asset freezes of the other countries named above. 

With the Trump presidency over, we have taken a look back at the trends that emerged in his administration’s use of individual sanctions on Venezuelan elites.

Increase in Designation of Venezuelan Nationals

The most notable aspect of the Trump administration’s sanctions policy on Venezuelan individuals is the drastic increase in the number of individuals subject to U.S. sanctions. When Donald Trump entered office in January 2017, just 24 Venezuelan nationals had been sanctioned under the Bush and Obama administrations, primarily under Global Terrorism Sanctions Regulations, Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Sanctions Regulations, and Executive Order 13692, which was issued under the Obama administration in 2015. Under the Trump administration the number of sanctioned individuals has risen to 166 as of January 29, and the majority of these have been sanctioned under the same Executive Order (E.O. 13692). Others have also been sanctioned under subsequent E.O.’s.

While the majority of individuals sanctioned under the Bush and Obama administrations were sanctioned due to alleged involvement in drug trafficking, coordination with organized criminal groups, or violent crimes associated with the Venezuelan security forces, the Trump administration expanded this sanctions program to target a much broader array of individuals and crimes. This is in part due to the issuance of Executive Order 13857 in January 2019, which amended the definition of ‘Government of Venezuela’ as follows:

“the term “Government of Venezuela” includes the state and Government of Venezuela, any political subdivision, agency, or instrumentality thereof, including the Central Bank of Venezuela and Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), any person owned or controlled, directly or indirectly, by the foregoing, and any person who has acted or purported to act directly or indirectly for or on behalf of, any of the foregoing, including as a member of the Maduro regime.”

E.O. 13692, under this amended definition, was then invoked to sanction individuals across various government bodies including the Comisión Nacional Electoral (CNE), the National Constituent Assembly (ANC), the CLAP (Local Committees for Supply and Production), and the National Assembly, among others. The same Executive Order was also invoked by the Trump administration to designate not only alleged perpetrators of political crimes, but also their family members, as was the case for several individuals sanctioned on July 28, 2020.

Shifts in Strategy to Avoid Raising ‘Exit Costs’

In the late Obama administration and early days of the Trump administration, U.S. officials privately acknowledged that designating an individual could come with perverse incentives. These officials feared that instead of encouraging defection, being sanctioned with no clear way off the list could instead tie individuals closer to Maduro as they could see their fate (and their freedom) linked to the regime’s continued survival. Maduro has understood this. When the U.S. sanctioned seven individuals in 2015, each were awarded influential positions in state industries or in the state security apparatus—in some cases even being given ceremonial swords as a symbol of their loyalty. 

At first, the Trump administration seemed to understand this dynamic. There were some conspicuous absences on the U.S. sanctions in 2017-2018. For instance, United Socialist Party (PSUV) Vice President Diosdado Cabello was sanctioned by Canada and the European Union several months before being sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury in May 2018. The United States was also behind its Canadian and European allies in sanctioning First Lady Cilia Flores, Vice President Delcy Rodriguez, Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez, and Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López, each of whom were designated SDNs in September 2018. 

When the U.S. government finally added these latter individuals to the list, officials took steps to ensure that public communication emphasized that that individual sanctions did not have to be permanent. Beginning in September 2018, both the State Department and Treasury began including the following language in their announcements of new individuals added to the sanctions list (emphasis added):

“U.S. sanctions need not be permanent; they are intended to change behavior. The United States would consider lifting sanctions for persons sanctioned under E.O. 13692 that take concrete and meaningful actions to restore democratic order, refuse to take part in human rights abuses and speak out against abuses committed by the government, and combat corruption in Venezuela.”

Starting in February 2019, this language shifted. It was changed to:

“U.S. sanctions need not be permanent; sanctions are intended to bring about a positive change of behavior.  The United States has made clear that the removal of sanctions is available for persons designated under E.O. 13692 or E.O. 13850 who…”

This is a notable difference, as “the removal of sanctions is available” is stronger language than stating that the United States “will consider” sanctions relief. Interestingly, this language only applied to those sanctioned under Executive Order 13692 (which was signed under the Obama administration) and Executive Order 13850, which was signed by President Trump in November 2018. Those sanctioned for alleged links to terrorism or to drug trafficking have not been explicitly offered sanctions relief. 

There is evidence that this strategy of clearly communicating the conditions for individual sanctions relief may have had some success in deepening cracks within the Maduro government. In fact, individual sanctions may have been more effective than sectoral sanctions at targeting elite behavior. While the attempted April 30, 2019 uprising ultimately failed to oust Maduro, U.S. officials and opposition leaders publicly refer to the incident as the closest they have come to meeting their goal of sparking a transition by pacting with members of Maduro’s inner circle. Individuals involved in the operation claim that Padrino López and Supreme Court Justice Maikel Moreno were at first on board the plot after being promised sanctions relief, even though they did not go through with the plan. The fact that the U.S. and Canadian governments provided sanctions relief to three people before and after the event—the wife of Globovisión magnate Raul Gorrín and that of one of his associates, as well as ex-SEBIN chief Manuel Cristopher Figuera—suggests individual sanctions can be an effective leverage. 

In fact, even the mere threat of individual sanctions may have played a role in encouraging individuals in Chavismo to break ranks. Former Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz, for example, was routinely mentioned by U.S. Senator Marco Rubio in public as a potential sanctions target in his 2014 bid to press the Obama administration to adopt further sanctions. She turned against the Maduro government in 2017 before she could be put on the sanctions list. 

Rise in Non-Military Sanctioned Individuals

Under the Bush and Obama administrations, nearly all sanctioned Venezuelan individuals were designated due to their connections with organized criminal groups such as the FARC, narcotrafficking schemes, or abuses of power by the military. Out of all Venezuelan nationals sanctioned by the U.S. prior to 2017, 50% were either active or retired members of the military in some form, including the Venezuelan National Guard (GNB), the Bolivarian Intelligence Service (SEBIN), and the National Bolivarian Armed Forces of Venezuela (FANB). Under the Trump administration, this tendency shifted, with more individual sanctions applied on civilians associated with corruption and the country’s worsening political crisis. Out of the 142 Venezuelan nationals sanctioned since 2017, just 47—or 33%—have some association with the military, indicating a shift under the Trump administration to impose sanctions more broadly to members of the civilian population.

It is notable that such is not the case for the United States’ European allies. While Panama and Canada have adopted similar approaches of sanctioning others outside of the security forces, Switzerland, the UK, and the EU have prioritized imposing individual sanctions on members of the security forces, signaling more restraint in sanctioning individuals for nonviolent or political offenses.

Increasing Unilateralism

The consensus among sanctions thinkers is that, while sanctions fail to meet their objectives most of the time, they are more likely to succeed if they are multilateral rather than unilateral. In our latest policy memo, WOLA described the need for individual, targeted sanctions to be more closely coordinated with with European and Latin American countries. In 2017 and 2018, as Venezuela’s political crisis reached a turning point, marked by a rise in protests and opposition mobilization, this was generally the case. During this time, the U.S., along with Canada, Panama, the EU, and Switzerland, issued a series of new sanctions on many of the same individuals within the upper echelons of the Maduro government, several of whom were military officials directly associated with violent crimes and repression. In the latter years of the Trump administration, however, the U.S. notably shifted away from such coordination with European allies, continuing to unilaterally impose individual sanctions en masse, while Switzerland and the EU largely ceased to sanction additional individuals.

It is notable that, while the UK initially participated in the EU’s imposition of individual sanctions on Venezuelan elites, as a result of the UK’s exit from the EU, the U.K. established a separate sanctions regime separate. Under this independent sanctions regime, the UK imposed its own sanctions on 36 Venezuelan individuals, which went into effect on December 31, 2020. While the vast majority of these sanctions overlapped with those previously imposed by the EU, it is notable that this list included four individuals who had not been sanctioned by the EU, indicating a desire by the UK to distance itself from EU sanctions policy and adopt a more aggressive approach towards officials in the Maduro government.