Yesterday my friend Daniel Garcia Marco of BBC Mundo published an interview with me regarding sanctions. It’s in Spanish so let me just summarize the main points.

  • Sanctions generally do not work in part because they are not designed to. For the politicians and expatriate communities who support them, they tend to serve an expressive function and whether or not they actually achieve their objective is secondary. The example of economic sanctions on Cuba which have been in place for over fifty years, comes to mind.
  • Research shows that sanctions are most likely to function when: they are multilateral, can be reversed, and have a clear communications strategy. All of this has improved over the last year as sanctions programs have become multilateral and some information has be communicated about how they can be reversed. But much more needs to be done.
  • For example, US financial sanctions are beset by problems of “overcompliance,” in which banks and other companies decide it is cheaper and safer to simply not do business with Venezuela than to pay lawyers and consultants to figure out whether their plans would run afoul of the sanctions regime. This increases the impact of sanctions on average people, and muddies their impact on leaders. Overcompliance effectively makes what should be a scalpel into a chainsaw.
  • Sanctions or any other kind of international pressure are unlikely to be effective in pressuring for a change if there is not an articulated opposition movement pressuring from within Venezuela.
  • In the current social and political configuration sanctions seem unlikely to produce a change. But they are the most plausible tool the international community has. Without them the Maduro government would be ratcheting down its authoritarian project even faster.
  • Finally, these pressure mechanisms need to be accompanied by international engagement. The revival of the Boston Group that led to the release of Joshua Holt is an example of the kind of cross-national networks that need to be in place to facilitate solutions when the opportunity arises.