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The Weakening of Civil Society in Venezuela – An Unintended Consequence of Economic Sanctions?

Por: Maryhen Jiménez*

Agosto 2020


*Investigadora, Oxford University;

Venezuela is going through an unprecedented crisis and ongoing political conflict. Hyperinflation and economic collapse, a complex humanitarian emergency, authoritarianism, systematic human rights violations, corruption, illicit trading and mining, and massive forced displacement characterize what the country’s population is suffering through. An estimated 96% of Venezuelans live poverty, with more than 80% in extreme poverty, while more than 90% of households lack food security. While it is clear that the root of this problem is the mismanagement and dismantling of democracy initiated by Hugo Chávez and continued by Nicolás Maduro, the debate about the impacts of sanctions is becoming more relevant given that they have not yet achieved their desired goal of regime transition.


Limited scope and shortcoming of sanctions


International actors have a series of foreign policy tools at their disposal to pressure authoritarian regimes into democratizing. When diplomacy fails and states are not willing to intervene, they can use other mechanisms to achieve that goal, for example, economic sanctions. In fact, large countries have put a greater emphasis on using this foreign policy tool in recent times. As of 2019, the US alone had almost 8,000 sanctions in place. Economic pressure resulting from sanctions are designed to change the autocrat’s behaviour, either by inducing him to negotiate or by causing conflicts within the ruling coalition that can lead to massive defections or an internal overthrow; generally sanctions are also expected to increase the benefits of supporting opposition parties. Put simply, sanctions should change the balance of power within the ruling coalition and make the opposition are more viable option. What we observe in practice, however, is that sanctions are not as efficient in producing the expected outcome as policymakers or advocates sustain. Several studies confirm this trend. While Huber et al (2009) show that in 170 cases where sanctions were used since World War I only one-third reached their goal, Pape (2012) finds that their success rate is even below 5%. Cuba, Iran, and North Korea are the most obvious cases to illustrate the limited capacity of sanctions generating regime change.


Beyond not always achieving their ultimate objectives, sanctions can backfire when they are not carefully designed. Evidence shows that sanctions only work best when they are not imposed unilaterally, but rather by a myriad of actors, including countries and international organizations and when they pursue modest policy goals. For instance, sanctions will be more successful when they are used to solve a small dispute or negotiate the liberation of political prisoners but will not necessarily work when seeking regime change. In fact, in the latter case, autocrats can respond with more repression and autocratization upon the implementation of harsh sanctions. Once in place, economic sanctions they will hinder growth and production, close down business and boost unemployment. Scholarship also highlights that sanctions, including targeted ones, can lengthen the resilience of authoritarian regimes and negatively affect the well-being of a country’s civilian population. Although in theory, “smart” sanctions - targeted sanctions towards individuals, financial and/or business transactions- aim to affect authoritarian elites only, in practice, they can end up inflicting increased harm on people’s daily lives. Instead of only disadvantaging regime elites, economic coercion has the largest negative effects on the poorest and more vulnerable groups, public health and education systems, NGOs, and civil society actors.


Sanctions on Venezuela and its unwanted impact on civil society


For over ten years now, the US has sanctioned individuals and the government of Venezuela to promote regime change, increasingly so under the Donald Trump administration. The US has revoked hundreds of visas of government officials and their families, and has sanctioned the central bank, government and the state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela, SA (PDVSA), and international providers, such as Russian state-led Rosneft Oil company.


Broadly speaking, sanctions towards Venezuela can be classified as a) terrorism-related, b) drug trafficking-related, c) financial (since 2017), d) sectoral (since 2018), and e) targeted due human rights violations, authoritarianism, and corruption. Though targeted sanctions against government officials enjoy bipartisan support in the US Congress, broader sanctions are more divisive. In a more moderate manner, the European Union, Canada, and several Latin American countries have also imposed a series of sanctions on Venezuelan individuals as a result of persistent authoritarianism and human rights situation in the country.


As stated by these countries, sanctions are directed towards officials and not the general population. Additionally, humanitarian assistance, the delivery of food, medicines or agricultural products should in theory also not be affected by these sanctions. However, the reality is much more complex and data from Venezuela suggests that sanctions are in fact hurting Venezuelans and, consequently, civil society groups. Resembling other cases, financial sanctions have started to cause socio-economic damage. Surely, the extent to which sanctions have affected societal structures in Venezuela does not compare, for example, to the detrimental effects they have had on the population in other cases, such as Iran. However, there is evidence to support that economic pressure and over-compliance with sanctions are already affecting the economic capacity of civil society, which is in turn progressively undercutting their room for activism in several ways.


First, while members of the regime are finding ways to receive revenue and continue to engage in financial transactions by bypassing or adapting to the sanctions system, civil society groups have been hit by over-compliance. NGOs, as well as the population, do not have the same room for manoeuvre to respond as quickly to the challenges imposed by the financial sanctions, either because they do not have the expertise or resources to do so. One way these groups and their work have been seriously harmed is through the now limited access to international banking accounts. Due to over-compliance international banks have begun to close bank accounts of individuals and civil society groups to avoid being sanctioned. This represents an obstacle to societal actors as they have to find alternative ways of receiving funds and donations to continue their work.


A second significant burden for civil society groups closely related to the previous point is the reception of donations and international funds. Many NGOs who engage in social or humanitarian efforts have been unable to use these funds desperately needed, either because their release has been blocked by American or European banks or their approval is delayed or suspended. Instead of boosting their capacity to increase their outreach, these groups are increasingly becoming more vulnerable to the negative consequences of financial sanctions, which make their work more difficult. Similarly, many donors or companies have stopped sending or selling supplies (medical, food, humanitarian relief) due to over-compliance. Again, even though these supplies are in theory exempt from sanctions, in practice the process of buying goods has not only become more difficult, but their shipments are arriving with considerable delays, thereby impeding rapid action on the ground. This in turn means that civil society groups cannot access all their materials and supplies when needed.


Third, sanctions have started to isolate Venezuela, which is also interfering with the logistics and day-to-day work of local organizations. For example, the fact that direct flights from the US to Venezuela have stopped from operating, activists and human rights defenders must now incur in extra costs and time to fly out in order to present abroad the dire situation Venezuelans are facing at home. Because funds and time are limited, work-related trips, meetings or hearings are now harder to attend. This inevitably means that their room for action and access to international audiences, cross-regional experiences, or networking is already shrinking.


Rethinking sanctions to facilitate change?


Poorly implemented economic sanctions can cause more harm than good. Though it is too soon to draw definite conclusions about the future of sanctions and their success in bringing down authoritarianism in Venezuela, there is already evidence to suggest that financial and sectoral sanctions are having a negative impact on the population and, consequently, on civil society groups. This is problematic for several reasons: 1) human rights work and humanitarian assistance faces constraints, 2) lacking financial resources and increased isolation further weakens this work, and 3) a potentially weaker civil society cannot exert the pressure needed to contribute to the overall goal of re-democratization. There is no doubt that the ongoing crisis was originated by ruling elites. However, all relevant actors should rethink their sanctions schemes given that their final objective has not yet been met and most importantly, they have begun to inflict harm on the Venezuelan population.




Clyde, H. G., Schott, J. J., Elliott, K. A., & Oegg, B. (2007). Economic Sanctions Reconsidered. Peterson Institute for international economics, 233.


Pape, R. (1997). Why Economic Sanctions Do Not Work. International Security, 22(2), 90-136

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