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US needs to end its two broken legs policy on Venezuela

The US must lift sanctions to ease the suffering of Venezuelans crushed by years of economic collapse — the main driver of the refugee exodus.

A child sat in a window at his home in the El Quilombo neighborhood of Caracas, Venezuela, Oct. 8.Matias Delacroix/Associated Press

A man goes to the emergency room with a broken leg and the doctor says to him: “OK, now I’m going to break your other leg.”

A former State Department official once used that image to explain to me US policy toward Venezuela.

Now, with tens of thousands of Venezuelan refugees arriving at the Southern border each month, that policy — let’s call it the two broken legs policy — is sagging under its own contradictions.

Most Venezuelan refugees — including dozens flown to Martha’s Vineyard last month in a political stunt by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida — are fleeing economic chaos at home. Venezuela’s extreme economic collapse — a staggering 80 percent drop in gross domestic product over eight years — was caused by the egregious policy mistakes of President Nicolás Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, in combination with corruption and bad management. That’s broken leg number one.

But US sanctions — including an embargo on oil sales, the lifeblood of the economy — deepened the country’s collapse, just as they were intended to do. And they will make any potential recovery weaker and slower. That’s broken leg number two.


At a recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the Venezuela crisis, several senators and a top State Department official took turns declaring the need to hold firm on sanctions. At the same time, they boasted about the money being spent by the United States to address the suffering of Venezuelans.

The United States has spent more than $2.3 billion since 2017 to address the humanitarian crisis, according to USAID. Most of that went to help other countries in the region cope with the flood of Venezuelan refugees, but it also includes more than $315 million given to organizations working inside Venezuela, to alleviate hunger and health care deficiencies.


In other words, the United States maintains sanctions that are contributing to the humanitarian crisis while sending millions of taxpayer dollars to help ameliorate that same crisis. How does that make any sense?

After breaking the patient’s other leg, the emergency room doctor says, “Here, let me give you a crutch.”

Until recently, most Venezuelan migrants went to other countries in South America. Now the refugees have headed north, literally bringing the consequences of Washington’s contradictory policies home to roost. The Biden administration has pledged to address the root causes of immigration. In many cases, such as in Central America where this root causes strategy has been focused, its options are limited. But in Venezuela, the administration has the power to directly address a primary factor in Venezuela’s continued economic foundering.

The root cause of Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis is the country’s economic collapse. Economic recovery, therefore, is the solution to the humanitarian crisis. By lifting or softening sanctions, Washington won’t fix Venezuela’s economy but it can remove significant obstacles to economic growth.

Growth means more work, more income, and more food on the table for the poorest. It means fewer people leaving the country and the possibility that some of the more than 7 million people who have already fled will return.

In 2017, the Trump administration began imposing general economic sanctions (as opposed to sanctions against individuals responsible for human rights violations or other transgressions). The initial goal was to pressure the repressive and anti-democratic Maduro to allow free and fair elections. Later, the goal was to force Maduro from power. But the sanctions have failed to achieve either goal.


With the help of countries like Iran, Russia, and China, Maduro has continued to sell oil, although at a steep discount. Sanctions have also helped Maduro politically by validating his claim that Venezuela is the victim of an economic war waged by its enemies. Polling shows that a large majority of Venezuelans are opposed to sanctions aimed at the economy rather than individuals.

Maduro is more secure in power today than he was five years ago and the opposition, which the United States supports, is weaker.

The White House has been evaluating limited sanctions relief that could allow the resumption of some oil exports from Venezuela to the United States, but it insists that sanctions will only be softened in exchange for concessions from Maduro. A recent prisoner swap, in which Maduro released seven Americans held in Venezuelan jails in a trade for two nephews of his wife who were convicted on drug charges in the United States, “had a positive effect” on behind-the-scenes talks between the Venezuelan government and the opposition, a State Department official told me last week. The next step would be for Maduro to resume formal negotiations with the opposition on the country’s political impasse and guarantees for the presidential election in 2024 — a move the United States has prioritized.


But the best reason to lift sanctions is to ease the suffering of Venezuelans crushed by years of economic collapse — the main driver of the refugee exodus.

Some sanction proponents argue that lifting them will provide new opportunities for corruption, lining the pockets of regime insiders. That may be true, but if the way to stop corruption is to cripple the economy to the point that millions of people go hungry and flee the country — then you’re punishing the wrong people.

With several US cities struggling to accommodate thousands of Venezuelan refugees, and with Republican governors using them as political pawns, the Biden administration can actually take real steps to address the root causes of this painful migration. It can start by abandoning the two broken legs policy and easing or eliminating sanctions — to make things better in Venezuela instead of contributing to making them worse.

William Neuman is author of “Things Are Never So Bad That They Can’t Get Worse: Inside the Collapse of Venezuela.”