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Last week’s much-hailed normalization of relations with Cuba was followed by sanctions against Venezuela the very next day, says Alex Main of the Center for Economic and Policy Research

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

If you’re thinking that the United States is finally wising up and coming to its senses about its policy towards Latin America with the much-hailed normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations last week, you should stop, think again. Normalization of relations with Cuba last week was accompanied by President Obama signing a sanctions bill against Venezuela, Cuba’s closest ally in the hemisphere. The sanctions bill was passed in the House on the 10th, Senate on the 8th, and on December 18 signed by President Obama.

Here to explain all of this is Alex Main. Alex Main is coming to us from Washington, D.C. He’s a senior associate for international policy at the Center of Economic Policy and Research.

Thank you so much for joining us, Alex.


PERIES: Alex, explain these sanctions against Venezuela. Why were these sanctions passed by both houses and then signed by the president?

MAIN: Well, it was kind of a big surprise for those watching Latin America policy carefully. I think the media in general didn’t really report this, and certainly the news was eclipsed by the news of progress on the Cuba front. But this was something that had been in the works for a while, since March of this year, actually, when you had a small group of representatives and senators in the U.S. Congress, all of which are from the Cuban-American delegation and are very avid supporters of the embargo against Cuba, they introduced legislation enforcing sanctions against Venezuelan authorities, alleged to be involved in human rights abuses, though specifically targeting protesters in the antigovernment protests that took place in Venezuela between March and April of this year.

And at the time that they were pushing for these sanctions initially, the Obama administration was very reluctant to back them. They were actually passed initially in the House. They got to the floor of the Senate and they were blocked there. They were held up by various individual senators. And the Obama administration, through State Department spokespeople and so on, made it clear that they felt that these sanctions would be counterproductive. And also they noted that the rest of the region was opposed to sanctions, just like these, just as the rest of the region has been opposed to the U.S. embargo policy towards Cuba. So there was really no movement on the legislation.

And then, suddenly, in late November you had Antony Blinken, who was appointed by the Obama administration to be the number-two diplomat at the State Department, who during his confirmation hearing in the Senate told two of the Cuban-American senators who’d introduced sanctions legislation–Bob Menendez, a Democrat of New Jersey, and Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida–that they would now support this sanctions legislation.

And at the time, people wondered why, and a few people did begin to speculate that it might have to do with the beginning of a change in Cuba policy and that this might be a way of sort of the Obama administration providing a tradeoff to these representatives, in other words, softening its policy towards Cuba, while it hardened its policy towards Venezuela. And I think that’s exactly what’s occurred. And it’s very unfortunate.

I think Venezuela is seen, certainly by this group of legislators that form a very small minority of the Congress but that hold very powerful positions on committees, Venezuela is seen as a bigger threat these days than Cuba, due to its rather large regional influence. And so they are now focusing more and more. They were very pleased to see see this legislation go through. And it made, I think, this opening towards Cuba slightly more palatable to these members of Congress.

PERIES: Alex, so what is the reaction to the sanctions in Venezuela? One would think that the opposition in Venezuela is in favor of these sanctions.

MAIN: It is supported by some of the opposition. It’s supported by what’s sort of called the extremist or radical opposition, those who actually promoted the violent protests that took place back in March–February, March of this year. These protests, of course, involved a lot of violence that was carried out directly by protesters, and it’s something that the mainstream media, of course, didn’t cover very well at all. They were also supported by radical factions in the Cuban-American community, those that have been involved in essentially backing terrorist actions against Cuba for decades now. And so these are the same people that are very closely aligned to the U.S. members of Congress who were promoting this legislation.

PERIES: Alex, how much of this has to do with isolating Venezuela? With the falling oil prices, both Iran, Russia, other countries that have sanctions against them, are all going to be affected by the falling oil prices. How much of this is about squeezing Venezuela?

MAIN: [snip] Well, I do. And, I mean, this is a matter of speculation, but there is a lot of circumstantial evidence, for one thing, that the U.S. has been involved in encouraging Saudi Arabia and other Arabian countries to up their production for geostrategic reasons in order to undermine Russia. I think the focus has been on Russia. Of course, it also affects Venezuela.

And the record of this administration and the past one is that when they sense that times are a bit tough in Venezuela, as they are at the moment, they tend to do everything, really, that they can to sort of destabilize things. And one way to destabilize things is to encourage the more radical sectors of the opposition, those that promote violent protests like those of February, protests that have an official objective of removing the government from power, and not through elections, but rather through simply destabilizing the country, I think that’s–when there are moments when Venezuela appears to be weak, that’s when the administration tends to make more aggressive moves. And I think that’s also what we’re seeing now.

So I think it’s really a combination of factors, I think, partly to placate these Cuban-American legislators who are so outraged about the changes in Cuba policy, but they were behind–one of their big pieces of legislation this year was this sanctions legislation, and the Obama administration’s given them that. And at the same time, they, I think, some of the actors within the Obama administration, believe that by having sanctions they will succeed in further isolating Venezuela, further promoting the more violent sectors of the opposition, in a context where the government, they think, could be more easily destabilized.

PERIES: Right. Alex, I thank you so much for coming to The Real News and being such a wonderful guest. Thanks a lot.

MAIN: Thank you, Sharmini.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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In his work at CEPR, as Director of International Policy, Alexander Main focuses on U.S. foreign policy in Latin America and the Caribbean and regularly engages with U.S. policy makers and civil society groups to inform the public debate. He is frequently interviewed by media in the U.S. and Latin American and his analyses on U.S. policy in the Americas have been published in a variety of domestic and international media outlets including Foreign Policy, NACLA and the Monde diplomatique. Prior to CEPR, Alexander spent more than six years in Latin America working as an international relations analyst. He has a degree in history and political science from the Sorbonne University in Paris, France.