They’re not rallying around the flag, they’re just standing in line

On Monday, in a bit of a surprise, Barack Obama signed an executive order that labelled Venezuela a an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States” as a legal condition for imposing sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials. Predictably, the Venezuelan government freaked out, calling the actions a grave attack on Venezuela and its sovereignty. Less predictably, many US media outlets ran the story from the perspective that this would provide a boost to president Nicolás Maduro.

A lot of this argument rests on the idea that Venezuelans are likely both to believe that this is an attack on Venezuela and not just officials accused of corruption and human rights abuses and to care. I’m not convinced of either of these things. For one, Maduro has spent most of his presidency, and in particular the last several months, blaming the US for just about everything. In fact, it was not even a month ago that his government “foiled” a US-backed coup, evidence for which he has announced was forthcoming on multiple, fruitless occasions. Maduro has blamed the US so consistently and baselessly for so long, that it’s unlikely that anyone that didn’t already believe him suddenly does just because seven bureaucrats who are either unknown or unloved lost their US visas.

Another argument is that this has strengthened his position by giving him a pretext to request a Ley Habilitante Antiimperialista, which would give him the power to rule by decree for six months. But this sounds like a bigger deal than it really is. Venezuela’s institutions have been hollowed out so much by this point that there are virtually no real checks on the president’s authority to act. More than anything, this is a vestigial impulse to provide a modicum of democratic cover to the government’s authoritarianism. In a country where the president brags on television about his personal role in bringing charges against an opponent and where multiple members of the National Assembly have been summarily stripped of their seats, any Ley Habilitante is just a formality that simply takes the rubber-stamp congress out of the process.

Finally, there is some speculation that this might make other Latin American governments less likely to speak up. This is probably true. However, no major country in Latin America was ever likely to say anything anyway. So, in reality, the choice was between the US acting against Venezuela’s human rights abusers and Latin American countries feeling relieved they had an excuse to not say anything and the US not doing anything, and Latin America countries still finding a reason to not say anything. The strongest reaction in Latin America “against” Venezuela in the past year was Brazil’s foreign ministry, “expressing concern” at the actions of both sides after a Venezuelan police officer shot a 14 year old student in the head and killed him during a protest. That says a lot.

If anything, this move might fire up Maduro’s base. The average Venezuelan, it seems, will probably be making jokes about this while they stand in line hoping to be able to buy toilet paper and milk.