Venezuela and Ukraine, what is to be done?

We frequently opine on the question of what the U.S. should do about Iran and Syria. These countries raise serious national security problems — Syria because, among other concerns, chunks of it seem to be falling into the hands of terrorists whose ambitions probably include attacking American interests; Iran because it is determined to develop nuclear weapons with which to threaten, at a minimum, our allies.

Given these concerns, I believe the U.S. should provide substantial military assistance to the non-jihadist Syrian opposition and should impose new sanctions on Iran. Not surprisingly, the Obama administration does not agree.

But what, if anything, should the U.S. do about Venezuela and Ukraine? Both nations are led by anti-American, repressive thugs. In Venezuela, the thugs are virulently anti-American. In Ukraine, they are backed by Russia which has become solidly anti-American. But neither country poses a national security threat to the U.S.

The pat answer in these situations is sanctions. But leading voices of the Venezuelan opposition oppose sanctions such as a cut-off of gasoline sales. They argue that such sanctions only hurt the Venezuelan people and enable the thugs who run the country to blame its economic ills on the U.S.

These arguments have sometimes been raised against Iranian sanctions too. But in Iran, our primary concern is national security; the welfare of Iranians is secondary. In Venezuela, where our national security isn’t really at stake, the welfare of Venezuelans rates more consideration.

It’s also not clear how much sense broad sanctions make when it comes to Ukraine. Russia, I assume, would act to counterbalance them.

So again, what, if anything, should the U.S. do? In the case of Ukraine, the British journalist Edward Lucas suggests the following:

[T]he West should be flexing its muscles. Two policies stand out. One is to bolster the countries that may be next in the Kremlin’s firing line. Georgia and Moldova are both worried that their move towards Europe will incur the same pressure and interference now being experienced by Ukraine. We should support them, and the most exposed countries that are already in Western clubs, such as the small Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Second, the Achilles’ heel of both the Yanukovych regime and his Kremlin backers is money. However much they steal, they cannot dispose of it at home. They need our banks, our real-estate market, our stock exchanges and our secretive company law to hide and launder their assets. They use our law firms and auditors to make it look legal. This happens in Vienna, New York – and London.

It is to our lasting shame that we have been accomplices in this. We should unleash our money-laundering and anti-bribery laws. We should freeze assets and impose visa bans on those involved in looting and repression on our doorstep.

Lucas’ second step seems to make sense for Venezuela, as well. Instead of punishing the Venezuelan people through broad sanctions, we should punish the thugs who are looting the country through the same kinds of measures outlined by Lucas.

Visa cancellation would be a nice way to start, according to Otto Reich, former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela. He says that the folks behind the looting and repression regularly flock to Miami with their families to spend their money. We should deny them that privilege.


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