International News

Dictate and Chill: Maduro Dodges U.S. Sanctions to Binge-Watch Netflix

Nicolás Maduro listens to a headset in 2016.
Venezuela is crumbling. The once-wealthy South American nation's economy is in free fall, doing more twists and flips on its way to rock bottom than Simone Biles at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships. Wide-ranging electrical blackouts, endemic levels of crime, and food shortages have contributed to the exodus of more than 4 million Venezuelans, many fleeing on foot.

At this time of historic crisis, one might expect the ostensible head of a failed state like Venezuela to at least feign concern for his country. But not Nicolás Maduro. No, this Venezuelan strongman has far better things to do, such as host the hemisphere's largest gathering of socialists and communists in Caracas in July. The event, which cost the insolvent country a reported $200 million, must have really tuckered Maduro out, because a few days later, he used a public speech to confess his binge-watching habits. (Even dictators need to decompress every now and then!)

Maduro had just finished watching Netflix's new 60-episode series, Bolívar, which recounts Venezuelan liberator Simón Bolívar's campaign to attain independence from Spain for Venezuela and five other South American countries. Bolívar became the namesake of the "political revolution" started in 1998 by Hugo Chávez, then president of Venezuela, and passed on to Maduro. In 1999, Chavez helped change the country's official name to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

Maduro, who criticized the show in June on the grounds it was Colombian-produced and, therefore, certain to be riddled with "lies" and "trash," apologized for his prejudgment. Maduro watched the show with his wife, Cilia Flores, and said the two were left "marveled" and "moved."

Yet more than a carnival of bad optics, Maduro's 60-hour TV binge might also be illegal. First flagged on Twitter by Bloomberg's Venezuela correspondent Patricia Laya, Maduro's Netflix consumption appears to be in violation of U.S. sanctions, which prohibit any U.S. person or entity from providing services to Maduro and members of his government. The sanctions were designed to starve the Maduro regime of funds and access to foreign credit markets but might also include internet services such as Netflix.
The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which is responsible for issuing and enforcing sanctions, outlines hefty punishments for U.S. companies that violate sanctions. Violating an OFAC sanction can carry fines as high as $20 million and a prison sentence of up to 30 years.

"U.S. companies are responsible for complying with [Office of Foreign Assets Control] regulations and sanctions," a Treasury Department spokesperson told New Times. "Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control does not comment on investigations, including to confirm whether or not one exists."

Netflix told New Times that it complies with all OFAC sanctions, but didn't add further detail. It's unclear how the company can assure compliance with sanctions with total certainty, given Maduro's recent binge-watching. Then again, Maduro could simply be using the Netflix account of someone not targeted by sanctions.
To expound on the inappropriateness of Maduro's public Netflix confession, consider that a Netflix subscription is twice the monthly minimum wage in Venezuela. Maduro recommended Bolívar to anyone who could see it — immediately excluding millions of Venezuelans besieged by hyperinflation and food scarcity. Moreover, as the English-language Venezuelan news outlet Caracas Chronicles pointed out after the announcement, even those who can afford Netflix or a trip to the movies have other problems.

"Even if you find a way to join Netflix, or other streaming services, you’d have to deal with a slow internet connection... if there’s power. That goes for anyone trying to watch soccer or going to the movies," journalist Gustavo Hernández writes. "Local moviegoers not only have to struggle with having no power at the theater, there’s also a reduced offering, since distributors have less incentives to release films here. Matter of fact, 20th Century Fox and Lionsgate dropped Venezuela from their distribution schedules."