CNN correspondent Frida Ghitis had some advice for the Trump administration on Venezuela as she stated her agreement with the president’s policy in the country: “The United States should refrain from intervening militarily,” she affirmed, “but should continue providing decisive diplomatic, and even logistical, support.” Who can argue with that?
Well, for one, the many Venezuelans who have already died from such “diplomatic support.” What Ghitis doesn’t say out loud is that she, like the rest of the political and media establishment, is backing the administration’s economic sanctions, that time-honored tool of diplomacy viewed in the political circles of DC as a “limited,” non-violent alternative to war.
Except as a new study reveals, the sanctions against Venezuela have been devastating for the very people Ghitis claims to “root for,” causing the deaths of tens of thousands while plunging millions into precarity. Unfortunately, Venezuela is no aberration: far from being the kind of non-violent method of diplomacy they’re portrayed as, the sanctions programs launched by Western policymakers can crush humanity as viciously as a bombing campaign.
What Rooting for the People Looks Like
The study in question, produced by economists Mark Weisbrot and Jeffrey Sachs, provides a virtual tour through the ravages brought on ordinary Venezuelans by Trump’s sanctions. The authors determine the country experienced around forty thousand more deaths from 2017 to 2018, as well as 300,000 people put at risk through lack of access to medicine and health care, including eighty thousand HIV-positive Venezuelans who have gone without antiretroviral drugs for two years now and sixteen thousand people on dialysis. There are four million people with diabetes and hypertension, many of whom can’t access the drugs they need.
Weisbrot and Sachs also confirm what has long been obvious: that while Venezuela’s economy had hit troubled waters due to its over-reliance on oil, corruption, and other factors — a key part of the argument made by regime change cheerleaders like Ghitis — it was the administration’s sanctions that turned a sorry situation into a full-fledged humanitarian crisis. The numbers make for grim reading.
The August 2017 sanctions sent oil production plummeting at more than three times the rate of the preceding twenty months, for a loss of around $6 billion in revenue. To put that into perspective, the authors note food and medicine imports in 2018 cost less than a third of that number. Virtually every basic necessity of Venezuelans’ daily life — food medicine, clean water, electricity, transportation — is funded through oil export revenue.
The round of sanctions imposed this past January further turned the screws. US imports for the first time fell to zero for a full three weeks. Oil revenues for this year, they write, are pegged to drop by “a cataclysmic and unprecedented” 67 percent from last year.
The study explains how the sanctions and other forms of pressure have painted the country into a corner. Trump pressured other countries not to buy Venezuela oil, sending production dropping by 130,000 barrels per day this year, more than six times the average rate of decline seen in the final six months of last year. Sanctions have frozen more than $17 billion worth of the country’s assets, barred the sale of billions of dollars in trade credits, and prevented the country from restructuring its foreign debt. It can’t even get the payments sent by countries participating in its program of preferential payment for oil.
In other words, not only have sanctions driven the country’s economy off a cliff, Trump has worked to close off any possible avenue the government could use to stabilize the economy and prevent the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe. And much of it was due to the August 2017 sanctions that outlets like the New York Times and Forbes characterized at the time as “limited” and not going to “have much effect beyond the simply political.”
This is important, because this economic and humanitarian crisis engineered by the Trump administration is typically blamed on Maduro alone, perversely then becoming a plank in arguments for regime change.
Ghitis writes that “the Maduro regime … devastated [Venezuela’s] economy and much of its social order,” blaming him for the country’s suddenly widespread poverty and lack of medicine. “The United States has been calling Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro to step down for months amidst an economic collapse and a humanitarian crisis,” said MSNBC’s Ali Velshi, shortly before a guest claimed that “the vast majority” of the crisis was due to Maduro and falling oil prices (US sanctions only “probably contributed to its exacerbating”).
Most recently, the Washington Post, in a piece of straight reporting, casually asserted that “corruption, mismanagement. and failed policies have brought Venezuela to its knees.” If you read only establishment media, Trump’s sanctions simply do not exist.
While the study lays all this out in stark and comprehensive fashion, it’s not as if we were unaware. The United Nations has been particularly ardent in condemning the sanctions.
Back in March 2018, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution criticizing their use, arguing they would disproportionately impact “the poor and most vulnerable classes” of Venezuela. UN agencies have actually been sending aid to mitigate their impact. Its human rights chief has charged the sanctions have “exacerbated” the country’s crisis, while one of its human rights experts warned the “use of sanctions by outside powers to overthrow an elected government is in violation of all norms of international law.” Particularly critical was Alfred de Zayas, the first UN rapporteur to visit the country in decades, who called the sanctions “economic warfare” and compared them to “medieval sieges of towns” that are now an attempt to bring “sovereign countries to their knees.”
This is what DC-speak like “root for the people” means in reality: plunge them into such misery and suffering in the hope that they might install your favored leader out of despair.
Not the First Siege
But Venezuela is not unique in this. Sanctions, while marketed as a softer, kinder tool of coercion, have led to appalling humanitarian outcomes in country after country.
Obama’s sanctions against Iran — “The Toughest Sanctions Ever Faced by the Iranian Government” — were devastating for ordinary Iranians. A year in, the Stanford Journal of International Relations determined they were “having a strangling effect on Iran’s economy,” with unemployment somewhere between 13 and 20 percent, the cost of food and drink jumping 20 percent since the previous year, and the consumer price index (CPI) shooting up 12.9 percent (by contrast, the CPI had gone up only 1.4 percent for the US in this period). As one Democrat responded to critics who charged sanctions would “hurt the Iranian people”: “we need to do just that,” and possibly even “tighten the screws further.”
Eventually, Iran’s currency collapsed, there was a Venezuela-like shortage of food and medicine, and the government was closed out from international markets, forced into barter deals to get access to basic commodities. International aid agencies and Iranian expats couldn’t even send donations when an earthquake ripped apart the country in August 2012.
The cost of energy and staple foods skyrocketed, with food riots regularly breaking out. Iranians were forced into heartbreaking situations, unable to pay or even travel for medical treatment, like one four-year-old girl who needed life-saving surgery on her oesophagus in the UK. By 2015, then-Treasury secretary Jacob Lew estimated the sanctions had slashed Iran’s GDP by 15-20 percent.
Trump’s policies have taken an already cruel situation and made it crueler. By March 2019, Iranian oil exports had fallen from the 3.8 million barriers per day they were at the start of 2018 to 1.1 million, with Trump pledging to “bring Iran’s oil exports to zero.” GDP, the Iranian currency the rial, the cost of food: after stabilizing with the easing of sanctions, all have spun out of control once more. Medicine for certain diseases is again hard to find. After falling nearly 4 percent last year, the IMF expects GDP to contract another 6 percent this year. And while certain countries were allowed waivers to keep importing Iran’s oil, those waives expired last week.
It’s a similar situation when it comes to the administration’s other nemesis, North Korea. Decades of sanctions have failed to produce their desired outcome, but have made life even more hellish for its people, combining with the collapse of the Soviet Union (the country’s former chief trading partner) and a string of natural disasters to send the country’s economy spiraling downward in the post-Cold War world.
They also “left the health care system in shambles,” one US doctor said: outdated and unfixable medical equipment, operations without anesthetic, sick people resorting to methamphetamine for medicine, and the return of infectious diseases caused by broken down sanitation. As with every example discussed, part of the problem is the prohibition on so-called “dual use” items: those that have a conceivable military as well as civilian use, like water pipes, electric generators and the chlorine used to purify water.
Current sanctions against the country are putting tubercolosis sufferers who can’t get medicine at risk, barred exports of coal, garments, and seafood, and exacerbated the already bad food shortage plaguing the country, which the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimated last year would put 60,000 malnourished North Korean children at risk of death. And the situation exhibits aspects shared by other countries targeted with Western sanctions: they’ve squeezed out aid and humanitarian agencies by making their operations exceedingly difficult, and led banks and suppliers not impacted by the sanctions to stay out of the country just in case (non-US banks have paid billions of dollars to US regulators in sanctions penalties). It’s little wonder one aid worker warned the sanctions “are really affecting the wrong people.”
There’s also the people of Syria, who on top of trying to survive a civil war that has left their country in rubble have had to deal with Western sanctions, described by one study as some of the “most complicated and far reaching sanction regimes ever imposed.” According to the UN Human Rights Council’s special rapporteur, their convoluted nature has, as in other cases, prevented humanitarian agencies from doing their work and led various companies to avoid doing business in the country just in case.
While 90 percent of medicines were produced domestically before 2011, production has dropped while the country is barred from buying medicine from other countries, and an oil embargo has sent energy costs leaping, and the cost of staple foods has doubled and tripled. “Restrictive measures are only making the situation worse,” said the special rapporteur.
Or we could go to what was for a long time the most notorious example of sanctions at work: Iraq. While we now know the widely quoted figure of half a million dead Iraqi children (a figure former secretary of state Madeline Albright infamously said was “worth it”) is incorrect, and the effects of the sanctions were exacerbated by former dictator Saddam Hussein’s actions (something sadly true for many despotic regimes you care to look at), the fact remains that hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children were killed by the more-than-decade-long sanctions, not to mention the many other civilians who died or suffered from a shortage of medicine, lack of and high-priced food, and sanitation destroyed by the war that sanctions made it impossible to mend.
After all this human suffering, such sanctions haven’t even worked. Sanctions failed to oust the leadership of any of these countries, partly because populations beleaguered by starvation, disease, and general poverty aren’t necessarily the most well-equipped to revolt, and tend to become more dependent on their despotic leadership to survive, even rallying around them. They’ve also failed to prevent their leadership from pursuing weapons of mass destruction, something diplomacy has been far more successful at moving towards. In fact, according to one well-known study, sanctions only had a 34 percent success rate in cases between 1914 and 1990, and even then, they were most likely to be successful in achieving modest goals like prisoner release, and when dealing with relatively friendly countries.
Rooting for Suffering
The record of Western sanctions is clear, and it’s not one of ever helping “the people” regime change enthusiasts claim they speak for. Instead, they’ve caused misery, chaos, and death for already suffering populations while strengthening the hand of the rulers who repress them.
If the political and media establishment wants to help the Venezuelan people, Weisbrot and Sachs amply demonstrate that the best thing they could do is push the administration to end this modern-day siege. But that’s never been their real goal, so expect them to continue cheering Trump on.