Sanctions are murder


A view of Caracas, Venezuela. PHOTO/Aaron Anton/Flickr

As media and political figures cheer on regime change for the sake of the Venezuelan people, they say nothing about the sanctions that are killing ordinary Venezuelans.

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.

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