In the case of Venezuela, the US sanctions policy has succeeded in inflicting pain but it has failed in transforming that sentiment into the change of government desired by US policymakers. Rather, it has strengthened Venezuelan resilience and has led to creative and audacious measures and partnerships, writes Carlos Ron, Venezuela's deputy foreign minister for North American affairs, for the 19th Annual Meetion of the Valdai Discussion Club.
When in 1823 James Monroe issued the infamous doctrine that claimed that the American continent was closed to any further European colonization, he did not do so in recognition of the independent status recently achieved by the South American nations, but rather as a challenge to the interests of other powers, particularly, to challenge Russia’s presence in the region’s Northwest. Since then, US policy towards its Southern neighbours has been of an interventionist nature, especially at times, such as during the Cold War and at the beginning of the 21st Century, where our countries have shown an interest in carrying out independent foreign policies and partnerships.
In today’s context of transformation, the aspiration of maintaining US hegemony rests on the waging of a hybrid war – which includes an economic component – of worldwide proportions against all its adversaries, not just Russia or China. The use unilateral coercive measures, as US “sanctions” should correctly be labelled, can have damaging effects on large populations that are as serious as those of conventional warfare. They place development and survival at risk and challenge the principles and values agreed upon by the international community in the United Nations Charter. As a new pluri-polar world order is emerging, resistance to this mechanism of economic warfare is not only possible, but also necessary.
The Hybrid War Against Venezuela
Venezuela’s foreign policy states as an objective contributing to the construction of a multi-centred and pluri-polar world, which can guarantee worldwide balance and peace. In breaking away with the historical adherence to US policies, Venezuela broke away from the US sphere of influence, contributed to the creation of independent regional bodies such as the Bolivarian Alliance for Our America (ALBA), the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), and strengthened its independent relations to countries such as Russia, China, Iran and Turkey.
Making sovereign choices led to Venezuela being declared in 2015, under the Obama Administration, an “unusual and extraordinary threat” to the national security and foreign policy of the United States. Washington proceeded to launch an economic war against the democratically-elected government of President Nicolas Maduro aimed at pressuring the Venezuelan population and military into carrying out a change of government. Trump extended this policy in 2017, and it still remains intact under the Biden Administration. Venezuela is prohibited from exporting oil, gold, and other resources; from carrying out transactions such as renegotiating or restructuring debt; the ban also bars Venezuela from utilizing the US financial system. Venezuela’s key leaders have been placed in sanctions lists as well as entities such as the Central Bank, PDVSA (the state oil company), Conviasa (the state-owned airline), and even the government subsidized food distribution program known as CLAP (Local Committees for Supply and Production). The effect on the economy has been tremendous: it has led to induced inflation as well as the scarcity of basic goods, including food and medicine. This policy is a calculated hit on the successful programmes of social inclusion and development that had lifted millions of people above the poverty line. The impact was also felt throughout the region as it affected the implementation of the PetroCaribe programme, increasing the need to make new and costly oil supply arrangements for Caribbean nations.
Notwithstanding, the Venezuelan people reaffirmed their support for President Maduro by re-electing him in 2018. As expected, the US response was to increase its economic warfare by recognizing a self-appointed Interim President and in doing so, justifying the seizure of Venezuelan accounts (no less than $6 billion) and assets, such as Citgo; even the stealing of ship cargo destined for Venezuela. At the same time, it continued its open attempts at destabilisation: a failed assassination attempt using drones (August 2018), sabotage to the national electric grid (March 2019), a failed coup attempt (April 2019), the legal persecution of key Venezuelan leaders including the jailing of a Venezuelan diplomat (2019-20) and even a failed invasion by mercenaries (May 2020). By 2020, Venezuela earned about 1% of what it had been able to make in 2014.
The Human Cost of Sanctions
In his book, The Art of Sanctions, Richard Nephew, a US sanctions strategist and currently the State Department’s Coordinator on Global Anti-Corruption, stated: “the efficacy of sanctions lies in the application of pain against a target.” Today, Venezuela is in 6th place in terms of the most unilateral coercive measures (over 600) and economically, this “pain” applied to Venezuela translates to a loss of over $130 billion from 2015 to 2018, which would have been enough to guarantee a stable Venezuelan economy for at least nine years. Yet the significance of the effect of the sanctions in human terms is even more scandalous: in the middle of the worst pandemic that the world has experienced in a century, Venezuela could not readily purchase vaccines or basic medical supplies because of over-compliance with the illegal US sanctions, and the unenforceable exemptions. Companies feared suffering retaliation from the US Treasury, as happened with Libre Abordo, a Mexican company driven to bankruptcy when the US sanctioned its other businesses because it traded food for fuel. Had it not been for the support of the World Health Organisation (WHO) or solidarity from countries like Russia or China, Venezuela would have had a real medical catastrophe. Even so, independent research, such as that conducted by economists Mark Weisbrot and Jeffrey Sachs, has calculated that at least 40 thousand lives have been lost due to the imposition of the unilateral, coercive US measures.
In 2021, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Negative Impact of Unilateral Coercive Measure, Alena Douhan, indicated “the absence of resources and reluctance of foreign partners, banks and delivery companies” to deal with Venezuela have resulted in “the impossibility to buy necessary medical and technological equipment, reagents and spare parts for the repair and maintenance of electricity, gas, water, public transport, telephone and communications systems, schools, hospitals, houses” among others, and ultimately “undermining the enjoyment of many human rights, including the right to a decent life”.
Faced with more than 20 perpetual wars in the Middle East, US public opinion has grown weary of these actions. That is why sanctions are portrayed as a less damaging and more humane policy. Yet, at the end of the day, they are not designed to “correct behaviour” or “protect human rights”, it’s just part of the regime change strategy, as Elliott Abrams stated: “the plan is not so much an effort to change Nicolas Maduro’s mind as it is to appeal to everyone else in Venezuela to change his mind for him.”
Standing up to Unilateralism
In March of 2021, the Group of Friends in Defence of the Charter of the United Nations met in New York City. Venezuela along with two of the world’s largest nations, Russia and China, and 16 other countries from Asia, Africa, and Latin America joined to promote multilateralism and diplomacy over the use of force and to defend the values and principles of the UN Charter. This is key at the time when NATO poses a major military threat and the US promotes a “rules-based international order” where such rules are not clearly defined in terms of purpose or origin.
During a meeting on September 22, the Group rejected the imposition of unilateral coercive measures and called for establishing a “safe zone, free of unilateral sanctions, in which we can trade and process payments without hazards or arbitrary impediments of a punitive nature” intended to safeguard both the wellbeing of our peoples as well as national development. Taking such concrete measures, where illegal unilateral sanctions are rendered useless, can help to begin to overturn the dire effect of US sanctions on populations and rekindle development where it had been hindered by these criminal policies.
A Criminal Policy Destined for Failure
This important stance from the Group stems from the recognition that unilateral coercive measures are, in essence, forms of collective punishment due to their systematic and widespread reach, and must, therefore, be denounced and combatted as crimes against humanity.
In the case of Venezuela, the US sanctions policy has succeeded in inflicting pain but it has failed in transforming that sentiment into the change of government desired by US policymakers. Rather, it has strengthened Venezuelan resilience and has led to creative and audacious measures and partnerships that will account for the largest economic grown in the region this year. Resisting and working towards viable alternatives against economic war is essential to consolidating a multi-centred, pluripolar world for the sake of humanity.