Venezuelan Sanctions: Weaknesses in US Leadership in Latin America
By Neval Mulaomerovic, SDG Research Assistant and Advocacy Fellow
The US first imposed sanctions on Venezuela in 2006, prohibiting all commercial arms sales and retransfer in response to a lack of cooperation on anti-terrorism efforts and concerns about narcotics trafficking. Economic sanctions against individuals and corporations with ties to illicit trade remained in place throughout the next decade, and targeted sanctions on Venezuelan military and government officials ramped up in 2013 after Nicolas Maduro assumed the presidency following an allegedly fraudulent special election. The Trump administration not only intensified targeted sanctions, increasing the number of blacklisted individuals from 24 to 166 by 2017, but also accelerated nationwide sanctions. Most notably, the US froze all Venezuelan government assets and threatened to sanction any company or state that supports the Maduro regime, leading to a 35 percent contraction in the nation’s economy in 2019.
The Biden administration has not indicated any desire to drop sanctions or negotiate with Maduro, maintaining that his regime is illegitimate and corrupt. Though they are not open to lifting sanctions in the near future, the administration has acknowledged that unilateral sanctions have been unsuccessful in achieving democratic reform. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that President Biden plans to “more effectively target” leaders within Maduro’s regime through selective rather than national sanctions and potentially address the humanitarian repercussions through partnerships with the European Union and Organization of American States (OAS). Ultimately, Biden’s goal is a return to free and fair elections via the removal of Maduro from office. White House officials stated that they would consider relaxing sanctions if Maduro were to make reliable concessions in diplomatic negotiations, though Biden has maintained that this is unlikely. Unlike his predecessor who only advocated for deferred deportations, Biden extended Temporary Protective Status (TPS) for Venezuelans residing in the US, allowing about 320,000 migrants to stay for up to 18 months.
Though US policy has done little to advance a democratic transition in Venezuela and remove Maduro from power, the intensification of sanctions has precipitated far-reaching humanitarian effects. The collapse in the state oil industry has placed intense financial pressure on the regime and made them unable to finance food imports, which comprise 85 percent of the food supply. Trump drew particularly strong criticism for his decision to prohibit exchanges of Venezuelan crude oil for diesel and gasoline, as this step — coupled with refining capacity in Venezuela’s oil sector plummeting to 10% — is expected to create a widespread diesel shortage. Seeing as the agricultural sector and delivery trucks rely on diesel, a shortage could further contribute to nationwide scarcity in food, medicine, and other essential goods.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, with hospitals facing shortages in personnel and basic necessities such as running water and sanitation due to the compounded effects of the economic crisis. Though UNICEF has delivered humanitarian aid, the US’s multilayered sanctions discourage other nations from providing assistance, which has created a long-standing shortage in medical supplies. Over five million people have fled Venezuela over the past decade due to socioeconomic instability, causing hospitals to face vacancies in 50 to 70 percent of medical staff positions. Despite these concerns, both the Trump and Biden administrations have maintained the necessity of sanctions to incentivize Maduro to step down from power.
In response to these growing concerns, the UN Special Rapporteur Alena Douhan released a preliminary report, set to be presented in full in September 2021, calling on the US and its allies to end sanctions against Venezuela. The report drew from Douhan’s experience traveling in Venezuela and highlighted the “lack of necessary machinery, spare parts, electricity, water, fuel, gas, food and medicine” which has had “enormous impact over all categories of human rights, including the rights to life, to food, to health and to development.” The US Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) April 2019 report corroborated these conclusions, providing evidence that the sanctions’ impact on health and quality of life cost over 40,000 lives between 2017 and 2018. Notably, both Douhan’s and the GAO’s reports critique US sanction policy, calling it collective punishment against the Venezuelan population and thus a violation of international law per the Hague and Geneva Conventions. Though these agreements only apply to the collective punishment of civilians during wartime, human rights advocates have argued that the same standards ought to apply outside of situations of armed conflict. Regarding the human rights implications of sanctions, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights previously determined in 2018 that “sanctions that extend beyond national borders, and which seek to block a country’s trade altogether, amount to economic warfare against civilians.” The UN also noted that civilians affected by sanctions carry the same protections as civilians in war according to the Geneva Conventions.
The UN report has encouraged other nations and international organizations to condemn the US’s sanction policy as well, with the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) calling on the Biden administration to reevaluate its “ineffective harsh policies” which “are contributing immensely to widespread additional indiscriminate human suffering.” Trinidad and Tobago President Keith Rowley, who is also chairman of CARICOM, urged the US to repair its relationship with Venezuela, which carries economic and humanitarian implications for the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean. The US’s flawed relationship with Venezuela is not unique, as the US also maintains sanctions against leftist regimes in Cuba and Nicaragua. UN human rights experts have criticized each of these measures as illegal under the UN and OAS charters, as none were formally authorized by the UN Security Council as required by Chapter VII of the UN Charter.
The US’s relationship with Venezuela is indicative of a broader trend of political interventionism in Central and Latin America, which has its roots in anti-socialist foreign policies of the 20th century. Notably, the US has directed much of its criticism towards Maduro’s socialist-leaning economic policies, such as the disastrous nationalization of the oil industry and currency controls. In fact, Security Adviser John Bolton stated during the Trump administration that “the Monroe doctrine is alive and well,” evoking the US’s controversial legacy of maintaining a sphere of influence in the region through forcing economic dependence.
Biden’s strategy in Venezuela could serve as a key turning point in US-Latin American relations. Given his international credibility, the US may face better prospects in diplomatic negotiation. The Lima Group, the 15-member independent body of Latin American nations and the US formed in 2017 in response to political unrest in Venezuela, could serve as a particularly valuable resource in opening up communication with Maduro and delivering relief. As Latin American and European nations reevaluate their strategy in Venezuela, the Biden administration can play a critical leadership role in coordinating multilateral diplomatic leverage. With growing criticism from the international community and Latin American allies, the US’s strategy moving forward is especially crucial.