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An Attack on the Most Vulnerable: U.S. Sanctions on Venezuela

In early 2020 as the world braced for the Covid-19 pandemic, only 20 percent of Venezuela’s hospitals had basic supplies. By May, projections predicted 4,000 daily cases in Venezuela between June and September. Without a functioning healthcare system, medical professionals have had to use motels and makeshift facilities to treat Covid. In the city of Maracaibo, the Central University Hospital has only nine ICU beds and six hours of running water available per day. 

 Exacerbated by a burgeoning humanitarian crisis under President Nicolas Maduro, Covid-19 has wreaked immeasurable damage to the population amidst increased U.S. sanctions. For even as Venezuelans continue to receive makeshift medical care in motels, with no end in sight to the pandemic, the United States has continued its policy of economic sanctions designed to cut off the Maduro regime and force a democratic transition. U.S. policy in Venezuela, however, has not only contributed to a growing humanitarian and environmental crisis, but has worsened the same humanitarian problems the United States claims to want to solve, furthering Maduro’s undemocratic hold on power. 

First, sanctions have led to a contraction in general imports, with an especially steep decline in 2019. This spells catastrophe for the most vulnerable Venezuelans. Venezuela imports around 75 percent of their food, and the Pharmaceutical Federation of Venezuela imports 90 percent of all supplies and 30 percent of all medicine. Indeed, Amnesty International and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to warn of further humanitarian crises brought on by U.S. sanctions. 

Food insecurity brought on by these sanctions previously led over 9 million Venezuelans––a little less than a third of the population–– to go hungry. This has only escalated during the pandemic. By the end of 2020, the economy is expected to contract by 26 percent and exacerbate food insecurity as the pandemic continues. Meanwhile, humanitarian organizations cannot adequately distribute aid to Venezuela to help with negative consequences of the pandemic, as sanctions have contributed to financial institutions over-complying with the rules and limiting the monetary transactions necessary to humanitarian aid. 

Additionally, the sanction-induced fuel shortage has left medical workers unable to get to their hospitals. Geoff Ramsey from the Washington Office on Latin America argues, “Gas shortages are not new in Venezuela, but the extent of this one is. Health workers can’t even go to work. It has a ripple effect across Venezuelan society.”

In response, Maduro has grown desperate, pursuing deals with states such as North Korea and Iran, and increasing human rights abuses. In June 2020, following continued sanctions on Venezuelan oil, five Iranian ships delivered 1.5 million barrels of gasoline to Venezuela. The United States responded, sanctioning these ships and issuing another meager statement of support for Guiadó. In spite of this, Maduro has continued his authoritarian reign via a sustained alliance with the military. 

Despite near economic collapse and the lowest level of exports in more than 70 years, Maduro has maintained his hold on power and exposed U.S. sanctions to be futile. Rather than crippling the Maduro regime, U.S sanctions have instigated a shadow economy, reducing the possibility of economic recovery and allowing Maduro to maintain his power. Further, Maduro has used the pandemic to attack and imprison dissenters, bolstering his authoritarian regime. Under the auspices of the state of emergency declared in March, the Maduro regime targeted, harassed, or detained at least 162 people––including dissenters, human rights advocates, and journalists––between March and June. 

The United States has long hoped that these sanctions would fracture Maduro’s base of support, turn the military against him, and force a return to democracy. Instead, the Venezuelan people have only suffered more. Further, in April 2020, during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the United States supplemented pre-existing sanctions, deployed naval assets to the Caribbean, and indicted Maduro and his collaborators. These indictments––an ill-informed attempt to impose additional pressure to Maduro––significantly undermined any hope of military aid in a democratic transition by indicting a high-ranking military general and the current defense minister Vladimir Padrino. Despite needing this military support in order to oust Maduro, the United States further alienated the Venzuelan military from the United States by indicting Padrino. 

Trouble in Washington is one thing, but the United States’ blatant political errancy coincided with a collapse in the Venezuelan health-care system coping with Covid-19. While the United States contributed around $21 million in aid to the UN Humanitarian Response Plan in 2019, the program required over $222 million to be successful in alleviating the humanitarian crisis.  Thus, while the U.S. continues its sanctions and funds militaristic efforts in the Caribbean, the UN Humanitarian Response Plan suffers from extreme underfunding, leading to crisis during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Additionally, U.S. sanctions’ involvement in the oil crisis has contributed to environmental disaster. While the collapse of the oil industry worsens, U.S. sanctions have barred Venezuelan access to U.S. refineries, and Venezuela has been forced to use damaged refineries.  In Morrocoy National Park, one such refinery has since spilled, leaking into the surrounding area and threatening the wetland’ biodiversity. Further, an abandoned oil tanker belonging to the state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) was at risk for spilling 1.3 million barrels of oil into the ocean. While the PDVSA is no longer considered a danger to Caribbean marine life, it still symbolizes the danger of the United States’ sanctions and foreshadows future environmental catastrophes. Indeed, the ship abandoned operations following Trump imposed additional sanctions on PDVSA in January 2019, leaving it stranded on the precipice of an oil spill five times larger than the infamous Exxon Valdez spill in 1989.

At the onset of the pandemic, Venezuelan farmer Gerson Pabon was on the brink of losing his entire crop due to the fuel shortage brought on by U.S. sanctions. Unable to transport his goods, he asked, “How can we harvest our vegetables if we can only buy 15 liters of gasoline? That is not enough to go to the fields and return to the collection center” and warned, “if people don’t eat, it will get worse.” Indeed, Pabon’s warning was especially prescient in light of the unrestrained spread of Covid throughout the rest of 2020 and the worsening of Venezuela’s already fragile economy. As one-third of Venezuela continues to go hungry, farmers like Pabson cannot even get food to market due to the actions of the United States. Clearly, sanctions have reached into the minutiae of everyday life in Venezuela, condemning civilians to famine and a lack of even the most basic healthcare amidst a global pandemic. Clearly, despite the obstinate belief on the part of U.S. policymakers that somehow, after five years, sanctions will succeed in pressuring the Maduro regime, they continue to not only fail, but punish the most vulnerable Venezuelans for crimes they did not commit. 

Image via Flickr (Eneas de Troya)