Sanctions Didn't Help Cubans, Iranians or Venezuelans. They Won't Help Afghans.

Economic punishment is taking a brutal toll during the pandemic.

Natasha Hakimi Zapata

Stranded Afghan nationals arrive to return back to Afghanistan at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border crossing point in Chaman on August 16, 2021. AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration has withdrawn from the brutal 20-year U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, but there are signs that the country will be the target of war by other means: economic punishment. Amid a deepening economic crisis, the flow of global money to Afghanistan is being cut off: The United States froze the country’s financial reserves, the International Monetary Fund cut off its Special Drawing Rights, and world leaders are weighing additional sanctions (in addition to the sanctions that were already imposed on the Taliban).

Yet one only has to look at ongoing U.S. sanctions on two-dozen countries to realize that they are a moral catastrophe, especially during the pandemic. From the Balkans to Zimbabwe, the United States is dealing devastating blows to nations reeling from the public health and economic impacts of a relentless Covid-19 outbreak. In at least 10 of the sanctioned countries, the Biden administration has maintained Trump-era sanctions, including those Trump ratcheted up in Nicaragua, Venezuela, Sudan and Ukraine. Biden officials have also heaped fresh sanctions on Cuba, Iran, China, Syria and Russia—all countries targeted under Trump — as well as entirely new sanctions in the Balkans, Belarus and Burma.

While largely politically and ideologically driven, activists and experts note that these measures rarely — if ever — achieve their stated aims and, more often than not, result in human rights abuses. That’s why, since the start of the coronavirus crisis in 2019, United Nations experts have repeatedly called on the United States to lift sanctions against countries such as Cuba, Iran, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela and Yemen, citing obstacles to the provision of basic services and procurement of life-saving medical supplies.

As world leaders weigh more sanctions and other forms of economic punishment, now that the Taliban has seized power in Afghanistan, these other countries — that have suffered greatly from sanctions imposed during the Covid-19 crisis — provide cautionary tales. 

Chilling effect

Traditionally, when one speaks about economic sanctions, one speaks about the prohibition of trade, for example, or impediments in doing some financial transactions with countries directly,” Alena Douhan, the UN Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of the unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights, told In These Times. Unfortunately, today the impact to the economy is composed of various forms of sanctions, not only of the traditional blockade, as it exists in concerns to Cuba.”

Coercive measures have a chilling effect on trade transactions worldwide, Douhan explained. Banks, for example, are often wary of fines sometimes amounting to billions of dollars if they even accidentally approve transactions by sanctioned countries, companies, or individuals. This results in over-compliance, in which financial institutions opt to avoid transactions from a country altogether rather than risk bankruptcy. With regard to the Covid-19 pandemic, Douhan has received reports from a wide range of countries about the direct and indirect impacts of economic sanctions on the ability to purchase personal protective equipment, as well as other medical supplies, treatments and vaccines. Impediments to fuel procurement, food access, and water supplies also hamper pandemic responses by making it difficult to transport medical supplies or fuel ambulances, as well as provide clean water and soap for residents to wash their hands — a key practice in curtailing the spread of the coronavirus. 

American officials often argue that the United States doesn’t block activities and financial transactions related to humanitarian aid and, in the case of Covid-19, has issued humanitarian exemptions to countries such as Iran and Syria. But experts contend that these exemptions are largely ineffective for a number of reasons. In Iran, for example, pharmaceutical companies refused to fill requests out of fear of sanctions, and banks have also declined transactions despite humanitarian exemptions, according to Human Rights Watch. Douhan says that NGOs, especially those with limited resources, will also forgo providing aid to certain countries to avoid sanctions. 

The UN special rapporteur says she was told by one NGO that the impact of over-compliance and the fear of sanctions is already higher than the impact of the sanctions themselves.”


When Biden announced new sanctions against Cuba in late July, he proclaimed such measures would bolster the cause of the Cuban people.” These sanctions are only the latest measures in a devastating, decades-long economic blockade, and were levied in response to what the Biden administration called a crackdown” on recent protests on the island nation. Yet, activists and human rights organizations warn that piling on additional coercive measures amid a deadly pandemic will only put more Cuban lives at risk.

Cuba is long accustomed to being self-reliant at times of need. The small island nation of 11.3 million has been developing several Covid-19 vaccines, including Soberana 2 and Abdala, which are both in the final stages of clinical trials. Despite a sturdy state-run health care system and a successful biotechnology sector, Cuba is still struggling to contain the Covid-19 pandemic as it navigates widespread shortages and lack of access to international financial systems. 

Helen Yaffe, a senior lecturer at the University of Glasgow and author of We Are Cuba!, told In These Times that increased sanctions under Donald Trump — which Biden not only kept in place but increased despite promising to roll them back during his 2020 presidential campaign — are worsening the Covid-19 pandemic. 

According to Yaffe, Cuba’s vaccine program is being thwarted by sanctions, due to the dominance of American suppliers and the U.S. dollar in global industry, as the reluctance of international scientists and public health institutions to work with a sanctioned Cuba. While Cuban researchers have been able to develop a handful of vaccines using Cuba’s reserves, they face shortages of syringes, test tubes, reagents, and other supplies necessary for both testing and administering their vaccines. In one form or another, the author says, the companies that create these much-needed items have links to American companies, making them nearly impossible to obtain. 

Cuba is seeing record daily cases and struggling to vaccinate its population—roughly a quarter of Cubans have been fully vaccinated. To add insult to injury, as the island nation awaits WHO approval for Abdala and Soberana 2, Washington has said it might be willing to provide Cuba with other vaccines — so long as they aren’t administered by the Cuban government.

In late June, Knowledge Economy International, a Washington, D.C.-based non-governmental organization, called on key Biden administration officials — including Samantha Power, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development — to clarify that existing sanctions against Cuba do not extend to activities to make, sell or distribute its vaccines,” including any fees Cuba could collect from licensing. No such clarification has been made to date, says Love. 

It’s not just Cuba that is harmed by these sanctions. As Yaffe wrote in a statement for Progressive International, “​​U.S. sanctions also prevent the world from accessing Cuban biotechnology products, which have helped to keep the Covid-19 mortality rate so low on the island.” Cuba has offered to openly license its vaccines around the world and could play a critical role in inoculating the Global South. This fact alone is something that James Love, the director of the D.C.-based NGO Knowledge Ecology International (KEI), told In These Times should be in the interest of the entire international community.

But the problems extend much further. The pandemic has eroded Cuba’s tourism sector, says Yaffe, making the situation on the ground unbearable.” Food and fuel shortages, caused by a combination of unprecedented levels of sanctions and the public health crisis’ toll on the economy, force people to walk unimaginably long distances to work and stand in lines for hours to receive food rations. The U.S. has, in the most disgraceful, criminal way, used the pandemic to create a double pressure on Cuba,” says Yaffe.


Similar scenarios are playing out in other countries. On a recent visit to Venezuela, Douhan witnessed how sanctions strangle pandemic-battered countries. Since 2005, Venezuela has been under sanctions from the United States and European Union, among others, but has suffered an additional onslaught of U.S. sanctions since 2015. While Trump slapped the country with an additional slew of coercive measures during his tenure, the Biden administration has refused several calls from President Nicolás Maduro to ease crippling sanctions and, like his predecessor, recognizes opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the interim president. 

After interviewing a broad range of Venezuelans, including members of the opposition and government, as well as health care workers and business owners, Douhan issued a scathing condemnation of the coercive measures in February. In addition to the long list of basic services and needs that cannot be met, Douhan points to the mass displacement of Venezuelans, including health care workers, who are forced to leave their crisis-ridden home country. Overall, sanctions in the Latin American country are having enormous impact over all categories of human rights, including the rights to life, to food, to health and to development,” the UN Special Rapporteur concluded. 

In a May article in the scientific journal The Lancet, titled Venezuela is collapsing without Covid-19 vaccines,” scientists called on the international community to provide support to the nation as it struggled to procure vaccines, its health care system collapsed, and “​​a desperate population [resorted] to self-medication with unproven therapies.” A month later, Venezuela was the only country signed up to COVAX, a global vaccine sharing program, that had yet to receive a single dose from the vaccine-sharing program. Its final payments to the program were blocked due to sanctions, forcing the government to petition private local banks to make the payments. In early August, after inoculating only 3.9% of its 28 million inhabitants with Sputnik V, Abdala and Sinopharm vaccines — Maduro announced that COVAX was finally set to deliver 6.2 million Sinovac and Sinopharm doses after months of delays.


Iran, where Covid-19 cases are currently reaching an all-time high, provides another example of how crippling sanctions can leave a country unable to effectively address the wide-reaching crisis. Prior to the pandemic, Human Rights Watch released a damning report on how Trump-era economic sanctions immediately jeopardized the health rights of Iranians. When the Covid-19 pandemic swept through Iran, an already enfeebled health care system was brought to its knees. A report from earlier this year by Javaid Rehman, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, outlines how Iran’s plight throughout the pandemic mirrors that of other sanctioned countries. Locked out of global banking systems, Iran has struggled to obtain the medical equipment, medications and vaccines needed to combat the pandemic, as well as pay its health care workers as they risked their lives in over-capacity hospitals to save others. At the same time, Rehman reports, the economic crisis has kept the government from taking more drastic public health measures, like imposing lockdowns, for fear of economic collapse

Initially refusing to rely on any American or British-made vaccines, Iran’s Barekat Foundation has been developing its own Cov-Iran vaccine with help from Cuba, and has obtained 24 million doses via imports and donations, including through COVAX. However, according to recent estimates from the World Health Organization, Iran has only fully vaccinated 6.4% of its population and is now facing its deadliest wave. The country is in need of 80 million doses, according to Dr. Arash Anisian, the head of Tehran’s Ebn Sina Hospital. With Barekat only able to produce 4 million doses a month, blame has been volleyed between Iran’s new administration and the previous one. Many Iranians place blame at their government’s doorstep, but acknowledge that U.S. sanctions — especially related to financial services — are a huge obstacle to importing vaccines. The vaccine shortages have driven some Iranians to seek out free jabs in Armenia, or to resort to paying between $800-$900 for Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines on the black market. Although the United States has lifted some sanctions on Iran—purportedly to facilitate ongoing nuclear talks — experts warn that sanctions are making it more difficult to curb Iran’s high daily death toll.


It’s not difficult to imagine how economic punishment would further harm people in Afghanistan, particularly given Afghanistan’s dependency on U.S. aid. In July, as the country of 40 million faced a deadly third wave, the country’s fragile national health system was under extreme pressure as hospitals overflowed with Covid-19 patients — likely infected with the highly contagious Delta variant. Reports have emerged of shortages of oxygen machines, ventilators, bandages, sutures, syringes, catheters and scalpels, among other supplies. The death rate is high, because of a lack of equipment and a lack of oxygen. It’s really hard to deal with as a doctor,” Dr. Tariq Akbari, a physician at theAfghan-Japan Hospital — one of few Afghan hospitals dedicated to Covid-19told NPR. The most recent data shows 5 million COVID-19 vaccine doses had been delivered to Afghanistan from COVAX, India and China, and only 4.8 doses have been administered per 100 people. 

Afghan medical professionals like Dr. Akbari had been crying out for international aid during the summer crisis. With the country’s borders closed in recent days, exports and imports have come to a grinding halt, leading to drastic price increases and shortages of food and other staples. Now, as the country suffers political upheaval while teetering on the edge of economic collapse, Western sanctions promise to cause further shortages and deaths. Mark Weisbrot, an economist and co-director of the left-leaning think tank, Center for Economic Policy and Research, warns sanctions could worsen the devastation from the 20-year war. Sanctions kill people too, sometimes more than bombs and bullets do,” the economist tweeted days after the Taliban’s seizure of power in Kabul.

Although the United States is promising to find ways around the already-sanctioned Taliban to deliver assistance, billions of dollars of foreign grants and aid have already been cut off. In all likelihood, as evidenced by the ineffectiveness of humanitarian exemptions elsewhere, desperately needed aid may never actually reach Afghanistan if it is sanctioned. Weisbrot told In These Times that withdrawing foreign aid — which makes up the majority of the Afghanistan government’s budget — will already kill many Afghans, but further economic punishments could lead to disastrous financial crises, choke off critical goods and services, and quickly translate into lives lost. 

Weisbrot argues that levying coercive measures just as the United States is announcing the end of the 20-year war also sends the Taliban a perilous message. “[Another] reason why these sanctions [would be] such a mistake from the U.S. point of view,” says Weisbrot, is because they’re basically telling the Taliban that the war is continuing by other means.”

Douhan says any economic sanctions that violate human rights are illegal under international law, yet her calls to lift sanctions have gone unanswered by the U.S government. In several cases, the Biden administration seems to be doubling-down on sanctions programs imposed or heightened by his far-right predecessor, even as it becomes increasingly clear that these measures exacerbate an existing global vaccine apartheid and prolong the Covid-19 pandemic unnecessarily. While she says it is difficult to assess the impact of a single country’s sanctions program in most cases, Douhan singles out the United States for two critical reasons. 

As of today, the U.S. imposes the [greatest] amount of sanctions and, naturally, they are cited the most,” says Douhan. Unfortunately, the humanitarian impact of sanctions is usually not assessed, and it’s absolutely disproportionate to whatever purpose was announced initially.”

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NATASHA HAKIMI ZAPATA is an award-winning journalist and university lecturer based in London. Her work has appeared in The Nation, Los Angeles Review of Books, ScheerPost, Truthdig, Los Angeles Magazine and elsewhere. She has received several Southern California Journalism and National Arts & Entertainment Journalism awards, among other honors.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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