Sanctions Are Economic Warfare

Sanctions are a violent tool of U.S. control. And now this tool is in Trump’s hands.

Gabe Levine-Drizin May 30, 2019

Iraq sanctions and their aftermath.

On May 8, near­ly a year to the day since the U.S. pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion slapped a fresh round of sanc­tions on Iran, whose econ­o­my is already reel­ing.

Regardless of their devastating results, the use of sanctions against “unruly” countries is a frequent U.S. foreign policy tactic, often posed as the only alternative to an invasion.

The Iran sanc­tions are but the most recent exam­ple of a U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy tool that con­sis­tent­ly caus­es or exac­er­bates human­i­tar­i­an crises. For a pre­view of what Iran is like­ly to suf­fer, we can look to anoth­er coun­try cur­rent­ly in U.S. crosshairs: Venezuela.

The dev­as­tat­ing effects of the Trump administration’s broad eco­nom­ic sanc­tions, first imposed against Venezuela in 2017, were exposed in a paper released on April 25 by econ­o­mists Mark Weis­brot and Jef­frey Sachs — who has served as a spe­cial advi­sor to three UN Sec­re­taries-Gen­er­al — on behalf of the Cen­ter for Eco­nom­ic and Pol­i­cy Research. The sanc­tions have deprived the Venezue­lan econ­o­my of bil­lions of dol­lars of for­eign exchange need­ed to pay for essen­tial and life-sav­ing imports,” the report explains. The result was a stag­ger­ing 40,000 total deaths in 2017 and 2018 and more than 300,000 Venezue­lans put at health risk due to a lack of access to med­i­cine or treat­ment. The paper received brief press cov­er­age in the last week of April of this year, but was quick­ly over­shad­owed by oppo­si­tion leader and self-declared inter­im pres­i­dent Juan Guaidó’s third failed coup attempt.

Hurt­ing civilians

Sanc­tions against Venezue­lan offi­cials, indi­vid­u­als and com­pa­nies go back for more than a decade, with the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion paving the way for the Trump administration’s sig­nif­i­cant esca­la­tion today. In 2015, the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion declared a nation­al emer­gency” around Venezuela and labeled it a threat to nation­al secu­ri­ty.”

Using the same rhetoric of emer­gency, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion extend­ed the sanc­tions to tar­get Venezuela’s finan­cial insti­tu­tions. The admin­is­tra­tion froze bil­lions of dol­lars of Venezue­lan gov­ern­ment assets held in the U.S., from gold reserves to trade cred­its to oil funds from CIT­GO. At the same time, the U.S. imped­ed Venezuela’s abil­i­ty to restruc­ture its debt and per­form rou­tine finan­cial activ­i­ties; pro­hib­it­ed Amer­i­cans from doing busi­ness with Venezuela’s oil com­pa­ny, PDVSA; and pres­sured oth­er inter­na­tion­al actors like India to enforce Venezuela’s eco­nom­ic isolation.

While the sanc­tions osten­si­bly tar­get gov­ern­ment offi­cials and assets, the bur­den falls not on the gov­ern­ment but on the civil­ian pop­u­la­tion,” accord­ing to Weis­brot and Sachs. The sanc­tions have pushed infla­tion into hyper­in­fla­tion and will cause Venezuela’s GDP to drop by 37.4 per­cent in 2019, the authors estimate.

Juan Car­los Ros­ales, a father of five from just north of Cara­cas, has expe­ri­enced the toll of sanc­tions first­hand. Ros­ales’ 14-year-old son broke his arm weeks ago and has been unable to obtain surgery due to a short­age of med­ical sup­plies. The cri­sis has touched the fam­i­ly in oth­er ways. Thanks to hyper­in­fla­tion, the mon­ey that once cov­ered a month’s worth of edu­ca­tion, med­i­cine and food does not even cov­er a piece of can­dy,” Ros­ales says. Unable to afford food, Ros­ales depends on the government’s Local Com­mit­tees for Food Dis­tri­b­u­tion and Pro­duc­tion, bet­ter known by their Span­ish acronym CLAP. The pub­lic ser­vices sub­si­dized by the state,” he says, have made the cri­sis less painful.” Unfor­tu­nate­ly, in late May, the U.S. pre­pared to sanc­tion the food aid pro­gram, accus­ing offi­cials of using it to laun­der money.

It must be not­ed, as Keymer Ávi­la, a pro­fes­sor of crim­i­nol­o­gy at the Cen­tral Uni­ver­si­ty of Venezuela told In These Times via email, the U.S. sanc­tions are not the orig­i­nal cause of Venezuela’s cri­sis. The col­lapse of oil prices,” most recent­ly in 2014, in a ren­tier” state that relies almost exclu­sive­ly on the nation­al­ized oil indus­try for rev­enue, was mere­ly the trig­ger, Ávi­la argues. The col­lapse was wors­ened, Ávi­la says, by decades of impro­vised deci­sions,” a lack of trans­paren­cy,” clien­telism,” and cor­rup­tion and wide­spread embez­zle­ment” on the part of var­i­ous Venezue­lan gov­ern­ments, from before Chávez to Maduro. None of this, how­ev­er, should be used to white­wash the his­to­ry of U.S. inter­ven­tion in Venezuela or the vio­lence of the domes­tic oppo­si­tion, on dis­play, for exam­ple, in the 2017 heli­copter attack on the Supreme Court. Nor does it inval­i­date the suc­cess­es of the Chávez régime, chief among which, as Greg Grandin notes, are dras­tic reduc­tions in pover­ty, inequal­i­ty, illit­er­a­cy, child mor­tal­i­ty rates and malnutrition.”

Rather, a cru­cial task of the Left is to rec­og­nize the cur­rent fail­ures of the Venezue­lan state while defend­ing its sov­er­eign­ty. Part of the lat­ter is rec­og­niz­ing the con­sis­tent­ly dev­as­tat­ing effects of sanctions.

A vio­lent history

Sanc­tions have a long his­to­ry of wors­en­ing con­di­tions for those that they pur­port to pro­tect. While they are often billed as tar­get­ed” or smart” to min­i­mize civil­ian dam­age, the brunt of the bur­den falls upon the most vul­ner­a­ble, as the CEPR report makes clear is the case in Venezuela.

Per­haps the most noto­ri­ous case of the dead­ly appli­ca­tion of sanc­tions was against Iraq in the wake of Sad­dam Hussein’s inva­sion of Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990. Res­o­lu­tion 661, enact­ed by the UN Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil on August 6, demand­ed that UN Mem­ber States refrain from trad­ing or car­ry­ing out finan­cial trans­ac­tions with Iraq. After the Per­sian Gulf War end­ed in late Feb­ru­ary 1991, these sanc­tions were cod­i­fied in Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil Res­o­lu­tion 687. Pres­i­dent George H.W. Bush made clear that the UN sanc­tions would not be lift­ed as long as Sad­dam Hus­sein is in power.”

As evi­dence mount­ed over the next five years that the sanc­tions were killing hun­dreds of thou­sands of chil­dren, the U.S. con­tin­ued to pres­sure increas­ing­ly skep­ti­cal Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil mem­bers into com­pli­ance. Asked in 1996 about the death of as many as 500,000 chil­dren due to mal­nu­tri­tion exac­er­bat­ed by the sanc­tions, then‑U.S. Ambas­sador to the UN Madeleine Albright infa­mous­ly replied, “[The] price is worth it.”

While lat­er stud­ies would revise the esti­mate down­ward — a 1999 analy­sis found that as many as 227,000 chil­dren under 5 were killed as a result of the war, the great major­i­ty due to sanc­tions — and high­light the role of Hus­sein in aggra­vat­ing the con­di­tions, the fig­ures remain stark. Many point out that the sup­posed alter­na­tive to mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion killed more civil­ians between 1990 and 2000 than did the Iraq War from 2003 to 2011. One UN offi­cial described the effects as geno­cide.” The sanc­tions were only lift­ed in 2003, after the orig­i­nal U.S. goal, régime change, was successful.

When the call comes from within

To be sure, sanc­tions can some­times be a tool of social move­ments, as in the anti-apartheid sanc­tions on South Africa, offi­cial­ly imposed by the U.S. in 1986 yet called for much ear­li­er by activists around the world. The cru­cial dis­tinc­tion, says Gar­rick Ruiz, for­mer North Amer­i­ca Region­al Coor­di­na­tor for the Pales­tin­ian BDS Nation­al Com­mit­tee, is, Who is ask­ing for sanc­tions?” In the case of South Africa, Ruiz says, sanc­tions were a way for the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty to engage in sol­i­dar­i­ty with the peo­ple of the coun­try.” A strong inter­na­tion­al grass­roots move­ment pres­sured com­pa­nies, uni­ver­si­ties and gov­ern­ments to com­ply. In the end, the New York Times not­ed in 1993, the sanc­tions helped has­ten the end of apartheid through a com­bi­na­tion of psy­cho­log­i­cal and eco­nom­ic pain.”

Ruiz and oth­ers chan­nel the lega­cy of that fight in the Boy­cott, Divest­ment and Sanc­tions (BDS) move­ment against Israel. The 2005 Pales­tin­ian call for BDS was signed by just a huge swath of Pales­tin­ian civ­il soci­ety,” Ruiz says. It called upon civ­il soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions and peo­ple of con­science” to impose broad boy­cotts” and divest­ment ini­tia­tives against Israel sim­i­lar to those applied to South Africa.” Fol­low­ing the call, the Pales­tin­ian BDS Nation­al Com­mit­tee was formed as the coor­di­nat­ing body for the BDS cam­paign. Activists, seiz­ing on the momen­tum of the move­ment, pres­sured a wide range of actors to divest their resources from com­pa­nies prof­it­ing from Israel’s occu­pa­tion, from uni­ver­si­ties, to Nor­we­gian pen­sion funds, to multi­na­tion­al telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion com­pa­nies. Ruiz con­trasts the bot­tom-up call for sanc­tions” with the U.S. gov­ern­men­t’s top-down form of sanctions.”

Gen­er­at­ing discontent

One irony of U.S. sanc­tions is that they fail to achieve even the (often impe­ri­al­ist) goals of the U.S. gov­ern­ment. In Iraq, the U.S. government’s repeat­ed affir­ma­tions that sanc­tions would not be lift­ed unless Sad­dam Hus­sein stepped down made clear that the goal was to trig­ger the dis­af­fect­ed mass­es to over­throw Hus­sein. This did not hap­pen. Rather, many Iraqis saw their cri­sis as exac­er­bat­ed by U.S. aggres­sion: As an Iraqi Army offi­cer told the New York Times, Most peo­ple thought, Sad­dam is feed­ing us while the Amer­i­cans are try­ing to starve us to death.”’ Sad­dam Hus­sein played on this per­cep­tion with a media cam­paign that broad­cast and exag­ger­at­ed the effects of the sanc­tions. At one point, Hus­sein instruct­ed doc­tors to wait to bury indi­vid­ual chil­dren until there had been enough deaths to stage a mass funer­al and gen­er­ate out­rage. The effec­tive­ness of this cam­paign and the bru­tal­i­ty of the sanc­tions led to long-last­ing anti-Amer­i­can sen­ti­ment. Osama bin Laden’s 911 attacks were in part moti­vat­ed by the sanc­tions. In the wake of Pres­i­dent George H.W. Bush’s 2018 pass­ing, bit­ter Iraqis, asked by jour­nal­ists about his lega­cy, denounced Mr. Embar­go.”

The case of Iraq makes clear that the impov­er­ished, hun­gry and sick vic­tims of sanc­tions are not ide­al can­di­dates to over­throw their gov­ern­ments. Nor are they eas­i­ly mis­led into blam­ing those gov­ern­ments for the effects of exter­nal sanc­tions. In the last month, Ira­ni­ans and Cubans have tak­en to the streets in mas­sive num­bers to protest U.S. sanc­tions. In Venezuela, Juan Car­los Ros­ales knows whom to blame as well: Ever since the exec­u­tive decree, the sit­u­a­tion here has been lethal.”

Restor­ing suf­fer­ing, not democracy

Regard­less of their dev­as­tat­ing results, the use of sanc­tions against unruly” coun­tries is a fre­quent U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy tac­tic, often posed as the only alter­na­tive to an inva­sion. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion has eager­ly embraced this approach. On April 30, Pres­i­dent Trump threat­ened to impose a full and com­plete embar­go” and the high­est-lev­el sanc­tions” on Cuba for sup­port­ing Venezue­lan Pres­i­dent Nicolás Maduro. These threats were con­cur­rent with an esca­la­tion of Iran­ian sanc­tions, first in the lift­ing of waivers that had pre­vi­ous­ly allowed major buy­ers of Iran­ian oil to con­tin­ue import­ing the prod­uct, then in the new round of sanc­tions on May 8 that tar­get­ed the export of the indus­tri­al met­als that make up 10% of Iran’s export econ­o­my. These actions joined exist­ing Trump admin­is­tra­tion sanc­tions against Iran­ian indi­vid­u­als, enti­ties, air­craft and vessels.”

His­to­ry shows the con­se­quences of these sanc­tions will not pre­dom­i­nant­ly fall on the Iran­ian gov­ern­ment, but on the Iran­ian peo­ple, who have suf­fered under U.S. sanc­tions since the 1979 Iran­ian Rev­o­lu­tion. Although there has not yet been a com­pre­hen­sive study of the toll of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion sanc­tions on Iran, Ira­ni­ans report that their every­day lives have become more dif­fi­cult, in the form of drug short­ages, increased air pol­lu­tion, job loss and long food lines. This most recent round of sanc­tions will only tight­en the noose.

Trump’s talk of a poten­tial mil­i­tary option,” and his administration’s shock­ing­ly cav­a­lier admis­sion that the Venezuela sanc­tions are meant to increase pain and suf­fer­ing,” should rid us of any notion that the U.S. is impos­ing sanc­tions to restore democ­ra­cy” or respect human rights,” as the Trump admin­is­tra­tion claims. Mov­ing for­ward, we must see the use of dead­ly sanc­tions as mere cov­er for a march toward régime change — a ruse that will claim thou­sands of lives.

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