The Violence and Economic Destruction Caused by US Economic Sanctions in Venezuela

The Violence and Economic Destruction Caused by US Economic Sanctions in Venezuela Joe Sammut and Gregory Wilpert 

Viviremos: Venezuela vs Hybrid War, pp. 118-140

US economic sanctions against Venezuela are a violent and illegal  form of coercion, seeking regime change through collective punishment of the civilian population. The motives are fairly clear from the  public statements of US officials. The number of Venezuelans who  have died as a result of these sanctions has been estimated in the  tens of thousands, and this has certainly increased substantially over  the past two and a half years that have elapsed since the last available mortality data.1 These casualties may be even higher than would  be expected to result from some military options that the Trump  administration has said it is considering. Yet this state-sponsored  violence receives very little attention in US and international media.  This chapter will look at the economic sanctions that the US government has imposed on Venezuela. It will cover the damage that  sanctions have done, including deaths and damage to human health,  as well as economic damage. It will analyze the illegality of these  sanctions, under both international and US law. It will lastly discuss  what can be done to eliminate the use of illegal economic sanctions,  and prevent them from killing more people and causing more suffering in Venezuela and other countries in the present, and future.  

As this chapter is being finished, the Trump administration is  continually tightening sanctions in ways that increase harm to civilians.

1. Mark Weisbrot and Jeffrey Sachs, Economic Sanctions as Collective Punishment: !e  Case of Venezuela (Washington, DC: Center for Economic and Policy Research, April,  2019).


For example, in June 2020 Copa Airlines was fined $450,000  for transporting passengers to Venezuela through Panama.2 On the  flight ban that was being enforced – which was not even officially  part of what the US government calls “economic sanctions” – the  New York Times has reported that this decision “will be a heavy blow  for millions of Venezuelans,” because it will cut off access to remittances from relatives abroad. By banning airline courier services to  Venezuela from Miami, the policy will make it much more difficult  for many Venezuelans “to obtain scarce medication, spare parts and  food.”3 The effect of this change alone was described as a “catastrophe for a lot of people” as it would “complicate enormously the  transportation of humanitarian aid” by a spokesperson from Acción  Solidaria, a medical NGO. 

President Obama imposed sanctions against Venezuela with Executive Order 13692 in March of 2015. These sanctions targeted  individuals in Venezuela, mostly officials of the Venezuelan government, and have generally been treated as though they caused no  harm to the civilian population. However, these sanctions were a significant blow to an economy that was already hit very hard by falling  oil prices. As Reuters noted at the time, “Declaring any country a  threat to national security is the first step in starting a U.S. sanctions  program.”4 Of course investors, lenders, buyers of Venezuelan oil,  and everyone doing business with Venezuela knows what generally  happens to countries that are declared a “national security threat” to the United States. By itself, this would make Venezuela’s economic  recovery more difficult, even before the more sweeping sanctions  that were to come. 

2. Reuters, “U.S. Fines Copa Airlines $450K for Transporting Passengers Between U.S.,  Venezuela,” June 17, 2020, u-s-fines-copa-airlines-450k-for-transporting-passengers-between-u-s-venezuela idUSKBN23O3FTM, accessed July 1, 2020. 

3. Anatoly Kurmanaev, “U.S. Suspends Passenger and Cargo Flights to Venezuela,” New  York Times, May 15, 2019, 8ights.html, accessed July 1, 2020. 

4. Jeff Mason and Roberta Rampton, “U.S. Declares Venezuela a National Security  9reat, Sanctions Top Officials,” Reuters, March 10, 2015, us-usa-venezuela/u-s-declares-venezuela-a-national-security-threat-sanctions-top o;cials-idUSKBN0M51NS20150310, accessed July 1, 2020.


Declaring Venezuela “a national security threat” was not just  harmful, dangerous, and obviously untrue, it was also a false declaration made in order to meet US legal requirements for imposing  these sanctions. This executive order, and the others imposing sanctions that followed, labeled Venezuela “an unusual and extraordinary  threat to the national security” of the United States, which the law  requires in order to impose sanctions. The executive order also stated  that Venezuela was creating a “national emergency” for the United  States, a transparent legal fiction, required for the invocation of the  1976 National Emergencies Act. 

The 2015 sanctions did some damage by reducing Venezuela’s access to credit. For example, Citibank closed the accounts of  Venezuela’s Central Bank and the Bank of Venezuela in 2016 after  conducting a “risk management review.”5 The 2015 sanctions also harmed the Venezuela economy by making it more difficult, or  impossible, for high officials of the government to simply carry out  official state business. In a country dependent on its state-owned oil  industry for almost all of its foreign exchange earnings, this caused  significant problems. There were no economic or statistical studies  of the impact of the 2015 economic sanctions, so it is difficult to  quantify how much damage they did.  

The first sanctions to receive serious economic study were those  imposed in August of 2017. Their impact was first evaluated by Francisco Rodríguez, a Venezuelan economist who is a leading expert on  Venezuela’s economy.6 Rodríguez was the chief economic advisor to  opposition presidential candidate Henri Falcón in the 2018 election.  He has done extensive research on Venezuela, including developing some of most reliable estimations of economic statistics available  after 2015, when the authorities stopped regular publication of many  indicators.

5. EFE, “Citibank Cites ‘Risk Review’ in Closing Some Venezuelan Accounts in U.S.,”  July 12, 2016, some-venezuelan-accounts-u-s/50000265-2983786, accessed July 1, 2020.

6. Francisco Rodríguez, “Crude Realities: Understanding Venezuela’s Economic  Collapse,” September 20, 2018, venezuelas-economic-collapse/, accessed July 1, 2020.


The 2017 sanctions were targeted at the financial sector,  cutting off Venezuela from most borrowing in the United States and  preventing a badly needed debt restructuring. International trade is reliant on short-term credit, and although there was an exception that prevented the 2017 sanctions from amounting to an effective  trade embargo, the exception was overly limiting because an important part of trade credit for Venezuelan government entities exceeds  the thresholds put in place by the executive order.7 The result was  the drying up of credit for trade and, especially, the credit-thirsty oil  industry.  

The financial toxification of Venezuela accelerated with the executive order. A September Financial Crimes Enforcement Network  (FinCen) letter toxified business with Venezuela, the letter warning  that “all Venezuelan government agencies and bodies, including  SOEs [state-owned enterprises] appear vulnerable to public corruption and money laundering.”8 As a result, banks and other financial  institutions closed Venezuelan accounts and tried to reduce their  exposure to transactions from the country.9 This had an extraterritorial effect: 95 percent of international dollar payments are made via  the Clearing House Interbank Payments System (CHIPS), which is  reliant on less than 50 correspondent banks that must have a branch  office in the United States, leaving the system subject to US law.10 Without access to these correspondent banks, it is much more difficult and costly to make international transactions in dollars. This  results in another negative knock-on effect on imports and other  cross-border trades.  

7. Francisco Rodríguez (Coordinator), Guillermo Guerrero, and Adolfo De Lima, “A  Humanitarian Oil Agreement for Venezuela,” Oil for Venezuela, October, 2019, 32.

8. Rodríguez, “Crude Realities.” 

9. Ibid. 

10. Daniel McDowell, “Financial Sanctions and Political Risk in the International  Currency System,” Review of International Political Economy, 2020, 7.


The massive loss of oil production caused severe economic  damage to an economy that is dependent on oil exports for more than 90 percent of the dollars that it needs for imports. Venezuela has been, for many decades, a highly import-dependent economy.  Thus, when imports fall drastically, so does overall output (GDP)  and employment, and poverty increases dramatically. When the  August 2017 sanctions hit, Venezuela had already been in recession  for more than three years, and had lost about a quarter of its GDP.  As Mark Weisbrot and Jeffrey Sachs note, inflation was running at  between 758 and 1,350 percent annually.11 The country was already  facing balance of payments problems, and difficulties meeting its  foreign debt payments, all of which had already been exacerbated by  the sanctions that began in March 2015, as well as a sharp fall in oil  prices. Despite this, there was still a possibility of debt restructuring,  in particular for the debt of PdVSA, the national oil company, which  had $30 billion of debt. There were joint ventures that could borrow  because they had oil revenue that was a form of collateral, and oil in  the ground can also be securitized or even sold.  

Indeed, it would seem odd that a country with the largest oil reserves in the world could go broke after oil prices had started  to rise again. The sanctions blocked all of this, effectively ending  the foundations of any economic recovery. The sanctions thus  locked the country into a path of hyperinflation, debt default, and  depression that continues to this day. This is worth emphasizing,  since economic recessions/depressions do not last indefinitely, and neither does hyperinflation. In fact, the median episode of hyperinflation since the Second World War in Latin America lasted  just four months.12 To get rid of hyperinflation, it is necessary to  change people’s expectations of what their money will be worth in  the near future. Otherwise, its vanishing purchasing power becomes  a self-fulfilling prophecy. Most hyperinflation is brought to an end by creating a new exchange rate system – known as an Exchange  Rate Based Stabilization. In Bolivia in 1985, for example, this got  rid of hyperinflation in ten days.13

11. Weisbrot and Sachs, Economic Sanctions as Collective Punishment, 19.

12. Ibid, 20. 

13. Jeffrey Sachs, “The Bolivian Hyperin8ation and Stabilization,” The American  Economic Review 77, no. 2 (1987), 279–83.


To escape from hyperinflation in this way, Venezuela’s government would need access to a sufficient  amount of dollars, and to the international financial system. The  August 2017 financial sanctions took both of these away from Venezuela. This helped push Venezuela into hyperinflation and keep it there for most of the next three years.14 

This continued loss of imports also deepened the depression in  Venezuela’s economy. Venezuela lost 745,000 barrels of its oil production, or about 36 percent, in the year following the beginning of those sanctions, as production fell from 1,942 to 1,239 barrels  per day.15 Today, it is just 570 barrels per day, down by 71 percent  from before these sanctions.16 The US government added PdVSA  to the list of sanctioned entities in January 2019. These oil sanctions imposed by the Trump administration amounted to a trade  embargo, cutting Venezuela off from its largest market (the United  States received 35.6 percent of Venezuela’s exports in 2018).17 Even  worse, the US government used the threat of secondary sanctions  against other countries to cut off other oil markets, as well as access  to credit.18 With this, as well as the effects of the 2017 FinCen  letter and financial sanctions, the noose was tightened, cutting off  Venezuela, not just from the United States, but also internationally. 

14. Hyperinflation is generally defined by economists as inflation of at least 50 percent  per month, or 13,000 percent at an annual rate.  

15. Calculated from the October 2017 and October 2018 OPEC Monthly Oil Market  Reports,, accessed July 1, 2020. 

16. December 2018 to May 2020. Calculated from March 2019 and June 2020  OPEC Monthly Oil Market Reports, htm, accessed July 1, 2020. 

17. Weisbrot and Sachs, Economic Sanctions as Collective Punishment, 2. 

18. See Francisco R. Rodríguez, “Sanctions and the Venezuelan Economy: What the Data Say,” LatamEconomnics Viewpoint ( June 2019),  2020/01/11/sanctions-and-the-venezuelan-economy-what-the-data-say/; and Weisbrot  and Sachs, Economic Sanctions as Collective Punishment, for further details of these impacts  of the 2019 sanctions.


The more I thought about it, the more I realized the decision on  political recognition was more important now than the oil sanctions. First, US recognition would have major implications for the  Federal Reserve Board, and therefore banks worldwide. The Fed  would automatically turn control over Venezuelan government  assets it possessed to the Guaidó-led Administration … the international financial consequences of recognition were nonetheless  significant, since other central banks and private bankers weren’t  looking for reasons to be on the Fed’s bad side. Second, the logic of sanctioning the country’s oil monopoly, and other measures  Mnuchin and Treasury were resisting, would become unanswerable once we endorsed Guaidó’s legitimacy.19 

Even worse, recognition of the Guaidó “government” would make  Guaidó “the legal owner of funds or goods owned by the Venezuelan government.” According to Weisbrot and Sachs, this meant the  loss of “most of the government’s $9 billion in reserves that [were]  in gold; trade credits worth an estimated $3.4 billion; and CITGO,  with estimated net assets of $5.2 billion.”20 The August 2017 sanctions also cut off some $2.5 billion annually of dividend payments from CITGO to the government.21 By the same measure, any remaining access to correspondent banks was “mostly wiped out,”  which led to a situation where Venezuelans are denied the “necessary credits for importing medicine, food, and other essential goods.”22 In August of 2019, President Trump’s former National Security  Adviser John Bolton upped the ante when he declared: 

one way to summarize this to a business for example, is do you  want to “do business in Venezuela or do you want to do business  with the United States?” And I think for any international cor porations, whether they’re US-based, European, wherever they  

19. John Bolton, !e Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir (New York: Simon  & Schuster, 2020), 253. 

20. Weisbrot and Sachs, Economic Sanctions as Collective Punishment, 3.

21. Ibid., 7. 

22. Ibid., p.3.


may be … they ought to be asking their management if it’s worth  risking for a trickle of income from the illegitimate Maduro government, if it’s worth risking their business in the United States.23 

He said this as his government issued Executive Order 13884, which  froze all Venezuelan government assets in the United States and  broadened the scope of secondary sanctions, leaving non-US people  and entities considered by the Treasury as having supplied “material  assistance” liable to have their US assets frozen. An advisory by a maritime legal firm highlighted that this could conceivably be used  against ocean transportation services.24 This fear was later realized,  with shipping firms and tanker captains sanctioned.  

As of May 2020, Venezuela produces just 570 barrels of oil per day, down 71 percent from what it produced before the August  2017 sanctions.25 Furthermore, “to entice buyers wary of drawing  scrutiny from the United States,” reports Reuters, it is selling this oil  at enormous discounts as compared to other countries.26 In addition  to the estimated 24.3 percent drop in GDP in the recession prior  to the August 2017 sanctions, the economy shrank by an estimated  19.6 percent in 2018, and 25.5 percent in 2019.27 This is the worst  economic decline in Latin American history. In 2019, an estimated  32 percent of the population was “in crisis or worse” with regard to  

23. Quoted in Teresa Bo, “US Sanctions on Venezuela Likely to Add to People’s Woes,”  Al Jazeera, August 7, 2019, venezuela-add-people-woes-190807080725031.html, accessed July 1, 2020.

24. Freehill, Hogan & Mahar, “Client Alert: U.S. Increases Pressure on Venezuela with  Issuance of Executive Order 13884,” August 7, 2019, uploads/2019/08/NYDOCS1-509645-v1-Client_Alert_on_Venezuela_-_Executive_ Order_138841.pdf, accessed July 1, 2020. 

25. Calculated from October 2017 and June 2020 OPEC Monthly Oil Market Reports,, accessed July 1, 2020.

26. Marianna Parraga and Luc Cohen, “Sanctions-Hit Venezuela O%ers Big Discounts  as Oil Prices Collapse: Traders,” March 10, 2020, venezuela/sanctions-hit-venezuela-o%ers-big-discounts-as-oil-prices-collapse-traders idUSKBN20X33X, accessed July 1, 2020. 

27. United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean,  “Preliminary Overview of the Economies of the Caribbean 2019–2020,” June 2020, www., accessed July 1, 2020.


food needs.28 Bloomberg reported that about one-fifth of Venezuela’s  food is being wasted, mostly because of fuel shortages.29 


It is well known that the kind of economic damage that Venezuela has seen under US sanctions can kill people, and indeed it has. Weisbrot and Sachs looked at the increase in mortality between  2017 and 2018 and concluded that the 2017 sanctions had killed tens of thousands of people in a year. This did not include the last four months of 2017. It is not difficult to see how the economic  damage described above would lead to people dying. In their report,  Weisbrot and Sachs provide some of the stark numbers: an 85 percent shortage of essential medicines; 80,000 HIV positive people  denied retrovirals since 2017; 16,000 needing dialysis; 16,000 with  cancer; and 4 million with diabetes and hypertension who lack  reliable access to insulin and cardiovascular medicine.30 

Some 22 percent of children are stunted, according to data cited  by the UN, which also reported that “lack of access to water, soap,  chlorine and other hygiene inhibits hand washing and household  water treatment.”31 The deterioration in living standards is also clear  from the massive increase in migration since 2015. The number of  Venezuelans living abroad was almost 700,000 in 2015, a rise of  150,000 since 2010. By 2019, this number ballooned to 4,490,000.32 For the six South American countries that the UN disaggregates  

28. Food Security Information Network, “2020 Global Report on Food Crises,” 2020,  347868695.1587462377-2130934537.1587462377, accessed July 1, 2020.

29. Nicolle Yapur, “A Fifth of Food Output is Wasted in Famine-9reatened Venezuela,”  Bloomberg, June 26, 2020, food-output-is-wasted-in-famine-threatened-venezuela, accessed July 1, 2020.

30. Weisbrot and Sachs, Economic Sanctions as Collective Punishment, 15.

31. United Nations, “Venezuela: Overview of Priority Humanitarian Needs,” March  2019, 37,, accessed July 1, 2020. 

32. United Nations, “Migration Trends in the Americas,” 1, https://robuenosaires.,  accessed July 1, 2020.


by year, the number of Venezuelan arrivals registered in 2017 was  65,000; in 2018 it reached 240,000 – an increase of 266 percent.33 In  2019, the arrivals surpassed 860,000, another rise of 260 percent.34 

The most recent data on mortality in Venezuela was gathered by  the National Survey on Living Conditions (ENCOVI), run by three universities in Venezuela. The group never released the data, but it  found its way into the public view from a UN report that was distributed to major media. This data showed a 31 percent increase  in mortality among the general population. Weisbrot and Sachs  noted that this would mean an increase of more than 40,000 deaths,  and concluded that tens of thousands of Venezuelans had died as a  result of the 2017 sanctions.35 Rodríguez estimates that in the year  following the 2017 financial sanctions, Venezuela lost about $16.9  billion in oil revenue due to the decline in production.36 This is an  enormous amount of revenue with regard to the essential, and even  life-saving imports – of medicine, medical equipment, and other  imports – needed for public health. Total imports of medicine in  2018 were just US $400 million, down 41 percent from 2017, and  88 percent below their level of $3.4 billion in 2012.37 What would  the government have done with an extra $16.9 billion of revenue?  It is not difficult to imagine that they would have spent some of it on public health, including medicines, medical equipment, and the horribly deteriorated health, water, and sanitation infrastructure. It  is also quite likely that many of the tens of thousands of doctors  and medical professionals who left the country would have stayed  in Venezuela.  

33. Ibid., 2. 9e six South American countries are Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay,  Peru, and Uruguay. 

34. Ibid. 

35. Ibid. 

36. Rodríguez, “Sanctions and the Venezuelan Economy, 35. 

37. Instituto Nacional de Estadística, “Importaciones Capítulo,” php?option=com_content&view=category&id=48&Itemid=33, accessed July 1, 2020.


We do not know all the reasons that various measures of public  health and health indicators were deteriorating during the deep recession/depression that began in 2014. They were, however, clearly related to the collapse of the economy. It is also clear that  the sharp drop of imports, the loss of credit, the loss of access to the  international financial system, the balance of payments crisis, and  most importantly the hyperinflation – which definitionally began  after the 2017 sanctions – all contributed to the deep and prolonged  depression. It is not difficult to imagine that in the absence of the  powerful economic shock of the 2017 sanctions, the economy would  have even begun to recover, the norm after more than three years  of recession and especially for Venezuela, in the face of a sharp  recovery in oil prices. In this case, mortality, which was elevated due  to the collapse of the economy and public health, would have been  expected to decrease. As a first approximation, it is not unreasona ble to attribute the increase in mortality to the sanctions. Indeed, if  there is ever a survey to measure mortality since the sanctions, it will  probably show an accelerating annual increase from 2018 to 2020,  even before COVID-19.  


The sanctions left Venezuela vastly more vulnerable to COVID-19.  The shortages of vital medical supplies – in some cases, including  shortages of soap and water – made it very difficult to follow the  basic hygiene measures that reduce the spread of infection. A 2018  survey of hospitals conducted by an opposition political group and  a medical NGO revealed the severe vulnerability of Venezuela’s  health system, with hospitals reporting problems, including non- or  intermittently functioning laboratory testing, as well as shortages of  water (79 percent), medicines (88 percent), and surgical supplies (79  percent).38 


38. Kathleen R. Page, Shannon Doocy, Feliciano Reyna et al., “Venezuela’s Public  Health Crisis: A Regional Emergency,” !e Lancet 393 no. 10177 (2019), 1254–60.


The world recession brought on by the pandemic had a drastic  effect on oil prices, which fell further than they did in 2016, exacerbating the collapse of export earnings. In addition, remittances  have been of growing importance to the Venezuelan economy, due to the massive outflow of migrants in the last few years. A May 2020  report by the Inter-American Dialogue estimated that 35 percent  of Venezuelan households receive remittances.39 The lockdown in  foreign countries would affect this flow. Migrants tend to work in  more precarious jobs and are thereby more exposed to the COVID 19-caused economic downturn, which has been severe even in the  high-income countries. 

Despite calls from members of the US Congress, the UN High  Commissioner for Human Rights, and the editorial board of the  Financial Times, to ease sanctions as a response to the crisis, the US  government saw the crisis as an opportunity to increase the pressure on Venezuelans, in the hope of forcing the government from  power.40 As NPR put it, the combination of the health crisis and  crash of oil prices weakened the government and has prompted “the  U.S. to intensify efforts to drive [Maduro] from power.”41 As Elliott  Abrams described, the United States had decided to ramp up the  pressure on all “critical points in [Venezuela’s] petroleum sector from  production to shipping to the customers.”42  

39. Manuel Orozco and Kathryn Klaas “Money Transfers to Venezuela: Remittance  Flows Amidst Evolving Foreign Exchange,” Inter-American Dialogue, May 15, 2020, 9, evolving-foreign-exchange/, accessed July 1, 2020. 

40. Jack Detsch, “Democrats Push Back on Sanctions, Citing Coronavirus Fears,”  Foreign Policy, March 27, 2020, coronavirus-sanctions-waivers-iran-venezuela/, accessed July 1, 2020; UN News, “Ease  Sanctions Against Countries Fighting COVID-19: UN Human Rights Chief,” March  24, 2020,, accessed July 1, 2020; 9e  Editorial Board, “9is is the Time to Waive Sanctions on Venezuela,” Financial  Times, March 30, 2020,,  accessed July 1, 2020. 

41. Phillip Reeves, “Many Venezuelan Hospitals Lack Basics to Function, Let Alone  Handle COVID-19,” NPR, April 10, 2020, venezuelan-hospitals-lack-basics-to-function-let-alone-handle-covid-19, accessed July 1,  2020. 

42. Humeyra Pamuk, “Trump Administration to Step Up Pressure Campaign on  Venezuelan Oil -US Envoy,” Reuters, February 24, 2020, us-usa-sanctions-venezuela/trump-administration-to-step-up-pressure-campaign-on venezuelan-oil-us-envoy-idUSKCN20I26S, accessed July 1, 2020. 


The aggressive, extraterritorial enforcement of sanctions included the February sanctioning of a subsidiary of the Russian oil company Rosneft, causing it to cease trading Venezuelan oil and sell its Venezuelan assets.43 This  impacted the dwindling number of other purchasers of Venezuelan  oil. Refiners in India stopped purchasing in March.44 The United  States also began to sanction the transport of Venezuelan oil, leveling individual sanctions on tanker captains and vessels, leading a  number of shipping firms to cease transporting Venezuelan oil.45 Worse, a number of the measures seem deliberately targeted at  trades which have obvious and direct humanitarian consequences.  An oil-for-food and humanitarian supplies deal between Venezuela  and several Mexican companies was targeted in June, with the companies and their owners blacklisted, forcing the trade to end before  receipt of the food.46 According to legal experts on international  compliance, the deal had been deliberately crafted to take advan tage of the humanitarian exception to the sanctions.47   

43. Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Olesya Astakhova, “Rosneft Sells Venezuelan Assets  to Russia after U.S. Sanctions Ramp Up,” Reuters, March 28, 2020, article/us-russia-rosneft-venezuela/rosneft-sells-venezuela-operations-to-russian-state- ?rm-idUSKBN21F0W2, accessed July 1, 2020

44. Lucia Kassai, “Venezuela Oil Crisis Deepens with India Re?ners Halting Imports,”  Bloomberg, June 26, 2020, crisis-deepens-with-india-re?ners-halting-imports, accessed July 1, 2020. 

45. Humeyra Pamuk and Matt Spetalnick, “U.S. Puts Sanctions on Five Iranian  Ship Captains for Bringing Oil to Venezuela,” Reuters, June 24, 2020, http://www.reuters. com/article/us-venezuela-iran-gasoline/u-s-sanctions-?ve-iranian-ship-captains-for bringing-oil-to-venezuela-pompeo-idUSKBN23V25I, accessed July 1, 2020; Jonathan  Saul, “Greek Ship Managers Halt Venezuela Trade as U.S. Sanctions Bite,” Reuters, June  15, 2020, venezuela-trade-as-u-s-sanctions-bite-idUSKBN23M1TX, accessed July 1, 2020.

46. About 500 water trucks were delivered before the end of the trade, but according  to the company, the sharp fall in the price of oil a%ected the delivery schedule of the  planned corn delivery. Daphne Psaledakis and Marianna Parraga, “U.S. Slaps Sanctions  on Mexican Firms, Individuals Linked to Venezuelan Oil Trade,” Reuters, June 18, 2020, ?rms-individuals-linked-to-venezuelan-oil-trade-idUSKBN23P3D6, accessed July 1,  2020. 9e United States alleges that the prices charged were “grossly in8ated,” but even  if that were the case, there is no dispute that some humanitarian supplies were delivered  through the deal. US Treasury, “Press Release: Treasury Targets Sanctions Evasion  Network Supporting Corrupt Venezuelan Actors,” June 18, 2020, https://home.treasury. gov/news/press-releases/sm1038, accessed July 1, 2020. 

47. Evan Abrams, Peter Jeydel, Brian Egan, and Ed Krauland, “9ree Key Takeaways  from OFAC’s Latest Venezuela Sanctions Actions,” Steptoe International Compliance  Blog, June 22, 2020, takeaways-from-ofacs-latest-venezuela-sanctions-actions/#page=1, accessed July 1, 2020.


These events show the superficial nature of the US government’s humanitarian exception. As noted by Rodríguez, “it is reasonable to believe that  the exception could have been used only if it was as a result of an  underlying agreement between the government and the opposition,” leaving the humanitarian needs of Venezuelans hostage to an  unlikely deal with the Guaidó-led opposition, which has called for  the immediate resignation of President Maduro as a precondition  for negotiations.48 


US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has not tried to hide what the  sanctions are doing or intended to do. On March 11, 2019 he had  the following exchange with Associated Press Reporter Matt Lee:  

MATTHEW LEE: Are you satisfied with the pace of the  momentum behind Guaidó and his leadership? … 

MIKE POMPEO: Well, we wish things could go faster, but I’m  very confident that the tide is moving in the direction of the Ven ezuelan people and will continue to do so. It doesn’t take much for  you to see what’s really going on there. The circle is tightening,  the humanitarian crisis is increasing by the hour. I talked with our  senior person on the ground there in Venezuela last night, at 7:00  or 8:00 last night. You can see the increasing pain and suffering  that the Venezuelan people are suffering from.49 

48. Rodríguez et al., “A Humanitarian Oil Agreement for Venezuela, 31; EFE,  “Guaidó reitera que solo dialogará si se concreta salida de Maduro del poder,” Última  Hora, February  6, 2019,, accessed July 1, 2020. 

49. Weisbrot and Sachs, Economic Sanctions as Collective Punishment, 17–18.


This is consistent with his, and the Trump administration’s, use of  sanctions against Iran. As noted by Human Right Watch, Pompeo told CBS News on February 14, 2019: “Things are much worse for the Iranian people [with the US sanctions], and we are convinced  that will lead the Iranian people to rise up and change the behavior  of the regime.”50 Senator Marco Rubio, considered to be a major  influence on the Trump administration’s Latin America policy,  expressed satisfaction that “Maduro’s days are numbered” because  “he can’t access funds to rebuild the electric grid and he can’t end the  sanctions.”51 This certainly looks like a strategy of collective punishment, and one that has killed civilians, for example with blackouts shutting down medical equipment in hospitals. The implication is  that the government will be toppled because it cannot end the suffering caused by the sanctions. On February 8, 2019 a senior White  House official told Reuters that the US government was “holding  direct communications with members of Venezuela’s military urging  them to abandon President Nicolás Maduro and is also preparing new sanctions aimed at increasing pressure on him.”52 These sanctions violate US law. They also violate international  law, including treaties that the United States has signed. This can be  seen clearly in Articles 19 and 20 of the Charter of the Organization  of American States:  

Article 19: No State or group of States has the right to intervene,  directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal or  external affairs of any other State. The foregoing principle prohib its not only armed force but also any other form of interference or  attempted threat against the personality of the State or against its  political, economic, and cultural elements. 

Article 20: No State may use or encourage the use of coercive  measures of an economic or political character in order to force  the sovereign will of another State and obtain from it advantages  of any kind. 

50. Human Rights Watch, “Iran: Sanctions 9reatening Health,” October 29, 2019,, accessed July 1, 2020.

51. Marco Rubio, Twitter post, May 16, 2019,  1129115646007099392?lang=en, accessed July 1, 2020. 

52. Luc Cohen, Matt Spetalnick, and Roberta Rampton, “Exclusive: U.S. in Direct  Contact with Venezuelan Military,” Reuters, February 8, 2019, article/us-venezuela-politics-military-exclusive/exclusive-us-in-direct-contact-with venezuelan-military-urging-defections-source-idUSKCN1PX22L, accessed July 1, 2020.


Clearly this regime change effort violates the OAS charter. It violates the UN Charter and international human rights law,  according to legal experts.53 It violates prohibitions on collective  punishment that form part of both the Geneva and Hague conventions, of which the United States is also a signatory.54 These  conventions and prohibitions apply legally only during war time  but this is an historical coincidence. It does not make sense that  something which is a war crime when committed while people are  shooting and killing each other should not be a crime when done  during peacetime.55 


It is clear that the US sanctions against Venezuela have caused  considerable suffering and death and constitute a serious crime.  Although they currently remain in effect, there is grassroots organizing against them in the United States, as well as other countries whose governments have joined Trump’s “coalition of the willing” for regime change in Venezuela. It is beyond the scope of this chapter to describe the political forces involved in this struggle, but it is important to call attention to it, because the US government will sooner or later lose the power to use structural and economic violence in order  to choose the governments of other countries.  

53. See Matthew Happold and Paul Eden, eds., Economic Sanctions and International  Law (Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2016); and Ella Shagabutdinova and Je%ey Berejikian,  “Depoloying Sanctions While Protecting Human Rights: Are Humanitarian ‘Smart’  Sanctions E%ective?” Journal of Human Rights 6, no. 1 (2007), 59–74; Weisbrot and Sachs,  Economic Sanctions as Collective Punishment

54. Weisbrot and Sachs, Economic Sanctions as Collective Punishment, 18–19.

55. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Unilateral Sanctions Must  be Dropped, Says UN Expert,” UN Human Rights (October 17, 2018), en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=23731&LangID=E, accessed July 1,  2020.


Within the United States, some of the most successful past efforts  to rein in this type of aggression have targeted the US Congress. This  is beginning to bear some fruit. For example, Representative Ilhan Omar has introduced the “Congressional Oversight of Sanctions  Act,” which would require Congressional approval for sanctions  imposed by the president. This is similar to the 1973 War Powers  Resolution, in that it would take away from the president some of  their power to harm other countries. This is part of a culmination of pushback from Congress against US regime-change efforts in  Venezuela since 2014, including a number of letters and statements  from progressive members of Congress. Although it’s not yet close to moving the Democratic leadership, this was true a couple of years  ago for the efforts to invoke the War Powers Resolution against US  military involvement in the genocidal war in Yemen. In the spring  of 2019 – as a result of the same type of grassroots organizing we are  seeing in Venezuela – both Houses of Congress voted to order President Trump to remove the US military from that war. Although Trump has so far refused to get out, it was a historic, unprecedented  vote, and probably would have moved a more “normal” president to  exit. There is a good chance that the next US administration will be  forced to abandon its efforts at regime change in Venezuela, as well  as the war in Yemen. 

Over the longer run, the US government will not be able to get  away with these types of crimes. This could never have happened  even as recently as 2013, when independent, left governments  were elected in countries containing the majority of Latin Americans. Currently, Washington has a number of right-wing allies in  power. Most of these regimes came to power with help from their  US patron, including in Brazil, Ecuador, Honduras, and Bolivia, the  latter two taking power in US-backed military coups. Colombia, Peru, and Paraguay (also victim of a US-supported coup) have also allied with Trump. This is not sustainable, and it will change in the  next few years, as it has changed in the latest Mexican and Argentinian elections. 

The world is also changing, and the United States will not forever be able to control and weaponize the international financial system  as it does today, with more than 60 percent of central bank reserves,  and most of commerce, in dollars. The Chinese economy is already  bigger than that of the United States, and within a decade it will be more than twice as big, on a purchasing power parity basis –  which economists use for international comparisons. Yet, Venezuela  and other countries suffering from US aggression cannot wait for  these world-historical shifts toward a more multi-polar world. The  United States will also have to change from within. 

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