Time to Reconsider the Use of Sanctions

This is a translation of an Opinion Piece published by my colleague Benedicte Bull,  Professor of Political Science, Centre for Development and Environment, University of Oslo, Norway https://www.sum.uio.no/english/people/aca/bbull/ (the original was published in Norwegian in Dagsavisen on March 30th)

The sanctions against Venezuela have worsened the economic crisis, contributed to consolidating Nicolás Maduro’s power, and deepened the criminalization of the economy.  This does not mean that all sanctions are wrong.  However, now that Biden’s general approach to sanctions seems to be rather similar to that of Trump,  there is a need to review what sanctions can and cannot accomplish.

Donald Trump set wild records regarding the amount of new sanction-actions issued against other countries- 3.900 total.  No president before him issued over 700.

Thus far, there is little that indicates that Joe Biden will be less eager to apply sanctions.  Furthermore, the EU, Russia, and China have recently ramped up the use of sanctions- often in response to the United States.

Sanctions were originally launched as a peaceful foreign policy tool that could reduce the use of military force. However, the effects and effectiveness of sanctions were criticized already in the late 1960s. Since then, experiences have been addressed in a substantial literature, drawing quite clear conclusions about the  consequences of use of sanctions . The developments in Venezuela illustrate many of those conclusions and were therefore easy to predict:

First, it is important to differentiate between individual sanctions against persons in positions of power and sanctions that block financial transactions or trade between countries or particular sectors.  The first sanctions against persons connected to the government in Venezuela were issued by the United States in 2011 and after 2014 they were directed against persons linked to human rights abuses and the narcotics trade.  The EU followed suit in 2017.

Such sanctions are being called for:  for example, individuals in the regimes in Nicaragua and Myanmar.  Individual sanctions have impact on the economy but can in some cases help to highlight the human rights situation. In Venezuela, however, the human rights situation has become dramatically worse over the last few year, with an explosion of extra-judicial executions and imprisonment of opposition actors.  

Second, substantive sanctions worsen economic crises. The first substantive sanctions against Venezuela were issued in 2017. They prevented the nation from taking on new loans in the international market.  In 2019, the oil sanctions prevented Venezuela from exporting oil- which amounted to 95 per cent of the country’s export income.  In November 2020, Trump halted access to diesel which is used in the transport of goods, including food, through ending the exception from sanctions for crude-for-diesel swaps

When the sanctions were applied, Venezuela was already deep in an economic crisis, and it is difficult to disentangle the effect of sanctions from the ongoing crisis-dynamics. Venezuela’s economy had already shrunk over 30 per cent since 2013, inflation was about to reach 1000 per cent per year, the amount of people living in poverty had doubled since 2014 reaching over 80 per cent of the population, imports had been reduced to one sixth of the rate in 2013, and the lack of goods was harrowing. Nevertheless, there is increasing evidence that  sanctions worsened the situation. Today,  Venezuela’s economy has shrunk 65 percent, and there is an unfolding humanitarian crisis  in the resource-rich land, accelerated by particularly the oil-sanctions.

Third, sanctions rarely lead to regime change, nor do they manage to shift authoritarian regimes to democratic ones. More often, sanctions tend to consolidate the power of authoritarian leaders and worsen freedom of expression and association. The reasons are that authoritarian leaders can use sanctions as an «external enemy» and justify their own attacks. During the past few years, Venezuela has evolved from being a hybrid regime to a full authoritarian regime. Sanctions have also affected the business community that has been among the strongest regime-opponents, and contributed to  new divisions in the opposition

Fourth: Sanctions contribute to new inequality and criminalization of the economy.  In order to evade the sanctions,Nicolás Maduro enacted a type of perverse neo-liberalization: deregulation of prices and currency have rendered the dollar the only viable currency, a privatization program based in the so-called «anti-blockade law»,  a toll-exception in order to encourage direct private import which could violate the prohibition of trade with the state, and decentralization of control in various sectors- leaving them to criminal actors. The result is the growth of a new elite with access to dollars and a deep division with the poor majority. Another consequence is the strengthening of a variety of criminal activities, including illegal mining resulting in catastrophic impact on the environment within the vulnerable Venezuelan Amazon.

Fifth: Sanctions often lead to new alliances between “sanction-busters”. In the case of Venezuela, they have  strengthened the alliance with other countries subject to sanctions, including Russia, Syria, and Iran.  The relationship to Russia was established during the United States application of a weapons embargo against Venezuela in 2006. This converted Venezuela into one of Russia’s best importers of weapons. In later years, the two countries have cooperated on developing the cryptocurrency, which is increasingly utilized to avoid sanctions. 

Let there be no doubt, Venezuela’s catastrophe cannot be blamed on the sanctions.  Neither is there any reason to believe that Maduro would have become a devote democrat or prioritized welfare and human rights in the absence of sanctions. Yet, sanctions have worsened the lives of most people without being able to meet the goals that were set for them,

If the world continues down the wrong path of sanctions, it will not only worsen humanitarian crises, but also worsen the environment for international cooperation and strengthen criminal networks.  It is essential to take a critical look at what sanctions can do and not do, and not only let decisions of imposing them be based on whether they seem justified or not.  


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