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.  


CEPAZ/UPEACE Webinar on the Role of the Security Council and other UN bodies in the Venezuelan situation


The United Nations Security Council has the primary responsibility of maintaining international peace and security pursuant to the powers granted in Chapters VI, VII, and VIII of the Charter. At the core of this competence to decide on non-coercive and coercive measures is the construction of what constitutes a threat to international peace and security according to Article 39 of the Charter. Although initially threats to international peace and security referred almost exclusively to conflicts between states, currently it could also refer to situations within states, including civil wars, humanitarian crises, and coups d’état. Nevertheless, there is still difficulty in conceptualizing the role that the international community can have, especially through the action of the Security Council, when atrocities occur at the hands of a government within state borders without a nexus to an armed conflict.
The response given by the Security Council and other UN political bodies to the situation in Venezuela serves as an example of these contentious issues. Venezuela is currently suffering one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. The country has experienced 7 years of economic contraction, hyperinflation, political polarization and institutional challenges, which have caused large-scale human suffering. OCHA has estimated that there are 7 million people in need in the country, and according to ACAPS this number reaches more than 13 million. The severity Index of the Venezuelan crisis has been estimated at 4.1/5, which is considered as very high and is similar to the index of other crises which have gotten a stronger response by the international community, namely Syria (4.9), Myanmar (3.5), Libya (4.2) and Yemen (4.6). In spite of the gravity and complexity of this crisis, there has not been an appropriate response from the international community. The 2020 Venezuelan Human Response Plan was one of the world’s lowest funded.

Importantly, the Security Council and other political bodies of the United Nations have failed to play an important role in its resolution. The Council has met nine times to discuss the situation in Venezuela but has not managed to provide a unified response to support Venezuelans in finding a solution to the crisis. This lack of response may be partly given to the fact that the situation is understood primarily as a domestic issue where the principles of sovereignty and non-interference trump the responsibility to protect even in the face of mass atrocity crimes. An ineffective response from the international community in the face of a humanitarian crisis and gross human rights violations has a direct impact in exacerbating the situation. States continue to commit atrocity crimes if they calculate that they will be protected from a strong response by international actors and that the cost of breaching human rights is bearable.
The seminar addressed the concepts and theoretical analysis which would allow the understanding of the humanitarian and political crisis in Venezuela as a threat to international peace and security. The event was moderated by Mariateresa Garrido and included presentations by Professor Cecilia M. Bailliet, University of Oslo, Norway, Adriana Salcedo, UPeace Costa Rica, and Richard Gowan, UN Director, International Crisis Group. The webinar is available here

Un símbolo para el futuro venezolano

Cada lugar tiene símbolos e iconos que lo identifican. En algunos casos son grandes obras arquitectónicas, como el caso de la torre Eiffel, o maravillas naturales, como las cataratas del Niágara, pero independientemente de cuál sea el símbolo, todos sirven para identificar ese lugar. Todos utilizamos esas imágenes para describir no sólo las bondades del sitio al que nos referimos, sino también de los problemas que existen en el entorno.

En Venezuela la simbología ha sido utilizada ampliamente por los políticos para crear vínculos entre ellos y sus seguidores, particularmente por el gobierno, y en el 2018 hay un nuevo símbolo que todos ven, pero del que pocos hablan: el bolso escolar.

Para el año escolar 2018-2019, el gobierno del Presidente Nicolás Maduro ordenó la entrega de 4 millones de bolsos escolares. La ayuda estuvo dirigida a estudiantes del sector público, que en palabras del Ministro de Educación alcanza el 80% de la población estudiantil activa en Venezuela (aproximadamente 7 millones 200 mil estudiantes). Los bolsos fueron distribuidos a nivel nacional, y aunque no hay cifras oficiales de cuántos fueron entregados en Caracas, es posible verlos en cualquier lugar de la capital ya que la ayuda alcanzó a aproximadamente 55,6% de la población estudiantil.

Los principales receptores de los bolsos han debido ser niños y niñas. Niños como José Liborio, quien utilizaba su bolso mientras se dirigía hacia algún lugar de Caracas en compañía de su abuela. Sin embargo, vemos que quienes los utilizan son las abuelas, los hermanos, tíos primos y demás familiares que se ven en la necesidad de utilizar un bolso para llevar sus objetos personales o las compras del día.

Para algunos esos bolsos se han convertido en el símbolo de la miseria. El símbolo de padres y madres que no tienen los recursos económicos necesarios para comprar los útiles escolares. El símbolo de niños y niñas que por diferentes circunstancias han tenido que abandonar la escuela. El símbolo de familias separadas porque miles de venezolanos han migrado en busca de un mejor futuro. En el símbolo de un pueblo que espera paciente por las dádivas del gobierno para sobrevivir en un país que está cada día más lejos de cumplir con los objetivos del desarrollo sostenible.

Y es que con este panorama cabe preguntarse ¿qué tipo de desarrollo hay en Venezuela? ¿qué tipo de desarrollo podemos tener en Venezuela? Para mí las respuestas son muy simples: en estos momentos no hay desarrollo en Venezuela y por eso tenemos una gran oportunidad para repensar qué tipo de desarrollo debemos tener. En mi opinión, ese desarrollo debe comenzar por el cumplimiento del Objetivo de Desarrollo Sostenible 4: garantizar una educación inclusiva, equitativa y de calidad y promover oportunidades de aprendizaje durante toda la vida para todos y todas. Para lograrlo necesitamos trabajar en pro del cumplimiento de diversos objetivos, incluyendo: garantizar una vida sana (ODS 3), terminar con el hambre y la desnutrición (ODS 2), garantizar que el trabajo del personal docente está bien remunerado (ODS 8).

Pero sobretodo, Venezuela necesita que el gobierno cree alianzas estratégicas para lograr los objetivos, tal y como lo prevé el ODS 17. Estas alianzas deben ser no sólo con instituciones extranjeras sino también con organizaciones nacionales porque los objetivos del desarrollo sostenible solo pueden alcanzarse con la participación de la mayoría.

La población venezolana no puede seguir siendo receptora pasiva de ayudas, porque para alcanzar los ODS necesitamos que quienes residen en el país participen de forma activa en la creación de una sociedad más pacífica e inclusiva (ODS 16), y en el camino convertir esos bolsos escolares en símbolos de esperanza y desarrollo.

A symbol for the Venezuelan Future

Every place has symbols and icons that makes it unique. In some cases, they can be architectural wonders, as the Eiffel tower, or natural beauties, like the Niagara Falls. Independently on which symbol or icon is used, we all refer to them to describe the wonders of that place and to explain some of its problems.

In Venezuela politicians use iconography to create bonds between them and their followers. This practice has been very common in the past 20 years, and the ruling party is its main user. In fact, Venezuelans are used to this practice, and for that reason they are not discussing the newest symbol: the schoolbag.

For the Academic Year 2018-2019, President Nicolas Maduro ordered to deliver 4 million bags to students who attend to public schools. In an official event, the Minister for Education indicated that students in the public sector represented 80% of the active student population (approx. 7.2 million students). Even though there is no official data regarding the exact number of schoolbags distributed per state and that the help did not cover the entirety of the population, at least 55.6% received it; therefore, it is possible to see them in every corner of the capital.

The main beneficiaries of the help were children. Kids like Jose Liborio, who was using his bag in the subway while moving around Caracas accompanied by his grandmother. However, he is an exception to the rule. The main users of the bags are grandparents, siblings, and other relatives who need the bag to carry personal objects or just the food the bough that day. For that reason, for some people the bag is a symbol of misery and poverty. They see it as the symbol of parents who do not have the money needed to buy back to school supplies and books. The symbol of children that for several reasons have abandoned school. The symbol of broken families because thousands of Venezuelans have migrated to pursue a better life. A symbol of a population who patiently waits for the government charity to survive in a country that every day is stepping away from achieving the sustainable development goals.

And with this panorama, one could ask, what is the type of development that Venezuela has? What is the type of development that it should have? For me answers are very simple. In this moment Venezuela has no development, and precisely because of that, we have a great opportunity to discuss the type of development that Venezuelans would need to have.

In my opinion, Venezuelan development agenda should start with SDG 4: ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. However, to achieve it we need coordinated action to ensure good health and wellbeing (SDG 3), zero hunger (SDG 2), and that teachers are receiving a decent salary for their work (SDG 8). But, above everything, Venezuela needs strategic alliances as indicated in the SDG 17.

The government should promote alliances not only with foreign institutions, but also with domestic organizations. Sustainable development can only be achieved with the participation of the majority of the stakeholders. The inclusion on local institutions will transform the situation from within, and produce bottom-up solutions.

Moreover, as soon as Venezuelans start participating, they will stop being passive receptors of aid. They will be active creators of a more peaceful and inclusive society (SDG 16) and in doing it, Venezuelans will be able to develop and transform those bags in symbols of hope and prosperity.