One point that I’ve repeatedly tried to make clear in my past columns is that economic sanctions on countries are a form of warfare, just like traditional invasions. The best example of this are the ongoing United States’ sanctions on Iran, which have (to reiterate) completely devastated that country’s economy and severely impaired its ability to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. This dynamic also played out with the sanctions the U.S. imposed on Iraq between 1990 and 2003, which destroyed Iraqi infrastructure and killed over 227,000 children through malnutrition, by one estimate. 

All of this is to say nothing of the 60+ year embargo on Cuba, which has severely restrained the Cuban economy and caused historic levels of tuberculosis in Cuba. The evidence is clear and consistent: Sanctions essentially serve as slow-motion wars on their target countries, and should never be thought of as a more humane alternative. For another example, let’s look at Venezuela.

Venezuela is currently facing both a governmental and economic crisis. On the political side, the opposition to President Nicolás Maduro has stopped participating in elections due to claims of rigging, leading many countries, the U.S. chief among them, to recognize former National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó as the nation’s legitimate president. On the economic side, Venezuela has undergone what economists have called the worst peacetime economic collapse in 45 years, including an estimated 10,000,000% inflation rate in 2019. In response to what it views as political malfeasance in the Venezuelan government, the U.S government has imposed a number of economic sanctions on Venezuela and high-ranking officials in the Venezuelan government — most importantly, a total embargo on the Venezuelan state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (PdVSA) in 2019. 

These sanctions are particularly crucial since oil is responsible for 25% of Venezuela’s gross domestic product and 95% of its exports. Since then-President Hugo Chávez nationalized the holdings of multinational oil companies Exxon Mobil and ConocoPhillips in 2007, PdVSA has almost entirely dominated the Venezuelan oil industry. This means that sanctioning PdVSA would likely have catastrophic effects on Venezuela’s economy. For such drastic measures, one question comes to mind: Beyond simply recording opposition to shortcomings of the Venezuelan government, what purpose do the sanctions on Venezuela actually serve?

This question becomes particularly important when considering the actual impact that these sanctions have had on Venezuela. Unsurprisingly, given the examples of economic sanctions listed above, a U.S. Government Accountability Office report, released on Feb. 4, found that the sanctions have had the exact sort of negative impact that one would expect from shutting down most of the commercial operations of the largest industry in the country. 

As expected, the report states that these sanctions have significantly exacerbated the decline of the Venezuelan economy, although it does specify that they were not the sole contributor to its decline. The GAO report addresses the question of whether sanctions are more to blame for the Venezuelan economic collapse than mismanagement of PdVSA or falling oil prices, stating “U.S. sanctions related to Venezuela have likely had a limited impact, if any, on the U.S. oil industry.” So if the sanctions are further damaging Venezuela’s economy, something I hope is not a goal in and of itself of the U.S. government, we must ask again, what is the purpose of these sanctions?

For a better answer, we should look toward what divisions of the U.S. government itself have said. The Congressional Research Service describes its view of the role of the Trump-era sanctions as “to pressure Maduro into negotiations with the opposition.” Given the aforementioned recognition of opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the legitimate leader of the country — the primary goal is to drive Maduro from power, although these goals are not mutually exclusive. 

I personally believe that outside of extremely extraordinary circumstances (think genocide, something that Maduro has not committed) it is not the U.S.’s business to remove the leaders of foreign countries, but for the sake of argument, I’ll pretend that it is. By this metric, the sanctions have completely and totally failed. Maduro remains in control of the military and the levers of government, with increased control after the largely uncontested 2020 legislative elections. While representatives of Maduro and Guaidó attempted negotiations in 2019, they stalled out with no agreement and nothing more has been achieved in that area since. Indeed, by some accounts, sanctions have only served to fragment the opposition, and Maduro has effectively been able to use sanctions as a scapegoat for the country’s economic woes, only strengthening his position of power.

This brings us once again to the question of what exactly the point of the sanctions on Venezuela is. They’re supposed to start negotiations between Maduro and the opposition, but they haven’t. They’re supposed to drive Maduro from power, but they’ve only strengthened his power. What they have succeeded in doing, as the sanctions on Cuba, Iraq and Iran before them, is further immiserating the Venezuelan people. The Venezuelan people have a right to determine their own destiny, and we should allow them to exercise that right, free of external interference.

Brandon Cowit can be reached at cowitb@umich.edu.

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