U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has warned of “far-reaching implications” of the latest round of economic sanctions imposed on the Venezuelan government by the United States. The warning has come in the wake of the harshest sanctions on Venezuela to date, putting Venezuela on par with North Korea, Syria, Iran and Cuba in their economic ties to the U.S. according to the Wall Street Journal. The sanctions were signed into law by Executive Action by President Trump late on Monday 5 August and the statement from Bachelet came swiftly after on Thursday 8 August.
Bachelet’s statement emphasized threats to citizens’ “rights to health and to food in particular,” continuing that the sanctions have “exacerbated the effect of this dire crisis – and by extension the humanitarian situation.” Venezuela’s government representatives have also decried sanctions, with U.N. Ambassador Samuel Moncada accusing the U.S. of “trying to fabricate a war on Venezuela.”
However some have supported the aggressive sanctions, with self-declared interim President Juan Guaidó saying that the measures “protect Venezuelans” as they are targeted at those who “uphold the usurpation, benefitting from the hunger and the pain of Venezuelans.” Furthermore, the National Security Advisor to President Trump, John Bolton, explained the logic of the sanctions is to “deny Maduro access to the global financial system and to further isolate him internationally.”
The focus on this story must remain, as Michelle Bachelet stated, on ending the humanitarian crisis as quickly as possible. The sanctions have been designed to freeze the assets of anyone that has any dealings whatsoever with the Maduro government, but making exemptions for what the BBC describe as humanitarian goods, food and medicine. With 25 percent of Venezuelans relying on aid and 90 percent currently living in poverty according to Al Jazeera, further crippling the already crisis-riddled country is only going to further punish those in a desperate situation. Exemptions may not work, as economic sanctions expert at Peterson Institute for International Economics Jeffrey Schott explains that “in practice, we still block food and medicine because the parties in the targeted regime that want to import it can’t get financing.”
The Venezuelan crisis started in 2013 with a sharp decline in the global price of oil, the main export of the state. After a brief period of economic stabilization between 2015 and 2016, sanctions by Trump in 2017 caused the economy to plummet. Two elections were held in 2017 and 2018 for the legislature and presidency respectively, with both heavily boycotted by the opposition. Maduro won them, consolidated his power, and dismissed, outlawed or imprisoned political opponents. In January 2019, Juan Guaidó therefore invoked the Venezuelan constitution and declared himself interim president. He is recognized by 50 countries globally including the U.S., U.K., and Germany with whom he is much more open than Maduro. With mass protests and inflation throughout this period, the humanitarian crisis has deepened, creating nearly four million refugees.
The future of Venezuela is deeply uncertain. What is certain however, is that these sanctions will increase the suffering of millions of people living there every day. It is imperative that talks between Maduro and Guaidó’s representatives continue, as they have been doing this year. Deescalation and stability must be the political goals. A sensible first step would be a cross-party domestic solution to the humanitarian crisis, involving Guaidó calling for sanctions to at least be lifted on those working towards providing relief to citizens and refugees in the region. This would achieve both some reprieve to the most immediate issues of hunger and disease whilst also indicating that bipartisan diplomacy might be possible and productive in the near future.