Last Monday, U.S. President Donald Trump announced the expansion of sanctions against Venezuela into a full economic embargo. The executive order freezes all assets of Nicolás Maduro’s government and prohibits transactions with it, unless specifically exempted, stating that “the making of any contribution or provision of funds, goods, or services by, to, or for the benefit of any person whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to this order”.
In a letter to Congress, Trump said the expansion of the sanctions is necessary “to block the property of the Government of Venezuela in light of the continued usurpation of power by the illegitimate Nicolas Maduro regime.” The letter also justifies the sanctions because of “the regime’s human rights abuses, arbitrary arrest, and detention of Venezuelan citizens, curtailment of free-press, and ongoing attempts to undermine Interim President Juan Guaidó of Venezuela and the democratically-elected Venezuelan National Assembly.”
Venezuela has been mired in a political and economic crisis since January when Juan Guaidó, the speaker of the national assembly, proclaimed himself interim president, arguing that Nicolas Maduro’s re-election in May of 2018 had been “illegitimate”. Guaidó has since been recognized as Venezuela’s leader by more than 50 countries, including the States. The U.S. has imposed sanctions against Venezuela since 2015 prohibiting U.S. companies from doing business with the government including the state-owned oil company which was nationalized by Hugo Chavez, the former president of Venezuela.
Despite its vast oil wealth, Venezuela’s economy has been engulfed by a spiralling economic crisis with the International Monetary Fund predicting that the inflation may reach 10 million percent by the year’s end and the Venezuelan economy may contract by more than 18 percent. The country has also seen the fleeing of more than four million Venezuelans, according to United Nations agencies. According to a report by a former United Nations rapporteur Alfred de Zayas, Venezuela’s dire economic situation is not simply a narrative that “socialism failed the Venezuelan people” but also driven by the isolation from the global economy as punishment for its illiberal policies.
After a visit to Venezuela last year, de Zayas said U.S. sanctions could be viewed as crimes against humanity, and tried under International Criminal Court jurisdiction: “The effects of sanctions imposed by Presidents Obama and Trump and unilateral measures by Canada and the European Union have directly and indirectly aggravated the shortages in medicines such as insulin and anti-retroviral drugs. To the extent that economic sanctions have caused delays in distribution and thus contributed to many deaths, sanctions contravene the human rights obligations of the countries imposing them. Moreover, sanctions can amount to crimes against humanity under Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. An investigation by that Court would be appropriate, but the geopolitical submissiveness of the Court may prevent this.”
While the U.S. had sanctions imposed targeting individuals close to Maduro, the expansion is a significant escalation of pressure against the Maduro regime and countries including Russia and China that continue to support him by also including secondary sanctions on “any foreign entity, government, corporation, person, who contributes to keeping the Maduro regime in power.” As the U.S. national security adviser John Bolton put it, the latest sanctions can be viewed as “Do you want to do business in Venezuela, or do you want to do business with the United States?” Guaidó has supported the announcement of the new U.S. sanctions arguing that they punish those “who do business with the regime”.
The United Nations human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, expressed concern on the potential impact of the U.S. sanctions in a statement on Thursday, saying: “I am deeply worried about the potentially severe impact on the human rights of the people of Venezuela of the new set of unilateral sanctions imposed by the U.S. this week.” She added that “the sanctions are extremely broad and fail to contain sufficient measures to mitigate their impact on the most vulnerable sectors of the population.”
Although the sanctions exempt transactions related to certain food, clothing, and medicine, Bachelet claims that “they are still likely to significantly exacerbate the crisis for millions of ordinary Venezuelans.” According to Venezuelan economist Francisco Rodríguez, a critic of the Maduro regime, the latest sanctions “will make it more difficult to import all kinds of goods, and will further reduce the country’s meager oil exports. It will worsen the country’s economic crisis, without necessarily weakening the regime.”
On August 10, thousands of Venezuelans held a “No More Trump” rally in central Caracas to protest the latest sanctions imposed by the Trump administration.
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