Why did a Biden official deny US sanctions’ humanitarian impact on Venezuela?
Imagine this: A member of Congress asks a White House official to respond to studies showing that the government’s approach to the COVID-19 pandemic may have contributed to a significant number of deaths. The official refuses to accept the premise that U.S. government policies have anything to do with the suffering of the American people and says that the responsibility for the pandemic falls entirely on the Chinese government.
This exchange took place last week. Except it wasn’t about COVID. It was about U.S. sanctions. It took place during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing when Congressman Chuy García (D-Ill.) asked Assistant Secretary for the Western Hemisphere Brian Nichols to respond to studies showing that U.S. sanctions have significantly impacted Venezuela’s economy and humanitarian situation. Replace the Chinese government with Chavez and Maduro in the above exchange, and you’ll get the official’s response (you can see the video here).
As Rep. García pointed out, there are by now several studies documenting the harmful effect of U.S. economic sanctions on Venezuela’s economy. In a recent paper for the Sanctions and Security Research Project, I surveyed the evidence and concluded that it is nothing short of overwhelming.
U.S. sanctions targeted the access to international and financial markets of Venezuela’s oil industry, which has historically accounted for more than 95 percent of Venezuelan foreign currency revenue. Time-series data and detailed econometric analysis of firms operating in Venezuela’s Orinoco Basin clearly show that U.S. sanctions led to a significant decline in the country’s capacity to produce and sell oil. In a companion piece, Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, a Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, found that sanctions on Iran helped bring about a significant spike in inflation, rendering many essential consumption goods unaffordable for households.
The expectable consequence of U.S. targeting of the Venezuelan oil industry was a reduction in the country’s imports, including food, medicine, and other essentials. Not all the reduction in exports observed over the past eight years is explained by sanctions — lower oil prices and poor economic policies also played important roles — but the evidence clearly shows that sanctions made an important contribution. They thus helped drive the deterioration of the country’s humanitarian conditions, including through massive increases in undernourishment and mortality.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, the number of undernourished Venezuelans has grown more than five-fold over the past five years. That’s more than 6 million persons who used to have access to adequate nourishment in the recent past and today no longer have it (not counting an additional 6 million who have left the country). Venezuela’s prevalence of undernourishment today is higher than that of Afghanistan or Sierra Leone. The sharp rise in infant and adult mortality in the same period has led to the additional deaths of 13 thousand Venezuelans each year — 3,000 of them among children less than a year old. These results are a direct consequence of a 93 percent collapse in the country’s export revenues and a 72 percent decline in per capita incomes. Sanctions have made a direct contribution to this collapse and are therefore a cause of many of these deaths.
The standard response of sanctions denialists when confronted with this evidence is to change the question. Instead of addressing the harm caused by their policies, they point the finger at the damage done by the policies of Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez. This reasoning is deeply disrespectful and insulting to the thousands of Venezuelans whose lives are threatened by the recklessness of U.S. foreign policy.
No civilized nation should adopt policies that target vulnerable civilian populations. In fact, no other nation does. The United States is the only country to impose economic sanctions on Venezuela. Other countries have explicitly limited themselves to individual sanctions targeted at regime leaders and have openly rejected and criticized the use of economic sanctions that hurt ordinary Venezuelans.
The Biden administration needs to stop sticking its head in the sand when presented with evidence of the consequences of its actions. It must confront the evidence that its policies are increasing the suffering of millions of people and contributing to causing a humanitarian catastrophe. Yes, the United States and the international community have a responsibility to stand up to authoritarian leaders who undermine democracy around the world. Treating Venezuelan lives as expendable collateral damage is not the way to do so.