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While thousands of Venezuelans died, Chrystia Freeland called for sanctions with ‘more bite’

Sanctions have caused widespread harm and exacerbated the region’s migration crisis

Canadian PoliticsLatin America and the Caribbean

A demonstrator holds a sign with a message that reads in Spanish: “Trump unblock Venezuela” in Caracas, August 7, 2019. Photo courtesy AP.

Sanctions have become the most common weapon of war used by the United States and its Western allies. Currently, around one-third of the world economy is subject to sanctions, up from five percent in the 1990s. And as a recent study from the University of Denver’s Francisco Rodríguez once again illustrates, “evidence decisively shows that sanctions make living conditions worse in target countries,” producing “consistently negative effects on measures ranging from poverty, inequality and growth to health conditions and human rights.”

The fact that the Financial Times published an article from Rodríguez outlining his evidence shows that even amongst establishment US papers, there is some willingness to acknowledge that the point of sanctions is not to selectively punish corrupt heads of state and their inner circles—it is to attack the living conditions of entire populations in order to inflict, as the infamous Mallory memorandum admits vis à vis Cuba, “hunger, desperation, and overthrow of government.”

Six decades ago, the Mallory memo revealed that the US responds to disobedient states like Cuba not only with military invasion, but also economic measures to “weaken the economic life” of their citizens. Written in April 1960 by US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Lester Mallory, the document reads:

The majority of Cubans support Castro (the lowest estimate I have seen is 50 percent)… The only foreseeable means of alienating internal support is through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship… it follows that every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba.


The same is true of the sanctions against Venezuela. Former National Security Advisor John Bolton likened the US-led blockade to a Darth Vader-like chokehold on the Venezuelan economy and later admitted that he had worked to organize a coup against the weakened Maduro government.

“The main channel through which sanctions work is constraining the public sector’s access to foreign exchange,” writes Rodríguez. “They are typically followed by declines in spending on public health, education and food assistance. Consequent currency depreciation and inflation also drive declines in real wages.”

In the case of Venezuela, the US-led sanctioning of the oil sector led government revenues to collapse by 99 percent. The resulting economic calamity has caused tens of thousands of preventable deaths.

Rodríguez continues:

US authorities claim their sanctions target only those responsible for corruption and undermining democracy and human rights, and do not prohibit humanitarian aid. But, as [the earthquake in] Syria made clear, standard humanitarian exceptions are often ineffective, as financial institutions can refuse to process transactions for fear of inadvertently helping funds flow to sanctioned entities.


This May, a group of 21 Democratic senators sent a letter to President Joe Biden in which they called for the lifting of sanctions against Venezuela and Cuba, correctly stating that the sanctions have caused widespread harm and exacerbated the region’s migration crisis. “[M]igrants continue to leave their home countries because of instability and dire economic uncertainty,” the letter reads.

The suffering that has been endured by these migrants is often unimaginable: leaving behind friends, families, and homes; traversing deserts, jungles, and treacherous regions like the Darién Gap; risking life and limb only to be met, in some cases, with closed doors and even violence upon arriving at the border. The decision to risk such hardship is not one that is taken lightly—it is made out of necessity.


The signatories identify “broad-based US sanctions” as a “root cause” of migration. The letter continues:

In light of their grave humanitarian toll on the peoples of those countries, and the significant logistical challenges that the resulting increase in migration is causing for federal, state, and local authorities, we urge you to act swiftly to lift the failed and indiscriminate economic sanctions that were imposed by the prior administration, and engage in a broader review of preexisting sanctions policies that your administration inherited, which exacerbate hardship for innocent civilians and serve as additional push-factors for migration.


It is, of course, past time that officials in the US government recognize the atrocious impact of Washington’s sanctions policies on targeted populations. Another factor that should be acknowledged is the role the Canadian government has played in legitimizing these policies.

The Trudeau government wholeheartedly endorsed former President Donald Trump’s imposition of sanctions against Venezuela. In July 2017, former Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland stated, “Canada welcomes and supports the important actions taken today by the United States to target leaders of the [Maduro] regime. Individuals who are undermining democracy and human rights in Venezuela should be held accountable for their actions.”

Shortly thereafter, Ottawa joined the Trump administration, imposing sanctions of its own on 40 members of the Venezuelan government. Freeland claimed that “Canada will not stand by silently as the Government of Venezuela robs its people of their fundamental democratic rights… Today’s announcement of sanctions against the Maduro regime underscores our commitment to defending democracy and human rights around the world.”

Cartoon by Matt Wuerker/Politico

As the political crisis in Venezuela intensified in early 2019, Freeland claimed that “Canada and its allies are well down the road to crafting a long-term, post-Maduro recovery plan for Venezuela’s disastrous economic decline,” ignoring the role played by US intervention. She added, “We are discussing with our partners now ways that sanctions list can be expanded in order to have even more bite.”

In April 2019, Ottawa imposed new sanctions on the Venezuelan government while coordinating with regional right-wing governments through the Lima Group, a conservative anti-Bolivarian coalition that has since fallen apart. Freeland fully adopted the Trump administration and Venezuelan right-wing’s framing of the crisis, releasing a statement that read: “The Maduro dictatorship must be held accountable for this crisis and depriving Venezuelans of their most basic rights and needs.”

That same month, a study from the Centre for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) found that as many as 40,000 Venezuelans had died preventable deaths as a result of the sanctions instituted in 2017. Report co-author Jeffrey Sachs explained: “The sanctions are depriving Venezuelans of lifesaving medicines, medical equipment, food, and other essential imports… This is illegal under US and international law, and treaties that the US has signed. Congress should move to stop it.”

The estimate of 40,000 deaths occurred before the sanctions with “even more bite” were slapped on Venezuela. This means that the actual number of deaths is likely much higher.

While the Trump administration ramped up its aggressive policies against Venezuela, deliberately worsening living conditions and contributing to the region’s migration crisis, Canada backed Washington’s policies to the hilt. As some in the US begin to reconsider the intentions of their government’s actions in this area, we cannot allow the Canadian government to evade its share of the blame.

“Regrettably, governments that impose sanctions all too often brush aside concerns about their harm,” concludes Francisco Rodríguez. “Given the weight of the evidence, their attitude reflects a disregard for the lives of people in developing countries. No state showing such indifference to the plight of the world’s most vulnerable groups can call itself a champion of freedom.”

Owen Schalk is a writer from Manitoba. His book on Canada’s role in the war in Afghanistan will be released by Lorimer in September. You can preorder it here. To see more of his work, visit www.owenschalk.com.

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