UN report slams U.S. economic sanctions against Venezuela
Venezuelan economic refugees arrive at an immigration control point in Tumbes, Peru, June 14, 2019. As Venezuela’s crisis drags on, exacerbated by U.S. sanctions, the number fleeing has been rising, slowed only by the coronavirus pandemic. The U.N. estimates there are now at least five million Venezuelans living abroad. | Martin Mejia / AP

Editor’s Note: A group of 27 U.S. senators and representatives on Feb. 11 urged President Joe Biden to “consider the humanitarian impacts of sanctions.” They did not name specific countries, but at the top of the list of countries currently on the receiving end of U.S. sanctions is Venezuela.

The country was the target of multiple Trump administration-backed coup attempts over the last few years, and officially, the U.S. still recognizes coup leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s president.

According to reports, Biden doesn’t plan to negotiate with Venezuela’s legitimate government or give up on recognizing Guaidó any time soon. Even with Trump gone, the rest of the world isn’t pausing in its condemnations of the policy pursued by U.S. and its allies toward the South American nation.

In this article, PW correspondent W.T. Whitney, Jr., examines a just-released UN report on the dire economic situation in Venezuela caused, at least in part, by U.S. sanctions.

Belarusian lawyer and academician Alena Douhan, who in 2020 became the United Nations “Special Rapporteur on the Negative Impact of Unilateral Coercive Measures,” visited Venezuela from Feb. 1-12. She was there “to assess the impact of unilateral [U.S.] sanctions on the enjoyment of human rights.” At her press conference on the last day, she read aloud a preliminary report. The full report will be presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council in September 2021.

In her report, Douhan reminded “all parties of their obligation under the UN Charter to observe principles and norms of international law [and] that humanitarian concerns shall always prevail over political ones.”

Douhan underlined the “inadmissibility of applying sanctions extraterritorially and urges the U.S. Government to end the national emergency regarding Venezuela.” The United States, she said must “revise and lift sectoral sanctions against Venezuela’s public sector, review and lift secondary sanctions against third-state parties.” All states need to “review and lift targeted sanctions in accordance with principles of international law,” she said.

She called upon “the Governments of the United Kingdom, Portugal, and the United States and corresponding banks to unfreeze assets of the Venezuela Central Bank.”

Douhan explained that U.S economic sanctions against Venezuela’s government began in 2005 and intensified after President Barack Obama declared a “state of national emergency” in 2015. Held up as justification then were allegations of “violent repression of protests, persecution of political opponents, corruption, and curtailing of press freedom.”

She recalled that the U.S. government in 2019 imposed “a total economic embargo” that immobilized Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, PDVSA, and the Venezuelan Central Bank. The U.S. government transferred ownership of Venezuelan assets and properties in the U.S. to the façade government headed by Guaidó, whom the U.S. named as president. Britain, Portugal, Canada, and the U.S. went on to freeze billions of dollars owned by Venezuela and deposited in their banks.

The Special Rapporteur criticized countries imposing sanctions at the behest of the United States, most of them belonging to the European Union and to the Lima Group of nations. These are members of the Organization of American States gathered together by the U.S. government as an anti-Venezuelan bloc of nations.

Douhan clarified that hyperinflation has aggravated Venezuela’s economic decline and that the fall of oil prices in 2014 accelerated it. Oil sales, she emphasizes, have long accounted for almost all the government’s income and have, consequently, paid for schools, health care, and social programs. Ultimately, she writes, revenues would “shrink by 99%.”

Now “Venezuela faces a lack of necessary machinery, spare parts, electricity, water, fuel, gas, food, and medicine.” Remittances arriving from abroad have drastically fallen, due in part to impediments to bank transfers. Now, she notes, only 20% of normal electricity is available, almost five million Venezuelans have emigrated, and 2.5 million face severe food insecurity because of reduced food imports.

“Medical staff positions in public hospitals are 50–70% vacant,” she reported, adding that, mainly because of sanctions, “90% of the population” lives in conditions of extreme poverty.

Douhan’s report documents violations of international law. Both the freezing of assets and the U.S. goal of removing Venezuela’s government “violates the sovereign rights” of the nation. The U.S. “state of national emergency” and the reign of sanctions are incompatible with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, she asserted. U.S. extension of extraterrestrial jurisdiction to third countries “is not justified under international law,” Douhan said, referring to countries whose citizens and companies deal with Venezuela.

The U.S. abuses “the right to the highest attainable state of health,” the report claims. Douhan pointed to Venezuela’s “lack of doctors and nurses and of sufficient medicines, medical equipment, spare parts, relevant software updates, vaccines, tests, reagents, and contraceptives”—all formerly supplied by the government. She decried violations of the right to water and the right to education.

The Special Rapporteur’s report differs in very significant ways from a United Nations survey and set of recommendations released in September 2020. The UN Human Rights Council’s “Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela” at that time produced 409 pages and 65 recommendations. The document’s authors never traveled to Venezuela, however. Setting the tone, their first recommendation called for “prompt, effective, thorough, independent, impartial and transparent investigations into the human rights violations and crimes described in the present report.”

Like the Special Rapporteur, the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report in February, one that joins in acknowledging a “deteriorating humanitarian situation” in Venezuela. The sole recommendation of the 50-page report was timidly to suggest that “Treasury should ensure that [its] Office of Foreign Assets Control systematically tracks information on inquiries” about the suffering.

Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research praised the GAO report for providing “more evidence that these unilateral, illegal U.S. sanctions are a form of collective punishment against the Venezuelan population and should be ended immediately.” Weisbrot and co-author Jeffrey Sachs in 2019 documented that sanctions had killed tens of thousands of Venezuelans.

Some opposition politicians in Venezuela now oppose U.S. sanctions. They include Timoteo Zambrano, President of the National Assembly’s Foreign Policy Commission, and Henri Falcón, former conservative presidential candidate.

But Guaidó, along with his U.S. and other foreign backers, advocates turning the screws even tighter.


W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.