Sanctions Kill: The True Face of Economic War

Did you know that the United States is at war with more than 30 countries? That doesn’t sound like it can be true, and to be sure, if you believe that only armed military conflict counts as “war” then you’ll disagree with the entire premise here. However in many parts of the world the United States of America is engaged in a much more insidious form of war, one which kills thousands of people every year, destabilizes entire regions, and is one of the leading causes of hunger in those places. That is economic warfare, the warfare of imposing sanctions. Some of these economic wars are relatively new, having only been imposed under Trump, while others go back decades, sometimes even as long as 60 years in the case of Cuba and North Korea. Some are blanket sanctions against entire nations, while others attempt (and that is the key word here) to only target specific individuals or political parties. But while the scale may differ, the cost is always paid for by the people.

Even the term “sanctions” hides how violent these acts are. The term invokes the concept of a stern parent sending you to timeout rather than the largest hegemony in the world stamping its boot onto your throat and attempting to starve you out of resources. And time and time again evidence has shown us one undeniable fact. Sanctions kill. In 2018 alone, a study by Korea Peace Now showed nearly 4,000 civilian deaths caused by sanctions, the majority of them children under the age of 5, while a joint report by 3 universities of Venezuela showed nearly 40,000 additional deaths that year due to the recently stepped up sanctions. And as deadly as sanctions already were, they have become even more brutal in the past year as COVID-19 has spread throughout the world. It would be impossible to even begin to estimate how many deaths in nations like Iran and Venezuela in 2020 have been as a direct result of the US’s economic warfare. But it goes far beyond just these recent actions. Cubans have been living under the blockade for more than 60 years. Many people have died as a result of them. Even more have been forced to leave their home due to Cuba having been choked out by the US over the course of those six decades. In general, the very first things to be affected by sanctions are access to medicine, food, clean water and energy. This is the way in which sanctions continue to seriously damage the poorest people in these countries and further exacerbate the divide between the poor in the global north and in the global south, with these sanctions being largely levied against countries in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East (along with some others outside of those regions such as China, North Korea and Russia).

And these same entities who propose economic warfare on the world whenever a country displeases them are the ones who talk about the wonders of the “free market”. There is no contradiction here, although there might appear to be one at first. The “free market” and sanctions are actually dance partners, working hand in hand to devastate the global south. The market “allows” countries all over the world to trade with one another, and creates dependencies on wealthier nations who can afford to be mass producing important resources at a fraction of the cost smaller countries can, due in part to economies of scale (as well as often exploiting the labor and resources of those same countries which will be buying the food, medical supplies and consumer goods back). This makes sanctions all the more brutally effective, because there has been decades of work in making these countries dependent on foreign resources. A typical refrain from people is that Venezuela should have diversified away from oil. This is a statement that every person in the world knows, both inside and out of the country, and is thus meaningless. Because of the effectiveness of how this “free market” works, it was cheaper to import food in Venezuela than to produce it locally, a fact that every attempt to invest more in local agriculture had to reckon with. And thus, when papa US decided that Venezuela needed to be made an example of, that cheap imported food that the country was dependent on was suddenly no longer available, and a crisis emerged.

The economic war against Venezuela is much deeper than just executive action leveled by the US Government. The international finance system has also been waging this war on Venezuela. Various international banks such as Citibank, Comerzbank, and Deutsche Bank have canceled contracts with Venezuela in recent years. In November 2017, more than $39 million worth of payments for food were returned because the intermediary banks being used by the suppliers would not accept Venezuelan money. In other cases, even groups who wanted to deal with Venezuela found the situation impossible due to either intermediaries being blocked or pressure from the US Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). The economic powers of the world will allow no future socialist projects to be successful if they have their way, and in the decades since the failure of the Bay of Pigs they have realized that economic warfare is far more effective than attempting violent overthrow (not that they don’t still try their hands at that as well, as you can see by looking at the recent history of Venezuela alone). Cuba was able to resist the blockade for so long thanks to the presence of the Soviet Union, but Venezuela has no such ally willing to subsidize socialism in the backyard of the United States.

And this is just an example of what’s been happening against one country. Just how pervasive are sanctions? According to Samuel Moncada, the Venezuelan Ambassador to the UN, sanctions are “economic terrorism which affects a third of humanity with more than 8,000 measures in 39 countries.” I think most people are probably aware of how Cuba and Venezuela have been destroyed by sanctions, but the term “a third of humanity” is something that I don’t think any person alive has the ability to conceive of in terms of the sheer scale of it all. A single decision made by the US government, often based on a spurious claim of human rights violations coming from a US funded group, is all that it takes to wage economic terrorism on the world’s poorest people. And what bank, what nation, what corporation would be willing to risk the ire of the US government by going against the sanctions they’re imposing? Almost none that aren’t already being sanctioned themselves.

A common defense of certain sanctions is that they’re only for limited cases, such as blocking weapon sales, however even these supposedly limited sanctions can have far reaching consequences. A supposedly military only sanction might still block the sale of chlorine under the guise of it being useful for military purposes, even though it’s necessary for the purification of water, fertilizer and medical supplies as well. This was the case in Iraq even before the war, for example. The brutal sanctions imposed on Iraq throughout the 90s and into the 2000s blocked the nation’s ability to import chlorine for purifying their water, and leading to the death of 4,000 children under the age of 5 each month. Sanctions took Iraq’s child mortality rate from one of the lowest in the world in 1989 to one of the highest in 2000. In more recent years, chlorine has been one of the biggest targets of sanctions against Syria, owing to its supposed use in chemical weapons. And even targeted sanctions against specific individuals can cause almost all transactions to the country to be held up while they are “investigated” by the banks. There are currently more than 6,300 individuals listed as being blocked by the OFAC. Every single one of those brings its own set bureaucratic nightmares with it; the US can’t just decide it’s sanctioning one politician in Russia and have that not hold any wider consequences.

What was a moral travesty prior to 2020 has become one of the most unconscionable acts in recent memory under a global pandemic. As nations which were already struggling to get basic resources in the best of times have had to wrestle with sanctions while dealing with the realities of COVID-19 the situation for people in those nations has rapidly deteriorated. Nations like Iran have been rocked hard by the virus because trying to fight this pandemic while struggling to get necessary resources is virtually impossible, to say nothing of the already poor conditions for many people making them more vulnerable even if the sanctions weren’t impacting the response. Additionally, because both Iran and Venezuela have their health care systems run by the state, they face additional difficulties due to bans the US has on dealing with the public sector at all in those nations. Iran in particular under sanctions has gone from having one of the most robust health care systems in the world, however the impact of sanctions has dealt a severe blow to that system. Cuba, although faring better than some other nations due to their very strong health system, found themselves unable to get necessary medical supply shipments from China in the early days of the pandemic due to the US blockade.

With the US continuing to wage economic warfare on large portions of the global south, no one should be ignorant of the fact that the world is at war. There may not be massive battles with guns taking place all over the world, but far more people are being hurt by this economic war than by any conventional war. With as much as a third of the world’s population being impacted by economic sanctions every day there can be no moral argument for allowing ourselves to be ignorant of the conditions our brothers and sisters across the world are living in. Sanctions kill and they’ll continue to do so as long as the US Empire exists and has the means to force its will on the world. Our only way forward is to end this hegemony and bring about an economic system which is just and works for everyone. Be not content with economic programs in the US that don’t extend to every Venezuelan, every Cuban, every Iranian, and every Palestinian abroad. We must remember the “world” part just as much as the “worker” part in the phrase “workers of the world unite!”