Why Sanctions Against Iran and Venezuela During a Pandemic Are Cruel

By Vijay Prashad and Paola Estrada. Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is the chief editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He has written more than twenty books, including The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (The New Press, 2007), The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013), The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution(University of California Press, 2016) and Red Star Over the Third World (LeftWord, 2017). Paola Estrada is in the Secretariat of the International Peoples Assembly and is a member of the Brazilian chapter of ALBA Movements (Continental Coordination of Social Movements toward the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America). Produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute

Swiftly moves the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), dashing across continents, skipping over oceans, terrifying populations in every country. The numbers of those infected rises, as do the numbers of those who have died. Hands are being washed, tests are being done, and social distance has become a new phrase. It is unclear how devastating this pandemic will be.

In the midst of a pandemic, one would expect that all countries would collaborate in every way to mitigate the spread of the virus and its impact on human society. One would expect that a humanitarian crisis of this magnitude would provide the opportunity to suspend or end all inhumane economic sanctions and political blockades against certain countries. The main point here is this: Is this not the time for the imperialist bloc, led by the United States of America, to end the sanctions against Cuba, Iran, Venezuela, and a series of other countries?

Medical Shortages

Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza told us recently that the “illegal and unilateral coercive measures that the United States has imposed on Venezuela are a form of collective punishment.” The use of the phrase “collective punishment” is significant; under the 1949 Geneva Conventions, any policy that inflicts damage on an entire population is a war crime. The U.S. policy, Arreaza told us, has “resulted in difficulties for the timely acquisition of medicines.”

On paper, the unilateral U.S. sanctions say that medical supplies are exempt. But this is an illusion. Neither Venezuela nor Iran can easily buy medical supplies, nor can they easily transport it into their countries, nor can they use them in their largely public sector health systems. The embargo against these countries—in this time of COVID-19—is not only a war crime by the standards of the Geneva Conventions (1949) but is a crime against humanity as defined by the United Nations International Law Commission (1947).

In 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump enacted tight restrictions on Venezuela’s ability to access financial markets; two years later, the U.S. government blacklisted Venezuela’s Central Bank and put a general embargo against the Venezuelan state institutions. If any firm trades with Venezuela’s public sector, it could face secondary sanctions. The U.S. Congress passed the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) in 2017, which tightened sanctions against Iran, Russia, and North Korea. The next year, Trump imposed a raft of new sanctions against Iran which suffocated Iran’s economy. Once more, access to the world banking system and threats to companies that traded with Iran made it almost impossible for Iran to do business with the world.

In particular, the U.S. government made it clear that any business with the public sector of Iran and Venezuela was forbidden. The health infrastructure that provides for the mass of the populations in both Iran and Venezuela is run by the State, which means it faces disproportionate difficulty in accessing equipment and supplies, including testing kits and medicines.

Breaking the Embargo

Arreaza, the Venezuelan foreign minister, told us that his government is alert to the dangers of COVID-19 with a health infrastructure that has been affected by the sanctions. Vice President Delcy Rodríguez is leading a presidential commission to manage whatever resources are available. “We are breaking the blockade,” Arreaza said, “through the World Health Organization, through which we have obtained medicine and the tests to detect the illness.” The WHO, despite its own crisis of funds, has played a key role in both Venezuela and Iran.

Nonetheless, the WHO faces its own challenges with sanctions, particularly when it comes to transportation. These harsh sanctions forced transportation companies to reconsider servicing both Iran and Venezuela. Some airlines stopped flying there; many shipping companies decided not to anger Washington. When the World Health Organization tried to get testing kits for COVID-19 from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) into Iran, it faced difficulty—as the WHO’s Christoph Hamelmann put it—“due to flight restrictions”; the UAE sent the equipment via a military transport plane.

Likewise, Arreaza told us, Venezuela has “received the solidarity from governments of countries such as China and Cuba.” This is a key issue. China, despite its own challenges from COVID-19, has been supplying testing kits and medical equipment to Iran and to Venezuela; it was China’s vigorous reaction to the virus that has now slowed down its spread within China itself. In late February, a team from the Red Cross Society of China arrived in Tehran to exchange information with the Iranian Red Cross and with WHO officials; China also donated testing kits and supplies. The sanctions, Chinese officials told us, should be of no consequence during a humanitarian crisis such as this; they are not going to honor them.

Meanwhile, the Iranians developed an app to help their population during the COVID-19 outbreak; Google decided to remove it from its app store, a consequence of the U.S. sanctions.

End the Sanctions

Yolimar Mejías Escorcha, an industrial engineer, tells us that the sanctions regime has put a lot of pressure on everyday life in Venezuela. She says that the government “continues to make an effort to ensure that people who most need it get health care, education, and food.” The opposition has tried to say that the crisis is a consequence of the government’s inefficiency rather than a result of the imperialist blockade on Venezuela. On March 6, she tells us, a new campaign was launched in the country called “Sanctions Are a Crime.” She hopes that this campaign will explain clearly to people why there are shortages in her country—the sanctions being the core reason.

In 2019, a group of countries met at the United Nations in New York to discuss the U.S. unilateral sanctions that violated the UN Charter. The intent was to work through the Non-Aligned Movement to create a formal group that would respond to these sanctions. Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Arreaza told us that Venezuela supports this initiative but also the declaration of principles drafted by Iran against unilateralism and the Russian formal complaint about denial of visas for officials to visit the UN building in New York. “We hope to resume meetings this year once the difficulties presented by COVID-19 are overcome,” he said. They want to meet again, Arreaza said, to “advance joint, concrete actions.”

What Arreaza told us are initiatives at the interstate level. At the same time, there are ongoing initiatives led by popular movements and political organizations. In November 2019, an anti-imperialist solidarity meeting was held in Havana, Cuba, with representatives from 86 countries. At this meeting, it was decided that attention must be focused on the inhumane use of power in our time; a call was sent out to hold a week of anti-imperialist struggle between May 25 and May 31. The aim of the week is to alert the world’s public about imperialism and—in this context—about the murderous sanctions regime driven by the United States, more murderous in this time of COVID-19.

The question that a week of activities such as this poses is quite simple: What kind of moral fiber holds together an international system where a handful of countries can act in a way that goes against all the highest aspirations of humanity? When the United States continues its embargos against more than 50 countries—but mostly against Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela—when there is a global pandemic afoot, what does this say about the nature of power and authority in our world? Sensitive people should be offended by such behavior, its mean-spiritedness evident in the unnatural deaths that it provokes. When the U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was asked about the half-million Iraqi children who died because of U.S. sanctions, she said that those deaths were a price worth paying. They were certainly not a price that the Iraqis wanted to pay, nor now the Iranians or the Venezuelans, or indeed the majority of humankind. We march in May against this desiccated worldview; we march for humanity.

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  1. curious euro

    Sanctions are murdering civilians, no matter if there is a pandemic or not. Sanctions are always cruel to anyone ill. Under a pandemic, more people are ill, but people get ill everyday without one.

    Before, there were ~40.000 preventable deaths in Venezuela due to the sanctions, now there are maybe 50.000 or more. It’s bigger now yes, but still the same.
    Are those 40.000 deaths before worth less than the 10.000 now?
    “But CoVid-19!” is not a valid reason, it’s pandering, or since we should use modern lingo: virtue signalling by the some journos who need to sell their prominently advertised books.

    1. BlakeFelix

      Eh, but it’s a good time to time to point out how harmful sanctions are. And hampering their anti pandemic measures puts the whole world at risk, and it’s a good time to point that out too. Might get some people on board who don’t care much about the well-being of foreign kids but don’t want them incubating new and interesting plagues either. Decent health care for everyone protects everyone, and now is the time to hammer that point IMO. You are right that our policies toward Venezuela (and Cuba) have been deadly (and useless) in the past as well.

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      Are you saying that sanctions of the severity applied against Venezuela do not affect the entire population of Venezuela?

      Can you provide support, other than your own most esteemed and valuable opinion that is, that this assertion is false?: “[…] under the 1949 Geneva Conventions, any policy that inflicts damage on an entire population is a war crime.”

    2. timbers

      I don’t know if you’re factually right or not, but you are wrong:

      “It’s worth it.”

      Madeline Albright responding to a question regarding almost 600,000 Iraqi children died as a result of U.S. sanctions against Iraq based on a claim our government knew was false (Iraq did not have WMD as U.S. falsely claimed).

      “It’s worth noting that on 60 Minutes, Albright made no attempt to deny the figure given by Stahl–a rough rendering of the preliminary estimate in a 1995 U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report that 567,000 Iraqi children under the age of five had died as a result of the sanctions.”

      1. jefemt

        The blood on our hands.

        Out damned spot- Out! I say

        And remember— denial of Cuba’s remarkable medical system and their stunningly low hurricane fatality rate, built on fumes in the midst of punishing sanctions may not be mentioned or discussed.

        It’s an interesting thought exercise to imagine where we’d be with Cuba had they been determined to be sitting on a bunch of undoubtedly American-destined oil. But I digress.

      2. Fergus Hashimoto

        Prashad writes: “When the U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was asked about the half-million Iraqi children who died because of U.S. sanctions, she said that those deaths were a price worth paying.”
        I note in passing that Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein likewise thought half a million dead was a price worth paying. The sanctions had been imposed because Hussein refused to admit UN weapons inspectors to verify claims that he possessed atomic bombs.
        As it happened, he didn’t possess any atom bombs, so his gesture was completely gratuitous. If the inspectors had reported there were no atom bombs, the sanctions would have been lifted in short order.
        Why this constant repetition of Albright’s callous remark, when Hussein was equally guilty? I am fed up with this hypocritical double standard, whereby the west is held to a higher moral standard than non-Western countries. It is what the magnificent Somali atheist and apostate Ayaan Hirsi Ali calls “the racism of lower expectations”.

  2. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg

    Sanctions cripple their economy, then the headline on the CFR house organ is: “They have mismanaged their economy so badly the Responsible People must invade them, sodomize their evil dictator with a machete and then turn the economy over to the wise and loving investors of The City.

  3. Fergus Hashimoto

    It certainly would be a nice gesture to send Iran and Venezuela a bunch of virus kits or whatever for free. However Vijay Prashad, as usual whenever he is diligently fulfillling his mission of spiting the west in general and the US in particular, deploys the heavy artillery by invoking impressive-sounding laws while rigorously refraining from citing any specific paragraph or providing any URLs, leaving it to his long-suffering readers to search the Geneva Conventions and the 1947 pronouncements of the United Nations International Law Commission to try and locate the provisions that again make the US Public Enemy Numbah One for the umpteenth time, ahead of North Korea, Hamas, Hezbollah, the mafia and what have you.
    Vijay Prashad, by the way, is the same so-called historian who recently called Eritrea a “war zone” (in “How Europe’s Greedy Lending to Africa Is Driving the Migration Wave That Fuels the EU’s Xenophobic Politics” https://www.laprogressive.com/african-immigrants/), although Eritrea’s last war — against Ethiopia — ended 20 years ago.
    He blames African emigration to Europe solely on “Europe’s greedy lending to Africa”, although the parasitical financial oligarchy is largely independent of any sovereign state or group of states, and European banks rip off Europeans just as callously as they rip off Africans. And his whole article about the causes of African emigration — comprising almost 1600 words — nowhere mentions that Africa’s population is growing exponentially and will triple within 50 years.
    I fail to comprehend how such a fraud is constantly being published by journals everywhere, although his claims to scientific rigor are ludicrous and he is nothing but a cheap propagandist.
    There is no lack of rigorous social scientists who criticize US imperialism. However Vijay Prashad is not one of them.

    1. JTMcPhee

      Maybe it wold help to look at why people are leaving Eritrea in large numbers, speaking of history and current affairs: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-13349078

      I guess there’s a reason why nobody else bothered to respond to this comment.

      It’s a little hard to get a snapshot of US imperial sanctions, but it looks like a dozen or more countries and lots of individuals and corporate entities are getting the OFAC treatment: https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs/Pages/Programs.aspx Does not include arm-twisting the EU, far as I can see.

      Wiki has a little history on embargoes/sanctions, https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs/Pages/Programs.aspx Lists who is getting embargoed/sanctioned in a little more detail.

      Say again why the Empire is “justified” in applying sanctions and de facto embargoes (an act of war, I believe) to Iran and Cuba and all the rest?

      Not convinced by your attempted diminution of Vijay Prashad.

    1. troublemecca

      They were imposed with the intention of harming enough people to inspire revolution from within.

      They are imposed for a variety of reasons, but ostensibly because people refused to sell themselves at a loss. It is entertained because military adventurism has either failed, or would be costly, politically or otherwise. It is siege warfare.

      Cruel world for the pansies… rich one for the opportunists… poor one for our children…

  4. nick

    Not since the 1970s have I seen evidence of anything approaching altruism from the United States government. Given their pattern since the election of Reagan, I suspect the U.S. will use this public health crisis to cull the country’s population of whatever they deem as “underclass.” Until I see behaviour to the contrary I would also place the same hypothesis against the behaviour of their fellow travellers like Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the U.K, and the hangers-on of third-rate republics in the so-called “Lima Group.” I hope I’m wrong but nothing I have seen in recent years has persuaded me otherwise.

    I hasten to add that Cuba’s work in the world helping Italy and other countries has been a shining example of altruism and simply “doing the right thing” in this global crisis.

  5. Fergus Hashimoto

    By the way, my deprecating remarks on Cuba’s economic system should not be construed as an imperialist onslaught. Cuba became Communist largely through the fault of the United States.
    The leaders of the Cuban revolution Fidel Castro and Che Guevara consciously chose to make Cuba a communist dictatorship, in part because at the time (the 1950s) Communism seemed to be the wave of the fyootch, but principally because it was the only way in which Cuba could count on Soviet backing in its attempt to free itself from US imperialism. The price that Cuba had to pay for its sovereignty was submitting to communist dictatorship. This was the lesson that Guevara had learned in Guatemala in 1953-54, when a reformist government was toppled by a US-backed coup driven by the United Fruit Company (now called United Brands, I believe) which owned vast banana plantations in Guatemala. Guatemala had no reliable military allies supporting it, and its army was easily persuaded to switch sides, so the reformist Guatemalan government that had emerged from the Revolution of 1944 succumbed to US aggression. That inspired Castro to dissolve the Cuban army after his revolution triumphed in 1959, and replace it with his own revolutionary army.
    By the way in 1984 I slept in Che Guevara’s old room at the Pension Meza in Guatemala City.

    1. Anonymous

      …. and Cuba has remained communist for 70 years… not because of their own hard-fought convictions in the face of diplomatic and economic strangulation… but because the USSR is still paving the way for them…….? In the White House they must be all “dang we missed that opportunity, maybe if we raise their infant mortality rate they will warm up to us?”

      Ok boomer. I’m not saying you’re wrong, just… dangerously irrelevant…

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