An alarming statement was released recently by independent experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council, “”hundreds of Venezuelan cancer patients could die because they have been caught up in excessively strict applications of U.S. sanctions aimed at Venezuela…” Many countries are afraid to conduct business with Venezuela. “Third countries, groups of countries, banks and private companies have been overly cautious in dealings with Venezuela because they fear unintentionally violating U.S. sanctions,” the rapporteurs state. “As a consequence, money cannot be transferred out of Venezuela, and some patients have been stranded, destitute, in countries where they went for treatment.”
This report comes amid widespread protest in Cuba, a key Venezuelan ally, spurring widespread debate regarding the role of unilateral U.S. sanctions targeting Latin America and beyond. A remnant of the cold war, the United States embargo against Cuba has continued for the past six decades. Progressives such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have spoken out against the embargo, calling it “absurdly cruel and, like too many other U.S. policies targeting Latin Americans, the cruelty is the point. I outright reject the Biden administration’s defense of the embargo.” These “other U.S. policies” designed to be cruel for the sake of geopolitical interests and hegemony manifest themselves in the conditions of Venezuelan cancer patients.
Biden’s repose to the Cuban protest was a continuation of the U.S. foreign policy of previous administrations. He continued to add sanctions on Cuban officials such as the Alvaro Lopez Miera, the head of the Cuban armed forces. While these additional sanctions targeting individuals are unlikely to be impactful, it symbolized the administrations commitment to the ongoing use of economic sanctions. The same has occurred with regards to Venezuela. A U.S. State Department spokesman in July refuted Venezuelan President Maudro’s appeals to ease the sanctions against Venezuela, stating that major policy shifts and dialogue with the illegitimate, U.S. backed Juan Guaidó would be required to reduce sanction measures.
Contextualizing Contradictions in Cuba
Most U.S. analysts fail to grasp the complexities of protest, revolution, projecting their own ideologies to grassroots movements abroad. Protests are full of contradictions and are seldom monolithic in form. Reminiscent of the ’89 Democracy Movement in China, the U.S. government and media are quick to reduce a movement to simple dichotomies. Generally between “freedom” (generally defined as Western neoliberalism of free-markets) and “authoritarianism” (the party). However, what’s missed is the role markets have played in the creation of the discontent of the people. In China, the ’89 movement was shaped by hasty market reforms that produced greater inequality as well as an increasing divide between the rural populations and the urban populations. So while the protestors did demand increased social and political freedoms, these events occurred with respect to a legitimacy crisis of the Chinese Communist Party, as the government towards a liberalized market, leaving behind workers and farmers.
Parallels can be drawn with the events in Cuba. President Biden stated, “The Cuban people are demanding their freedom from an authoritarian regime.” This statement implies a universality to the Cuban protests, ignoring the counter-protestors that have come out to support the Cuban government as well as ignoring the conditions causing the protests.
The discontent in Cuba can be seen from a variety of positions. Here I will address a handful to add nuance against the binary framing of the U.S. media apparatus. First, there is the effect of the U.S. embargo on Cuba and the long-term impact that the embargo has had on Cuban economic prospects and growth. Second, there have been limits and failures of the Cuban government to create a sustainable economic model in lieu of the embargo. And third, the impact of COVID-19 on the Cuba has damaged the economy particularly as a result of the aforementioned issues.
To address the first point, the embargo on Cuba and the exclusion of Cuba from international markets has placed a limit on the economy of Cuba, with the Cuban government estimating that the embargo has cost Cuba $753.69 billion. This, in a country with an estimated GDP of approximately $100 billion. Due to the restrictions of trading partners, Cuba aligned itself with the Soviet Bloc, trading with the Soviets as well as receiving aid. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba saw a severe economic crisis causing mass protests.
To pivot their economy in a post-Soviet world, Cuba began increasingly supporting itself through the tourism industry. Since then, Cuba has seen millions of tourists, and with that an increasing liberalization of the tourism sector and welcoming greater foreign investment. In recent years, the Cuban government has allowed significant increases in real estate and tourism investments to attract foreign capital, while decreasing its investments into healthcare. Simultaneously, those investments have not translated to improved conditions with respect to healthcare. Healthcare spending per capita has been stagnant since 2015, and as a percentage of GDP healthcare spending has decreased. It is this context in which the COVID-19 wrecked the tourism industry internationally, reducing available revenue for Cuba while the Cuban people have simultaneously not seen improved conditions as a result of investment in the tourism industries. Therefore it is these contradictions that cause a rupture between the people and the party, and this can manifest itself in various shades of politicization - of those sympathizing with the party as it contends with embargo and worldwide capitalist realism, those protesting market liberalization and demanding a reaffirmation of socialist values and social welfare, and those to whom market freedom and political freedoms are often viewed synonymously.
Sanctions in Venezuela
The U.S. policies towards Cuba have been repeated more recently in Venezuela since the beginning of the Bolivarian movement in 1999, including multiple coup attempts, economic sanctions, and most recently widespread claims of election fraud. Right-wing critics point towards Venezuela’s social spending as the issue, limiting discussion and context. For instance, Venezuelan Dutch Disease, in other words economic dependency on a singular sector causing declines in other sectors, traces as far back as 1929. While Chavez did nationalize the oil industry in order to provide social services for the people, he also pushed to reinforce OPEC to create more stability for oil producers. However, many events of the 2000s such as the wars in the middle east and the Great Recession caused extreme volatility in the price of oil, weakening both Venezuelan’s economy and the strength of OPEC.
As Venezuela faced long-rooted issues of Dutch Disease as the oil market declined, the U.S. government imposed sanctions on the Chavez regime, further tightening restrictions over the past 15 years through the COVID-19 pandemic. When calculated, the human costs of sanctions are incredibly high. A Center for Economic Policy and Research report estimated 40,000 excess deaths in Venezuela as a result of US sanctions in 2017 alone.
In 2014, protests began due to these economic and political issues. The U.S. government has used these protests as leverage to manufacture the consent of the U.S. people in supporting harmful policies that hurt the Venezuelan population. However, in the recent Venezuela parliamentary elections, Maduro’s party, the PSUV, decisively won, reaffirming the support of the people towards the Bolivarian revolution, and acknowledging the culpability of foreign policy in the struggles of the Venezuelan people.
The Role of the U.S.
Ultimately, the only position for those in the U.S. is to demand that the U.S. government stop exerting itself abroad in the form of economic sanctions. Economic sanctions can constrain and warp a country, causing dependencies, contradictions, and human rights crises. As people of Cuba and Venezuela protest their respective governments, they create an outlet from which their governments can properly and respond to their demands. These demands have diverse and deeply complex roots. Thus, all of those in support of egalitarianism and international rights must not fall for false binaries and limitations imposed by capitalist realism. In particular, the U.S. left must challenge traditional U.S. foreign policy as the U.S. State Department attempts to make foreign intervention more palatable by using finance as opposed to guns and the media to provide justifications. Furthermore, the role of markets as a supra-national body must be recognized by the left in order to envision a better horizon in which sovereignty cannot be challenged by borderless international capital.
1. “Venezuela: Save lives of cancer patients endangered by U.S. sanctions”, OHCHR, July 21 2021, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=27328&LangID=E
2. John Haitiwanger, “AOC calls out Biden for defending 'absurdly cruel' embargo on Cuba while expressing support for Cuban protestors”, Buisiness Insider, July 16 2021. https://www.businessinsider.com/aoc-calls-out-biden-for-backing-absurdly-cruel-embargo-cuba-2021-7
3. Nick Wadhams, “U.S. Rejects Maduro’s Call for Biden to Lift Venezuela Sanctions”, Bloomberg, July 20 2021. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-06-20/u-s-rejects-maduro-s-call-for-biden-to-lift-venezuela-sanctions
4. Wang Hui, The End of the Revolution: China and the Limits of Modernity (Verso, 2009), 19-45.
5. On resolution 70/5 of the United Nations General Assembly, entitled "Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba.” June 2016.
6. ”Inversiones Indicadores Seleccionados. Enero-Diciembre 2020.” Oficina Nacional de Estadística e Información.
7. According to World Bank data from the World Health Organization Global Health Expenditure database, https://data.worldbank.org/
8. For an overview on the history of the Chavez government see Changing Venezuela by Taking Power (Verso, 2007) by Gregory Wilpert.
9. Mark Weisbrot and Jeffrey Sachs, “Economic Sanctions as Collective Punishment: The Case of Venezuela”, Center for Economic and Policy Research, April 2019.
Francis Hayes is an activist focusing on international relations, development, and technology. Francis has a Master's degree in Computer Science with a focus on social data mining.