Sanctions Kill: The Devastating Human Cost of Sanctions

Protests against US Sanctions in Zimbabwe

By Robin Davis, Onyesonwu Chatoyer, and Nancy Wright

What Are Sanctions

Economic sanctions are a tactic of war that target a particular nation for pressure by leveraging US dominance over the global financial and trade system.

Sanctions work by essentially strangling the economy of the targeted nation. Because the system of global capitalism largely uses the US dollar, all international transactions are routed through US banks. This allows US banks to block or freeze individual transactions – or all transactions initiated by or for a particular nation – and also confiscate billions of dollars held by a targeted government upon demand. US global financial dominance also means that the US government can demand banks owned by completely uninvolved countries comply by threatening them with sanctions as well. A recent example of this is when Citibank (a US bank) and Deutsche Bank (a German bank) seized $1.4 billion in Venezuelan gold after the US government applied economic sanctions on the Venezuelan Central Bank.

The way the US is able to control who can give and receive money from who and who can do business with who is not dissimilar to how US political and military dominance has allowed them to control the globe in the post World War 2 modern age. The US military is able to drone bomb nearly any person in any colonized country at any time without any consequence – see the illegal assassination of Qasem Soleimani. The US Navy is able to intercept ships (and thus interrupt trade) in nearly any waters at any time – see when they seized a ship headed for Venezuela with food in the Panama Canal. The permanent US seat on the UN security council alongside two other Western imperialist powers with tightly aligned agendas allows it to force global consensus toward regime change again and again and again.

Economic sanctions are typically imposed through bills that glide easily through the US House and Representatives and Senate. They can also be imposed through executive order directly from the US president or authorized by a particular US government agency like the Department of the Treasury, State, or Defense – bypassing the system of so-called “checks and balances” entirely. If the US empire desires international support for a particular round of sanctions – as they might if they’re using them as part of broader escalation to war with a particular country – they pursue the support of the European Union, the UN security council, or assorted neo-colonial bodies like the Organization of American States or the African Union.

Although rhetoric around sanctions typically holds them up as a kinder, gentler means of bringing nations who do not submit to the will of Western imperialism to heel, the reality of economic sanctions is starvation and devastation for the masses of people on the ground in the targeted country. Economic sanctions often indiscriminately target import and export sectors of a given economy, drastically restricting a nation’s ability to generate revenue through trade while also drastically restricting the sorts of goods that a nation can import. The day to day consequences for a sanctioned country are a massive inflation of the national currency, a ruined credit rating that makes it extremely difficult to obtain international loans, huge shortages and high prices for goods like food, medicine, fuel, industrial equipment, and crumbling infrastructure that can not be repaired or replaced because the materials required to do so can not be imported.

US economic sanctions are essentially part of a strategy of compliance through collective punishment. By design, US sanctions are not targeted in scope and impact at the government of a particular country but rather at the civilian population of that country. The inevitable consequence of restricting a nation’s ability to import and export goods and generate the revenue it needs to function day to day is a collapse in that nation’s economy and thus its ability to provide for the basic needs of its own people. We can look to the African world for a clear example of what this looks like.

After the September 1991 coup that deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the US imposed a round of economic sanctions in Haiti that had a devastating impact on the day to day lives of poor and working class Africans on the island. According to one report released by international public health experts at Harvard University, up to 1000 Haitian children were dying every month after a US trade embargo drastically restricted the nation’s ability to import food, medicine, and vaccines. When questioned on the impact sanctions were having on Haiti’s vulnerable and defenseless children, a US State Department representative, David Johnson, said: “Sanctions are by their very nature a blunt instrument, but they remain the best tool we have at our disposal to bring about the return of democracy in Haiti.”

Think about which people in our society are most affected when access to basic necessities is cut off. When the day to day reality is soaring unemployment, high food and fuel prices, greatly limited access to medicine and antibiotics, and underdeveloped housing and medical care – all the most common consequences of economic sanctions. When a nation’s economy has collapsed and it’s state is no longer able to provide for the basic survival of its citizens, the result is a new reality of instability, shortages, famine, and death that devastatingly impacts an entire population but which most acutely targets the most vulnerable sectors of our people. Sectors like the elderly, the chronically ill & disabled, the very young, caretakers, and women, queer, trans, and gender variant people – groups that are already facing constant attack under patriarchy, capitalism, and colonialism seeing those attacks heightened as scarcity ripples through the broader society.

End US Sanctions on Haiti.

It’s important to understand that the US government is quite up front about this – the suffering of civilians – being the intended impact of sanctions. The US empire has long been aware of the devastating consequences of so heavily restricting the economies of underdeveloped nations – of the power it holds in this situation. You can find dozens of US government officials all throughout the years who have been quite vocal about the mass suffering of civilians being acceptable collateral damage in pursuit of desired outcomes. See the previous quoted comments from David Johnson. See also the comments of former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on 60 minutes where she said the reported 500,000 deaths of children in Iraq after the imposition of US sanctions was a worthy price to pay for Saddam Hussein’s compliance. See also a recent headline in The Economist that claimed Donald Trump and Juan Guaido were betting that Venezuelans would overthrow Maduro before they starved to death en masse from sanctions. Sanctions are designed to exact the maximum human cost from a particular nation in order to force that nation to do the bidding of US and Western imperialism.

Which Countries Get Sanctioned

Cuba, Haiti, Syria, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Eritrea, Venezuela, Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Sudan, while separated by continents, languages, culture, or nationalities, share two things in common: all have refused to bow down to the demands of the US or Europe, and all were punished with crushing sanctions designed, to bring them to economic, social and political ruin for daring to defy the imperialist capitalist powers. 

An alternative to conventional warfare, imposition sanctions is designed to destabilize a nation by weakening its economic infrastructure and causing economic hardship and misery among the people. The hope is that its population will turn against the leadership for being unable to provide political stability and economic prosperity. Out of desperation, people often turn against a progressive government that is acting in their interest, seeking relief from the imperialist powers who imposed the sanctions caused their misery. 

Iran

End US Sanctions on Iran.
End US Sanctions on Iran.

In 1953 the United States and Britain orchestrated a coup, ousting Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. His “crime” was nationalizing Iran’s vast oil industry and using oil revenue for the benefit of the Iranian people. Britain wanted exclusive control of Iran’s oil and could only do so with a puppet government in place. With USA help, Britain waged a coup in Iran, ushering in the dictatorship of tyrant Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the hated Shah of Iran. Unwilling to accept a government illegally imposed on them, the Iranian people overthrew the Shah. This return to self-determination by the Iranian people wasn’t tolerated by the United States and their allies. Sanctions were instituted by Executive Order by then U.S.  president Carter, freezing over 12 billion in Iran’s assets. Successive US administrations followed Carter, with Ronald Regan declaring that Iran provides “support for terrorism,” forbidding any companies from doing business with Iran. Every subsequent US administration has continually tightened the stranglehold on Iran with the goal being to create discontent that will lead to another coup, leading to a USA friendly “puppet” leader.  

Venezuela

End US Sanctions on Venezuela
End US Sanctions on Venezuela

Sanctions were initially placed against Venezuela by the US Obama administration through an executive order declaring Venezuela an “extraordinary threat to national security.” Venezuela posed no threat, yet the sanctions were systematically tightened, with Trump taking over where Obama left off. Parroting Obama’s absurd rhetoric, Trump has seized billions of Venezuela’s assets that were being held in US financial institutions and forbade other nations from doing business with Venezuela. This prevents Venezuela from selling oil and from obtaining loans or restructuring their foreign debt. The US has repeatedly attempted to stage a coup in Venezuela as a punishment for Venezuela’s insistence on independence from US domination, and the use of its vast oil resources for human development inside Venezuela and the region. Venezuela has never posed a security risk to the US, but such a claim can be made to US and European people who don’t sufficiently factcheck. The truth is that Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution ushered in an alternative, and far from posing a threat, Venezuela guaranteed the right to housing by constructing over two and a half million public housing units. They also provided free healthcare and free education. These initiatives served to reduce poverty by 50% and reduce extreme poverty by 77%.

Cuba

In collective punishment against the Cuban people for overthrowing U.S. installed dictator Fulgencio Batista, the United States enacted a crushing blockade that has lasted nearly 60 years. The new, revolutionary government nationalized foreign-controlled, properties, using the nation’s resources to satisfy human needs. Refusing to tolerate self-determination, the blockade was enacted to deny Cuba food, medicines and technology resulting in hunger and preventable death. Despite the blockade, Cuba provides low cost housing, an excellent free education from nursery school through university, exemplary free medical care, and systematic eradication of privilege and the racist, and patriarchal structures that existed before the revolution. Additionally, Cuba provided consistent material and human service support to other nations struggling against colonialism and neoliberalism. The U.S. has been intent on bringing down the Cuban revolution in an effort to halt its generous support to other nations struggling against imperialism, and to prevent the success of a socialist state that other nations would model, but the Cuban people have stood tall.  

Zimbabwe

A march against US Sanctions in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe is one of several African nations subjected to U.S. and European sanctions. Angered by Zimbabwe’s implementation of a program to reclaim and redistribute land stolen by European settlers during the ruthless Rhodesian rule, the US and Europe have worked tirelessly to cast Zimbabwe into total economic ruin. While Europeans settlers stole land, displaced and killed African people, stole mineral wealth, there were no sanctions, or any action taken against them by any European country or the United States. Once African people overthrew the brutal invaders and began redistributing land to the rightful owners, Europe and the US sought to bring down the Zimbabwe government through crushing sanctions, plunging the economy into a crisis designed to starve the people.

Sanctions are Acts of War: Africans Everywhere Must Fight

From the sanctions imposed on Haiti as punishment or overthrowing French slavery and domination, to the neocolonial policies imposed against newly independent African nations in the 20th and 21st centuries, to the denial of North Korea to engage socially, economically or politically with the rest of the world, sanctions have become a favored means of European and US control of the world. The sanctioned nations are not a threat, aren’t waging war, and aren’t oppressing anyone. Their crime is seeking to follow their own path, as every nation has the right to do. Their crime is using their resources to develop their own social progress rather than following the capitalist path. This reason alone is why they are singled out for sanctions. 

Conversely, nations inflicting harm in the world escape sanctions. The USA is the only nation in history to drop an atomic bomb, not once but twice, deliberately targeting civilian populations; killing a half million people, and maiming countless others, but no sanctions. Israel has an estimated 90 nuclear weapons which include bombs, warheads, and cruise missiles. Israel routinely commits crimes against humanity in its slaughter and ethnic cleansing of Palestinian people, yet no sanctions. Repressive nations who are allied with the USA and EU are not sanctioned.

Clearly, sanctions don’t defend justice or human rights. They are an illegal, immoral, and terrorist act of war, applied against civilians, and inflicting the greatest suffering on the most vulnerable, including children, pregnant women, the ill, elderly, and disabled. As emergencies like COVID 19 spreads, U.S. sanctions cruelly prevent needed medicines from reaching sanctioned nations, increasing death and suffering.

Unparalleled dominance over global finance and trade allows the United States and its allies to essentially “own” the world’s economy. With the complicity of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization, this dominance is further reinforced and expanded, allowing the US to selectively and unilaterally exclude any nation, at any time from participation in the global economic system. But people are rising up!

Sanctions Disproportionately Impact the Most Vulnerable 

Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary General, describes sanctions as “…a blunt instrument which hurts large numbers of people who are not the primary target.” His statement about the unintended consequences of economic sanctions is disingenuous, considering the decades of research on the deadly effects of sanctions on civilian populations. One report explicitly states that “…sanctions have the capacity to kill more people than armed warfare.” The primary targets of imperial warfare are always civilians, especially women and children.

Sanctions Kill

In almost every country in the world, women have a longer life expectancy than men, except during and after wartimes. Sanctions have drastic and immediate effects on the life expectancy of women. They’re also more likely to suffer from “indirect” effects of warfare, such as depression, premature death, heart disease, and diabetes, years after the actual conflict ends. 

Patriarchal, classist structures, and gendered norms keep women, children, queer, trans, and gender variant individuals in the crosshairs of all types of violence. While women are targets of violence, they’re also crucial for maintaining the health, safety, and stability of their families and communities. To bring down structures of power within a society, one must decimate those who are vital in holding up the society. This tactic is summed up by a genocidal Rwandan Bahutu elite, who explicitly encouraged the  slaughter of Batutsi women and children, “To get to the big rats, you have to kill the small ones first.” This negates the common myth that gender isn’t part and parcel of the “processes and events” of warfare, including sanctions. 

Supporters of “smart” sanctions say the intent is to target certain groups or individuals, but it’s the masses who suffer. Sanctions strike crushing blows to vital infrastructure; schools are shuttered because teachers cannot be paid, and hospitals close because they lack medicines and medical equipment. Fuel, safe food, potable water, and hygiene are difficult to maintain. Resources trickle down during times of scarcity causing women, queer, trans, gender variant individuals, elders, individuals with disabilities, and children to have less access to vital necessities, especially if they’re poor. Malnutrition is severe and medical treatments are nonexistent to people in these classes of society.

Patriarchy and other structural power-based relationships prevent women from having needed access to healthcare, especially reproductive healthcare. During conflicts and economic instability, women die due to higher rates of self-induced, clandestine abortions. Maternal and infant mortality rates are higher than the mortality rates of men. The breakdown of infrastructure also causes breakdowns in the social order, and women, queer, trans, gender variant individuals, and children are victims of increased patriarchal violence. These groups are robbed of their agency over their own bodies, and there’s a spike in domestic violence, rape, sex-trafficking, and murder by men. 

Women are less able to migrate to areas where there’s greater access to economic support, food, and medical care. Men relocate miles away, even to other countries to earn money, and their families and communities rely on them as their primary financial support. However, lifesaving remittances are prevented from getting to their intended destinations because international financial institutions are prohibited from transacting with sanctioned countries.

Imperialists use sanctions to force its targets to subject to their will. No matter when or where they are used, the consequences have consistently been the same—violence. Still, it’s important to highlight specific examples of how sanctions torture and kill women and children in countries, such as Cuba, Zimbabwe, and Venezuela.

Cuba

End the illegal US Blockade on Cuba!

The racist and unilateral U.S. response to the Cuban People liberating their land and resources, was to enact the Trading with the Enemy Act. This act not only prevents anyone in the U.S. from trading with Cubans, it exacts stiff punishments on foreign countries and companies who provide financial subsidies, loans, or trade with Cuba. These barbaric blockades have been in effect for 60 years, and women, children, elders, and people with chronic disease suffer the most.

The blockades cut access to medicines, and prohibit sales of even vital medical equipment and parts if they contain 20% or more of parts made by U.S. manufacturers. Sanctions render hundreds of lifesaving medical devices unusable in Cuban hospitals, such as  incubators, respirators, and dialysis machines. Cuba’s breast cancer screening program cannot access safe x-ray film for comprehensive mammography screenings because it’s made by the Kodak company. As a result, women are exposed to dangerously high radiation levels. An investigation by the American Association for World Health (AAWH) determines that the sanctions directly cause malnourishment of women and children.

The AAWH notes that the Cuban government was able to avert a humanitarian catastrophe by committing a high level of budgetary spending toward its healthcare system on primary and preventive healthcare programs.

Zimbabwe

Sanctions have been officially waged against at least 18 African countries, including Zimbabwe. They’re intended to keep the Continent locked in an imperial stranglehold by intentionally harming the most vulnerable and oppressed, especially women and children.

Before winning independence, Africans in colonial Rhodesia, were forced into a state of starvation, disease, and illiteracy. In the 1980s, the newly elected Zimbabwean government focused on the health and education of its People. The government started tuition-free education programs throughout the country. The government also established free healthcare programs and rural communally run Village Health Worker Programs. These programs concentrated on mass immunization of children; antenatal and postnatal care; nutrition; and reproductive health of women, including contraceptives. These programs decreased the mortality rates of women, infants, and children, which were high prior to independence. 

In the 1980s Southern Africa was ground zero for the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and Zimbabwe launched an intensive public health response. Women have a higher risk of contracting the virus through rape and the expectation to have unprotected sex. Infants have a higher risk of contracting the virus through their mothers’ breast milk. Sanctions are supposed to exempt food and medicine from being blocked, but many medicines, including newly developed HIV/AIDS medicines, are prevented from being shipped to Zimbabwe because they are manufactured by U.S. drug companies.

The sanctions don’t prevent donations for education and healthcare from coming in through unofficial channels in Zimbabwe. Foreign donations come from “shadow” organizations who seek to undermine the current structure of government institutions. Shadow donors create parallel schools designed for counter-revolutionary political indoctrination, and they establish health clinics to supplant the national healthcare system. It’s no coincidence that the foreign donations to these parallel systems come from the same countries who imposed the embargos. 

Despite sanctions on foreign aid for government education and health programs, especially programs for HIV/AIDS, Zimbabwe is one of the most successful countries in Africa in reducing new HIV/AIDs infections. And with a 90% literacy rate, Zimbabwe continues to be one of the most educated countries in the world. These are examples of how the resilience and resistance of the Zimbabwean People is stronger than the brute forces of imperialism!

Venezuela

The 2017 sanctions against Venezuela caused over 100,000 preventable deaths. Doctors across Venezuela report that hospitals are constantly overrun with severely malnourished children. This was rare prior to the sanctions but now starving children are dying in the streets. Malnourished women are unable to nurse and their infants and babies are dying because baby formula is hard to find. As one doctor laments, “Sometimes they die in your arms just from dehydration.” Severe stunting of children is now commonplace and doctors report “young children arrive with the same weight and height of a newborn.” Women are waiting in long lines to undergo voluntary sterilization, rather than helplessly watch their children die protracted, agonizingly painful deaths.

Venezuela needs to trade oil and other resources on the global markets to support the material needs of the Venezuelan People. But imperialists seek to undermine the state’s successful socialist projects by replacing them with austerity programs. The imperialist backed Venezuelan opposition uses sanctions as a way to promote patriarchal and racist austerity programs. They argue that the elimination of important government institutions like the ministries of Indigenous Peoples, Women and Gender Affairs would “restore economic stability.”

Even Venezuelans, critical of President Maduro, including within political opposition parties, understand that his leadership is not the cause of their suffering. They know that the U.S. is the cause of their suffering. The People are not fooled and remain defiant in the face of the attempted U.S. capitalist takeover of Venezuela’s vast oil reserves and other resources.

Conclusion

Despite the “official” statements to the contrary, civilians have always been the primary targets of western, imperial warfare. Some studies suggest that since the 1990s, up to 90% of casualties in war are civilians, as opposed to actual fighting forces. Economic sanctions continue to be the most common imperialist warfare tactic used against colonized Peoples, particularly when colonized nations demonstrate the slightest resistance to the imperial “spheres of influence” and exercise their own sovereignty. Although colonized People experience suffering and death because of sanctions and other imperialist warfare tactics, they continue to remain strong in the face of struggle. 

Resistance is seen among brave nations who, undeterred by U.S. threats and intimidation, continue to trade and interact with sanctioned nations. Resistance is seen among those struggling to create a payment system independent of the US dollar. Resistance is heard in the chants of mass demonstrators, where people by the thousands demand lifting sanctions. Resistance is seen among groups representing peace, justice, climate activists, indigenous peoples, women, youth, anti-imperialists, uniting to reject sanctions. Resistance is found in independent media outlets that tell readers and listeners the truth, defying the lies perpetrated by the corporate, capitalist media.

The All African People’s Revolutionary Party uncompromisingly condemns sanctions, blockades, and all forms of imperialist oppression against the people. We reject all forms of genocidal, economic warfare which target civilian populations and the resultant deaths and displacement.

We reject lies and slander as a pretext to invade, overthrow, destabilize, and destroy progressive nations, leaving them impoverished. We demand lifting unjust economic, commercial and financial sanctions and blockades. We demand that the USA abide by the numerous UN Resolutions, calling to end the illegal blockade against Cuba. But we must do more! 

Join us in defending the sovereignty of nations and their right to live in peaceful coexistence with the rest of the world. As African people, we must organize for Pan-Africanism, which will bring about a totally liberated, unified, and socialist Africa, completely independent of external interference and domination. Deprived of the wealth from Africa’s stolen resources and exploited labor, United States economic dominance will crumble, creating the framework for freedom and justice among all nations and all peoples of the world.