By Contributor Sam Husemann

Nicolás Maduro is a horrible leader of Venezuela. Among other things, he abused human rights and fiercely attacked the freedom of the press. He even won a second term in 2018 in an election that many impartial election observers, including the United States, deem fraudulent. Most countries around the world don’t even recognize him as the rightful leader of Venezuela; due to the illegitimacy of his ‘reelection,’ 57 countries currently recognize Juan Guaidó as the acting president. In an attempt to punish Maduro for the atrocities committed and allowed by his government, the United States has implemented more and more sanctions against the country. Unfortunately, what the situation in Venezuela demonstrates is that like most sanctions, they are well intended, yet their true cost is paid by the people. 

The sanctions are having such a malicious effect against the Venezuelan public that a former UN rapporteur has said that they could possibly count as “crimes against humanity.” So then why are sanctions so widely used? Nicholas Mulder, a Postdoctoral Associate in the Department of History at Cornell, explains that sanctions were devised as “a new way to exert pressure that would replace armed conflict” after the first World War. The core idea behind sanctions, according to Mulder, was that sanctions promoted peace, and thus were a better way of forcing change than bombs or battleships. 

This idea is fundamentally flawed. Economic sanctions campaigns, especially those launched by the west, “can crush humanity as viciously as a bombing campaign,” according to Branko Marcetic. How? By cutting off access to critical materials. This is, in practice, a repurposed medieval siege tactic.  

One of the biggest ways that sanctions harm the public is through medicine. Currently, more than 300,000 people are at risk because they can’t reach medicines or treatment due to the sanctions against Venezuela, with almost 40,000 people dead as a result. This includes people with cancer, with HIV, people who need dialysis, all being denied access to medicines they need as a direct result of sanctions. These are the people who are being hurt by the embargo, not Maduro or the intended targets. 

The sanctions also hurt Venezuelans by limiting their access to the most crucial of materials: water. About 15 to 20 percent of Venezuelans currently lack potable water access within their homes because “the government cannot acquire new foreign-built parts to fix broken pumps and pipes.” Meanwhile, Maduro is gobbling expensive steaks and smoking pricey cigars. This plainly shows that the people, not Maduro, are paying the price.

If Maduro were the one feeling the pressure of the sanctions, wouldn’t he have folded by now? However, like what happens with most economic sanctions, the intended result is rarely achieved. So then, what is the rationale for sanctions? It can be somewhat assumed that they are well-intended, but that’s one of their only pros. Otherwise, they don’t tend to impact the intended targets, but rather the population in general. They also have a thin track record of results. From all of this, it is clear that the crisis in Venezuela, far from being a rare incident of sanctions not achieving their intended results, actually fits very well with the trend – that of failure. 

So what do we do? Recent presidents have gotten more and more trigger-happy with economic sanctions—just look at President Trump with Iran

But the power of sanctions, I argue, does not lie with the President. Article III, Section 8 of the US Constitution gives the power to “to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations” to Congress, not the President. Based on the massive rise in sanctions use (with not much to show for it), Congress should step in and mandate that all sanctions be time-limited and subject to a congressional vote of approval for the long-term. This would limit the exploding rise in sanctions and allow Congress to flex more of its power over the Executive. 

Would this proposal fix the global escalation in sanctions or the situation in Venezuela? No, but it would mitigate it, and hopefully lead to other countries following our lead. We cannot bring back the 40,000 lives lost in Venezuela, nor the 576,000 children who died in Iraq due to sanctions in the 1990s. But there still is hope for the future.