April 19, 2024
Photo: Venezuelans lining up for drinking water in Caracas (2019).








By: Mariah Abdel-Aziz

At the Centrestage:

The sanctions imposed by the United States, European Union as well as other countries, have sparked economic, humanitarian and development crises, devastating the entire population, especially those living in extreme poverty, women, medical workers, individuals with life-threatening diseases and indigenous peoples.

“The devastating effect of sanctions imposed is multiplied by extra-territoriality and over-compliance adversely affecting public and private sectors, Venezuela citizens, non-governmental organizations, third country national and companies”, said Alena Douhan, Special Rapporteur on unilateral coercive measures and human rights.


Decoding in detail:

During the crisis in Venezuela, many major world powers have implemented coercive measures against Venezuela and have applied individual sanctions against people associated with the administration of Nicolás Maduro. The sanctions were in response to repression during the 2014 and 2017 Venezuelan protests and the activities during 2017 Venezuelan Constituent Assembly election and then the 2018 Venezuelan presidential election.

Sanctions were placed on current and former government officials, including members of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ) and the 2017 Constituent National Assembly (ANC), members of the military and security forces, and private individuals accused of being involved in human rights abuses, corruption, degradation in the rule of law and repression of democracy.

UN Special Rapporteur to Venezuela, Alena Douhan, reported “a 99% decline in government revenue compared to pre-sanction levels which has led to a near-complete breakdown of public services due to insufficient funding”( Harding, 2021).

Douhan also stated, “Before the Blockade, Venezuela was spending 76% of its oil revenues on social programs. Now it can’t even invest 1% of that.” Douhan argued that sanctions on the economic activity directly impede the government’s ability to guarantee the human rights of its population, which has had a “devastating impact on the whole population of Venezuela” (Harding, 2021).

On the other hand, the U.S. claimed that it has sanctioned people, businesses, and oil entities associated with the former Maduro regime, both inside and outside of Venezuela (Kirschner, 2021). Since 2017, U.S. sanctions are designed to ensure that Maduro and his cronies do not profit from illegal gold mining, state-operated oil operations, or other business transactions that would enable the regime’s criminal activity and human rights abuses.

For example, the oil sanctions are designed to “to cut off those sources of financial income and prevent the oil industry from being exploited for patronage” as State Department’s Carrie Filipetti told a U.S. Senate committee in 2020. Many economists argue that U.S. sanctions are not responsible for the Venezuelan economy’s decline. According to the Brookings Institution and Harvard University study, “when analyzing several socioeconomic outcomes in Venezuela across time, it becomes clear that the bulk of the deterioration in living standards occurred long before the sanctions were enacted in 2017” (Kirschner, 2021).

Moreover, it also claimed that while the U.S. government imposes sanctions on pro-Maduro people and businesses, it does not decrease the amount of aid that the U.S. contributes to Venezuela. The U.S. government provided over $656 million in lifesaving aid to the Venezuelan people between 2017 and 2019. While the U.S. government has placed sanctions on people and organizations, the sanctions need not be permanent for those who want to contribute to Venezuela’s democratic future”, explained the State Department’s Elliott Abrams in 2020. Nevertheless, “others who continue to profit from or support Maduro should take warning” (Kirschner, 2021).

However, Ms. Douhan stressed that unilateral measures are only legal if they are authorized by the Security Council, used as countermeasures, or do not breach any obligation of States and do not violate fundamental human rights. She also pointed out that “humanitarian exemptions are lengthy, costly, ineffective, and inefficient” (UN News, 2021).

Services are further strained by rising poverty levels and a workforce depleted due to the dramatic reduction in public sector salaries from US$150-500 in 2015 to US$1-10 in 2020. This has led to a crisis of human rights in the country (Harding, 2021). Among the human rights compromised are:

  • The right to food—over 50% of food consumption has been impacted by sanctions on imports which has led to over 1/3 of its population becoming acutely food insecure;
  • The right to water—water services have been severely disrupted by staff shortages and lack of equipment, and the average household now has just a few hours of running water once or twice a week;
  • The right to education—a severe decrease in government funding has resulted in a lack of necessary supplies and school meals, endangering the right to education and is worsened by electricity and internet shortages; and
  • The right to health—quality and availability of healthcare services has deteriorated amidst extreme staff shortages and absence of essential supplies and equipment. Maternal and infant mortality rates have risen as well as mortality rates from severe diseases.


  • Chronology of the US sanctions on Venezuela


For over a decade, the US government has enacted sanctions against Venezuelan individuals linked to terrorism, drug trafficking, and other criminal activities.

2014: The US Congress passed the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act, which required the president to impose sanctions on officials who repressed the February 2014 student-led protests across Venezuela.


2015: President Barack Obama issued an executive order (E.O. 13692) implementing the 2014 act by freezing assets and revoking the visas of seven Venezuelan officials: six members of the Venezuelan security forces and a prosecutor.

  • The E.O. targets (for asset blocking and visa restrictions) those involved in actions or policies undermining democratic processes or institutions; serious human rights abuses; prohibiting, limiting, or penalizing freedom of expression or peaceful assembly; and public corruption. It includes any person who is a current or former leader of any entity engaged in any of those activities, as well as current or former government officials.
  • In July 2015, the US Treasury Department codified the Venezuela sanctions into the Code of Federal Regulations (31 C.F.R. Part 591).

2016: The US Congress extended the 2014 act through 2019 in the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Extension Act of 2016.

2017: The US Treasury Department added eight names to the list of sanctioned Venezuelan officials: the president of the Supreme Court and seven justices in May 2017.

  • In August 2017, President Donald Trump issued an executive order prohibiting US citizens, companies, and anyone financially related to this nation from purchasing or trading new Venezuelan government debt with a certain maturity, including the state-owned oil company PDVSA bonds.

2018: Trump signed another executive order prohibiting transactions involving the petro, a Venezuelan state-backed digital currency Maduro launched in 2018 to circumvent international financial sanctions.

  • In May 2018, the day after Maduro’s illegitimate reelection, a new executive order effectively cut off the Venezuelan government, including PDVSA, from any kind of debt financing, limiting the Maduro regime’s ability to raise funds.


  • In September 2018, The US government extended sanctions to key Maduro loyalists, including his wife Cilia Flores, Vice President Delcy Rodríguez, Defense Minister Padrino López, and Communications Minister Jorge Rodríguez. In addition, it froze assets and sanctioned individuals linked to ruling-party chieftain Diosdado Cabello.


  • In November 2018, President Trump issued an executive order that allows the asset blocking of, and banning certain transactions with, any person operating in the Venezuelan gold sector or linked to government corruption.


2019: The United States sanctioned, in January 2019, several individuals and firms involved in a corruption scheme to profit from Venezuela’s currency controls, including a TV executive. Another Trump executive order extended sanctions against PDVSA, freezing its assets in the United States and banning US persons from trading with it.

  • In March 2019, Venezuela’s state mining company joined the list of US sanctions. In addition, the US State Department released a statement warning oil traders against Venezuela purchases: ”You should not be buying oil from this regime… we have a wide broad net with sanctions… be careful not to get caught in that net by activities you may think don’t come into it but actually are caught by it.”


  • In April 2019, the US Treasury froze the assets of firms that traded Venezuelan oil for Cuba, of shipping companies with Venezuela ties, and of the country’s central bank. The Office of Foreign Assets Control” identified nine vessels, some of which transported oil from Venezuela to Cuba, as blocked property owned by the four companies.”


  • In May 2019, after a failed uprising against Maduro, the Treasury Department lifted sanctions on a former general who had defected from the regime. It also designated two shipping companies and two ships as targets for transporting Venezuelan oil to Cuba.


2020: On February 18, 2020, Treasury imposed sanctions on Rosneft Trading S.A., a Geneva-based subsidiary of Russia’s Rosneft oil company, and its owner for helping the Maduro government skirt U.S. oil sanctions. Rosneft Trading has handled some 70% of PdVSA’s recent oil shipments, according to U.S. officials. This move has ratcheted up U.S. tensions with Russia over Venezuela; it could portend future secondary sanctions on other energy companies.


Venezuela was once the largest economic power in Latin America but now finds itself in a dire situation amid consistent economic decline since 2014. This has been exacerbated by sanctions on core industries of oil, gold, and manufacturing and the freezing of Central Bank assets.


Lack of electricity, water, fuel, food and medicine along with the departure of qualified workers – many of whom have left the country for better economic opportunities – are having “enormous impact over all categories of human rights, including the rights to life, to food, to health and to development”, the UN expert highlighted.

“The sanctions are extremely broad and fail to contain sufficient measures to mitigate their impact on the most vulnerable sectors of the population,” the UN human rights commissioner said in a statement (BBC News, 2019).

As Douhan called on the sanction-imposing countries to observe the principles and norms of international law and reminded them that humanitarian concerns should always be taken into account with due respect to mutual respect, solidarity, cooperation and multilateralism (UN News, 2021).



Gómez, P (June 3, 2019):” A Timeline of US Sanctions on the Venezuelan Regime” Econamericas. Retrieved from: https://econamericas.com/2019/06/us-sanctions-venezuela/

CRS Reports, (July 5, 2019): “Venezuela: Overview of U.S. Sanctions”. Congressional Research Service Reports Congress Gov. Retrieved from:https://www.everycrsreport.com/files/2019-07-05_IF10715_128da6d6f28985f7ae799181656d53cd8ba46ba5.pdf

BBC News, (August 9, 2019): “US sanctions may worsen Venezuela suffering, says UN rights chief”. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-49287899

CRS Reports, (February 21, 2020): “Venezuela: Overview of U.S. Sanctions”. Congressional Research Service Reports Congress Gov. Retrieved from:            https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/IF/IF10715/29

Kirschner, N.  (Feb 11, 2021): “U.S. sanctions on Venezuela explained” ShareAmerica.gov. Retrieved by: https://share.america.gov/u-s-sanctions-venezuela-explained/

UN News, (February 12, 2021): “Independent UN rights expert calls for unilateral sanctions to be dropped against Venezuela” United Nations. Retrieved from: https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/02/1084642

Harding, M (March 9, 2021):” Humanitarian Impact Of Sanctions On Venezuela” Human Rights Plus. Retrieved from: https://www.humanrightspulse.com/mastercontentblog/humanitarian-impact-of-sanctions-on-venezuela