Twenty-one members of Congress last week called for lifting US sanctions on Cuba and Venezuela, including most of the Squad. The pushback is needed: sanctions are a cruel economic weapon that hurts average people — and has spurred a surge of economic refugees.
One of the defining features of our era has been the loss of a domestic political appetite for more US wars. But a similar pushback to Washington’s use of sanctions has been slow to follow, despite the fact that US sanctions are demonstrably cruel, indiscriminate, ineffective, and often illegal.
The near-term prospects for a groundswell of US opposition to sanctions are basically nonexistent at this point. But we may be seeing the beginnings of one taking shape: last week saw twenty-one House Democrats send Joe Biden a letter calling on the president to end US sanctions on Cuba and Venezuela and review Donald Trump–era sanctions policy more generally, in light of the “border crisis,” which has seen a surge in migrants at the southern border (though one that is lower than expected) since the expiration of the Donald Trump–era Title 42 order.
Calling the sanctions “a critical contributing factor in the current increase in migration,” the letter points to “their grave humanitarian toll on the peoples of those countries” and the “significant logistical challenges” it is creating for US authorities. But the letter also stresses that “there are also strong moral grounds” to lift the sanctions and that US policy should seek to not “exacerbate the suffering of the innocent people whose freedom we seek to advance.”
Organized by two representatives of border states, Reps. Veronica Escobar (D-TX) and Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) — a cochair of Biden’s 2024 campaign and Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-VT) very first congressional endorser, respectively — the letter was cosigned by a number of progressive elected officials, including Reps. Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Chuy García (D-IL), and six of the newly expanded “Squad” of progressive and socialist members of Congress.
The signatures of Squad members Ilhan Omar, Summer Lee, and Ayanna Pressley were missing from the letter. Massachusetts representative Jim McGovern, who has repeatedly called on Biden to lift sanctions against Venezuela in the past, also didn’t sign the letter, and his Northampton office was met by protests from the Anti-Imperialism Action Committee, an anti-capitalist activist collective based in Western Massachusetts, and other activists as a result.
Some of the progressive signatories have taken this message to other platforms. At a May 11 House Agriculture Committee meeting, Rep. Greg Casar (D-TX) — one of the newly minted Squad members who won his seat in these past midterms — spoke about the failure of the decades-long US blockade on Cuba in fostering democracy and called for “revisiting our policies that push people out of their home countries,” emphasizing the economic costs to the US economy that result.
“I don’t think that it serves us to be starving people abroad,” he said. “I think it helps Americans for us to be feeding people all over the world.”
Khanna similarly took this message to a venue where viewers are unlikely to have heard criticism of Biden’s continuation of Trump–era sanctions policy: MSNBC, on the Morning Joe show.
“Look at what’s causing people to flee Venezuela and Cuba,” he urged. “The Republicans are saying, ‘let’s sanction them more.’ That’s causing more people to actually leave. Let’s look at rational sanction policy so we’re not causing the influx.”
Progressive criticism of sanctions against Cuba and Venezuela — both of which are explicitly aimed at fomenting regime change in the countries — have been backed up by Ben Rhodes, a foreign policy advisor for former president Barack Obama.
“This is an obvious thing that is sitting right in front of the Biden administration, to just go back to the kind of openness that we had at the end of the Obama years [and] make life better for the Cuban people,” he said in a recent MSNBC appearance, warning that the political cost for Biden stemming from events at the border would be worse than for lifting Trump’s “maximum pressure” sanctions.
This course has also been endorsed by leftist Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who said he had personally urged Biden to attack the root causes of migration to the US southern border, namely the “poverty and abandonment” endemic to those countries — and which US sanctions have unquestionably played a major role in causing. This comes a month after the US envoy of the Venezuelan opposition itself, which only a year ago was demanding that Biden not waver on Trump’s policy, implored the administration to end the sanctions, lest it turn Venezuela into “another Cuba.”
Despite this diverse chorus of voices pushing for sanctions to be lifted, it’s also running into a wall. That’s because, according to the Washington Post, the Biden administration is worried about alienating Cuban-American Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who wrote a counterletter claiming, as all sanctions enthusiasts do, that the policy has nothing to do with the exodus of people from both countries.
Menendez is a hard-line supporter of Trump’s sanctions policy, and is currently under federal investigation eight years after already once being indicted on separate bribery charges. When he finds time away from potential criminal prosecution, Menendez is a full-time hawk who teams up with neocon Lindsey Graham to push legislation undermining peaceful coexistence with China and Iran. Since it relies on him to push through appointments blocked by the GOP and to pursue its wider geostrategic goals, the administration has tended to give Menendez enormous leeway in driving its own foreign policy decision-making, something that likely won’t change anytime soon.
Still, the fact that there’s any disquiet being heard at all in Washington toward the ruinous and largely pointless US overuse of sanctions — a weapon that the Biden administration has used with record frequency — is an important development. Political shifts in the halls of Congress don’t happen overnight and are usually the fruit of months and years of small, symbolic measures like this letter, adding up bit by bit to slowly shift what’s politically acceptable. This progressive challenge to a president — one who’s otherwise enjoying near-dictatorial levels of obeisance from fellow elected Democrats — is a first step, and one that couldn’t have happened without the election of progressive insurgents to Congress.
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