Venezuelan security forces arrested dozens of protesters on Wednesday after the country’s moderate opposition coalition decided to break off negotiations with the government, the Associated Press reports.
National Guardsmen fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the protest and hauled away some high school students in handcuffs. The suspended talks were aimed at ending protests against President Nicolas Maduro that have led to more than 40 deaths.
Critics say the Obama administration’s recent statements about Venezuela have confused the opposition, widening the rift between moderate leaders negotiating with the government and more hardline students that have led the protests:
Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, testified last week in the Senate that some members of Venezuela’s opposition are urging the White House to keep on ice a proposal to ban visas and seize the assets of Venezuelan officials who’ve committed human rights abuses during the past three months of unrest. Legislation to that end last week cleared a House committee with bipartisan support.
In a fiery exchange with Florida Republican Marco Rubio, Jacobson said the restraint is needed so as not to endanger the outcome of the talks and that opposition politicians at the negotiating table had explicitly asked the State Department for more time before imposing any sanctions.
On Wednesday, Jacobson retracted her comment, telling reporters in Washington that she misspoke and that nobody participating in the dialogue had made such a request.
But her comments became a political hot potato for the opposition, with Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, the mild-spoken head of the Democratic Unity alliance, denying any such plea was made. Meanwhile, students and hardliners boycotting the talks seized on Jacobson’s comments, and Aveledo’s failure to call for sanctions, as proof of betrayal.
The failure of the talks so far has prompted some U.S. lawmakers to renew their calls for sanctions against individual government officials involved in human rights abuses in Venezuela. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) have filed legislation in the House and Senate that would direct the administration to impose sanctions.