Venezuelan troops escalated their repression of protesters over the weekend as U.S. lawmakers continued to call for sanctions against government officials.
Venezuela’s National Guard evicted hundreds of demonstrators from a square in east Caracas on Sunday by firing tear gas and water cannons into the crowds. Venezuelan youth had held the plaza for more than a month to protest rampant crime and food shortages, which they blame on President Nicolas Maduro’s inept rule.
At least 28 people have died in the protests, and more than 100 remain behind bars. Opposition politicians attempting to visit imprisoned protest leader Leopoldo Lopez were reportedly beaten by armed forces outside of the military facility where he is held.
Maduro has said the protesters have been "infiltrated by violent fascist groups" but insists he is willing to engage in a dialogue with them. Most of the protesters are peaceful and have declined to attend Maduro’s "peace conferences" until he stops using force against them.
Jose Cardenas, former National Security Council staffer in the George W. Bush administration and an expert on Latin America, said in an interview that the "roots" of the crisis are Maduro’s economic mismanagement and monopoly on power.
"This is a country that by most measures is sitting on the largest amount of proven oil reserves in the world, and you can’t buy toilet paper," he said.
"When you go from there you see that the government’s systematic suppression of debate and alternative viewpoints has left 50 percent of the Venezuelan people with no outlet but to protest in the street," he added.
Maduro narrowly won elections last April to replace former longtime strongman Hugo Chavez.
U.S. lawmakers in both the House and the Senate have introduced bipartisan legislation that compels President Barack Obama to impose targeted sanctions against Venezuelan officials involved in human rights abuses, including bans on U.S. visas, property, and financial transactions. The Senate bill additionally authorizes $15 million in new funds for civil society activists and independent journalists in Venezuela.
Secretary of State John Kerry has said Maduro must "end this terror campaign against his own people" but has not stated whether the Obama administration would support sanctions.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.) told the Washington Free Beacon in a recent interview that "the Venezuelan people are no less deserving of their human rights than the people of Ukraine." Obama on Monday announced sanctions against seven Russian officials implicated in the Kremlin’s invasion of Crimea in southeastern Ukraine.
Wealthy elites with ties to Maduro’s government—as well as government officials themselves—are known to frequent South Florida’s beaches on the weekend and purchase lavish U.S. mansions.
Analysts say Maduro faces long-term problems even if he can outlast the current protests.
While Venezuelan officials recently announced an easing of currency regulations that have limited the flow of dollars used to buy imports, the move might not go far enough. The currency controls have fueled annual inflation of 57 percent and shortages of more than one in four basic goods.
Oil production and exports have also declined in recent years due to corruption and a lack of investment, Cardenas said.
"The only thing the government can accomplish with its heavy-handed measures is a deceptive peace that will last until the next flashpoint," he said.
Cardenas added that some nationalist members of Venezuela’s armed forces oppose Maduro’s close ties to Cuba. Cuba’s communist government reportedly sends thousands of security officials to advise Maduro’s government in exchange for about $5 billion annually in oil exports.
"The idea that Cuba would have such an integral role in stage-managing the actions of the government is very offensive to them," Cardenas said. "There are many in the military who will not accept an escalation of violence against the people."