GOP Senators to Venezuelan Generals: ‘You Have a Decision to Make’

Some lawmakers press Trump admin to re-designate Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, lift Helms-Burton waivers

Sens Marco Rubio and Rick Scott / Getty Images

Key Republicans on Capitol Hill are warning the Maduro government in Venezuela, as well as Cuba, that they could be officially designated as state sponsors of terrorism, a status that carries the harshest of U.S. sanctions.

The Trump administration—at the same lawmakers' urging—is also weighing new sanctions on Cuban generals and other officials, as well an even harsher action: ending a waiver, known as Title III of the Helms-Burton Act, which has been in effect since 1996, according to several government officials.

Just days ago, the Trump administration imposed broad sanctions against Venezuela's state-owned oil company, aiming to strike a crippling blow against Maduro's hold on power.

Ending the Helms-Burton waiver would allow U.S. citizens to sue individuals and companies in U.S. courts for the use of property seized by the Cuban government during the communist revolution in 1953.

It would freeze billions of dollars in foreign investment in Cuba, including imposing serious penalties on America Airlines, Carnival Cruise Line, and Marriott—all U.S. companies that expanded operations in Cuba during the Obama-era rapprochement with Havana.

With reports that Cuban intelligence officers are monitoring Venezuelan military leaders to prevent them from jumping ship and backing the opposition government, Florida's senators are urging the U.S. government to consider the harshest penalties in its arsenal.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) Wednesday afternoon said that the U.S. government is considering all of its options to penalize Maduro's government and Havana's support for it.

"The designation of State Sponsor of Terror is not a designation of a country. It's a designation of a government," Rubio told reporters when asked if Venezuela and Cuba should be placed on the list. "The government of Venezuela is the government of [opposition leader] Juan Guaido—they're not terrorists."

"Maduro's criminal organization, because it is akin to a mafia family, they are terrorists, and I would say any nation that is supporting the terrorist organization known as the Maduro crime family, should be concerned."

More broadly, Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) warned of new sanctions focused specially on Venezuelan army generals and their personal finances.

Florida's senators, Cruz, and the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee spoke to reporters after meeting with officials of the Venezuelan opposition, including Venezuelan Charge d'affaires Carlos Vecchio, Julio Borges, who is the opposition's ambassador to the Lima Group, and Tarre Briceno, who is the opposition's special representative to the Organization of American States.

"A number of us are focused in particular on the army generals," Cruz said. "There are some 3,000 generals in Venezuela and each one of them has a choice to make. And it is a choice that will be consequential not just for Venezuela but for the lives and futures of those particular generals."

"When it comes to sanctions, every general who choose to ally with an illegitimate dictator against the constitution and rule of law, every one of those generals risks sanctions on his or her financial resources, assets, and that's a decision with great consequences."

The Obama administration, as part of its detente with Cuba in 2015, removed the island nation from the official State Department-compiled list of countries that sponsor terror, one of Cuba's requirements for agreeing to reestablish diplomatic relations.

Only Iran, Syria, North Korea, and Sudan are currently designated as state sponsors of terror. Placing Cuba back on the list would punish any U.S. company doing business there.

Designating Venezuela as a State Sponsor of Terror (SST) could impact U.S. business to an even greater degree because Venezuela boasts one of the largest oil reserves in the world, and many U.S. oil and gas companies have at least some Venezuelan business connections.

It's not clear if the threat of a new sanction would be enough to force a change by the government in Cuba, where the economy has largely depended on oil subsidies from Venezuela. Even as the economic and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela has grown more desperate, Maduro has continued to shore up support from Cuba by selling it foreign oil at below-market prices.
Republicans are not united on just how fare to go with the sanctions. Lawmakers from states such as Louisiana and Texas, where the oil industry is a major part of the economy, have privately expressed concern about the impact of Trump administration's oil-targeted sanctions against Venezuela. They are more wary of imposing even stiffer penalties on that sector, which the Florida senators in recent weeks have said they support, but are now tempering their statements.

While praising President Trump's decision to recognize Guaido as the legitimate president of Venezuela, Sen. Rick Scott (R., Fla.) also urged the administration to take additional punitive actions.

"I went to the White House yesterday and talked to the president about what to do in Venezuela," Scott said last week. "Maduro is clearly a terrorist. We need to declare Venezuela a terrorist state. It clearly is."

A week later, Scott did not continue pressing the issue. Instead he pointed to the Helms-Burton Act as a way to try to break Cuba's efforts to shore up the Venezuelan military's support for Maduro.

"We need to start fully enforcing [the Helms-Burton Act] so Cuba understands that we are going to finally stand up to the oppression, not only what happens to Cubans, what's happened to Venezuelans but so citizens of this country can go after citizens and companies that are trafficking in stolen goods," Scott told the Washington Free Beacon.

Pressed further on whether we should be willing to punish American Airlines and Carnival cruises for doing business in Cuba, Scott said: "We need to do everything we can to hold people accountable."

Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) also expressed an openness to imposing Article III of the Helms-Burton Act on Cuba.

"That is one of the many tools," Cruz told reporters. "A mainstay of Maduro's power has been Cuba, and the corruption and the oppression emanating from the Cuban government and propping Maduro up. Helms-Burton is a powerful tool for reining in the Cuban government's assault on the Venezuelan people."

Others, however, are reluctant to endorse punitive actions that would inevitably have a ripple effect on U.S. companies, especially those in the oil business.

Sen. James Risch (R., Idaho), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, declined to comment on whether he believed the U.S. should slap Cuba with SST status in response to its support for the Maduro government.

"That is an issue that is still up in the air," he said Wednesday. "I don't want to comment on things like that. They could happen, but I don't want to comment on it."

With respect to listing Venezuela, Risch said "right now, that isn't an appropriate point. All these things are up in the air, these things are fluid."

"We have an ongoing relationship with the new government of Cuba, and we will continue to support the Venezuelan people."