Lawmakers are pressuring President Barack Obama to impose sanctions against Venezuelan officials involved in an ongoing crackdown against protesters in the socialist state.
At least 17 people have died, more than 250 have been injured, and 55 remain behind bars following protests this month against the rule of President Nicolas Maduro. Opposition leaders say the protesters were killed by intelligence agents, police, and government-affiliated militias known as "colectivos."
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Sens. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), Bob Menendez (D., N.J.), and Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) introduced a resolution on Thursday that urged Obama to impose targeted sanctions such as visa bans and asset freezes on Venezuelan individuals accused of human rights abuses.
"With the Venezuelan people struggling and sacrificing for freedom, liberty, and human rights, they deserve to have their voices be heard, and they deserve the world’s leading defender of human rights to be on their side," Rubio said in a statement.
The House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere also marked up a resolution on Friday that expresses solidarity with the protesters and calls on the State Department to work with members of the Organization of American States (OAS) in the region to end the violence.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.) said in a statement on Friday that she would introduce a bill next week codifying visa and asset bans on Venezuelan officials.
Roger Noriega, former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs in the George W. Bush administration, said Americans "should certainly be concerned about the repression in Venezuela because they’re paying for it." He said oil-rich Venezuela collects about $70 million a day in exports to the United States.
Noriega also called on the Obama administration to ramp up its pressure on Venezuela’s political, military, and economic elite with U.S. assets.
Wealthy Venezuelan elites with government ties known as "Boligarchs"—named after former President Hugo Chavez’s "Bolivarian Revolution" and his affinity for 19th century Latin American liberation hero Simon Bolivar—are known to frequent South Florida’s beaches on the weekend and purchase lavish U.S. mansions.
"Right now you need that regime back on its heels, quite frankly, lest it become comfortable with just being able to kill people with impunity," Noriega said. "Those kinds of executive sanctions could be applied with the stroke of a pen, as the president is fond of saying."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in remarks on Friday that it was "not inappropriate" for lawmakers to debate sanctions but did not directly endorse them.
"It seems to me that what has to happen now is for Venezuelan leadership to deal with their own people," he said. "They need to reach out and have a dialogue and bring people together and resolve their problems."
The White House did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
Human rights activists say the situation in Venezuela has deteriorated in recent weeks as the opposition protests rampant crime, annual inflation of more than 56 percent, and severe shortages of basic goods such as flour and toilet paper.
Former world boxing champion Antonio Cermeno was kidnapped and killed this week in Venezuela, where the homicide rate has quadrupled in the past 15 years. Blogs report violent beatings of demonstrators, such as the outspoken Catholic priest Jose Palmar.
Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez has been confined to a military prison and declared a "prisoner of conscience" by the Human Rights Foundation (HRF).
"It’s beating the crap out of people, it’s scaring, it’s creating terror among the people that dare to ask for their participation in politics," said Javier El-Hage, international legal director for the HRF, in an interview.
El-Hage noted that while reports portray the protesters as mostly middle-class youth, significant portions of the population are frustrated by Maduro’s rule and the scarcity of goods. Maduro became Chavez’s successor by narrowly winning elections last April that were marred by opposition claims of voter fraud.
"[The Chavistas are] denying the opposition any participation—49 percent of the country—where they are supposedly democratic," El-Hage said.
He added that CNN en Español is the only television channel "where you can see the police beating protesters" because of government intimidation of the local press.
Maduro has referred to the protesters as "fascists" and accused U.S. officials of covertly financing an attempted coup. Opposition leaders rebuffed his invitation to a "national conference on peace and life" on Wednesday.
Maduro faces long-term problems even if he can outlast the protests.
Venezuela has a 65 percent probability of defaulting in the international bond market and its loan partner China is unlikely to bail them out. Nationalist military leaders also reportedly despise the heavy-handed influence of Raul Castro’s Cuban regime on Maduro.
Noriega said U.S. diplomats need to "get in the game" and engage a regime that also has worrying ties to drug traffickers and terrorist proxy groups such as Hezbollah.
"They have spent the last half dozen years pulling their punches against the Chavez regime because they didn’t think it was worth mud wrestling with him," he said.
"Unfortunately the evidence shows that this is a dangerous regime that is a narco-state, that is Iran’s best friend in the region."