The Obama administration’s lack of engagement in Latin America has contributed to the erosion of democracy and human rights in the region, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.) told the Washington Free Beacon in an interview.
Ros-Lehtinen has been one of the most vocal lawmakers urging the administration to pay more attention to Latin America, where leaders allied with oil-rich Venezuela have clamped down on civil liberties in recent years and revised their constitutions to expand executive power.
Venezuela’s government in the last month has cracked down on youth protesting rampant crime, inflation, and shortages of basic goods. The state prosecutor said on Thursday that at least 28 people have died in the protests and 104 remain behind bars—including opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.
Ros-Lehtinen said the administration has resisted calls to take a tougher stand against the violence in Venezuela.
"It has been very difficult for us to get a clear answer from the administration about what they will or won’t do in Venezuela," said Ros-Lehtinen, whose district includes many Venezuelan-Americans.
"Right now [Venezuelan President Nicolas] Maduro’s acting with impunity because the United States is not paying attention," she added.
Ros-Lehtinen introduced bipartisan legislation on Thursday that would impose sanctions on Venezuelan officials involved in human rights abuses, including U.S. visa bans, asset freezes, and prohibitions on financial transactions. The bill also calls on the U.S. government to reduce its imports of Venezuelan oil, which have already declined in recent years.
Additionally, the legislation directs President Obama to submit a report to Congress on Venezuelan officials engaged in censorship of the media. Maduro ordered Colombian TV station NTN24 off the air last month for its live coverage of the protests, and most local media critical of the government have been shut down.
"The Venezuelan people are no less deserving of their human rights than the people of Ukraine," Ros-Lehtinen said, referring to the decision by the Obama administration to impose limited sanctions against Russian officials implicated in the invasion of Crimea in southeastern Ukraine.
Ros-Lehtinen pressed Secretary of State John Kerry at a hearing on Thursday about whether the administration would support sanctions. While Kerry said U.S. officials are pressuring Maduro’s government to "end this terror campaign against his own people," he demurred on the question of sanctions.
"We think it’s time for the Organization of American States [OAS], for the neighbors, for partners, and other international organizations to all focus on Venezuela appropriately and hold them accountable," he said.
Ros-Lehtinen contrasted the administration’s approach to Venezuela with its response to the removal of Honduran President Jose Manuel Zelaya in 2009. Zelaya, a leftist ally of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, sought to eliminate presidential term limits in a constitutional referendum that was opposed by the country’s legislature and judiciary.
Zelaya ordered the armed forces to support a national poll despite the opposition, prompting the Honduran Supreme Court to issue an arrest warrant for Zelaya. The military went beyond court orders by flying Zelaya out of the country ahead of scheduled elections in November.
No such action has been taken on Venezuela, Ros-Lehtinen said.
"When President Obama wants to act, he acts," she said. "He acted in Honduras, he got directly involved in everything that the OAS did, and everything that the State Department did in Honduras, yet in Venezuela, he chooses to look the other way."
The White House did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
A senior administration official previously told the Free Beacon that "we’ve had good communication with Congress on recent developments in Venezuela" and that "our immediate focus is on encouraging the start of a meaningful dialogue between the Venezuelan government and its people."
The OAS last week decided against sending a third-party mediator to Venezuela, a move that the U.S. ambassador had supported. Ros-Lehtinen said Latin American leaders are wary of losing access to Venezuela’s oil exports.
Venezuela has used those exports to expand its influence in the region and strengthen its "Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA)." Members include increasingly authoritarian governments Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, and Nicaragua.
For example, the Nicaraguan Congress altered its constitution in January to grant President Daniel Ortega unlimited terms in office and the power to issue decrees without legislative approval.
In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa pushed a constitutional referendum in 2007 to enhance his power and adopted a law last year to forbid "media lynching." The party poised to take control in El Salvador has ties to violent gangs and drug traffickers in the region.
"Democratic governance is more than just an election," Ros-Lehtinen said, adding that governments must respect the separation of powers and the freedoms of press and assembly.
The Obama administration has ultimately failed to address democratic backsliding in the region, she said.
"We have an opportunity to impact change for the better, and we are letting that go to waste," she said. "We will soon regret it in a few years when we look right outside our doors and say, ‘Wow, what happened to democracy here?’"