A Venezuela sanctions bill that will be debated on the House floor on Wednesday would apply more pressure on the Obama administration to take action in the crisis that will soon enter its fourth month, observers say.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.) and a bipartisan group of 21 House members, directs President Barack Obama to impose U.S. visa and asset bans against government officials and affiliated individuals who have abused Venezuelan citizens or censored media coverage of protests. It is expected to pass the House and proceed to the Senate, where a similar bill recently passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
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Student-led protests began in the country in February and have since resulted in the deaths of more than 40 people, which the demonstrators attribute to a crackdown by state security forces and armed pro-government gangs. Members of the opposition say they are fed up with President Nicolas Maduro’s inability to tackle soaring inflation, higher crime rates, and shortages of basic goods.
"The U.S. Congress continues to lead the bipartisan effort to penalize Maduro regime officials who have engaged in intimidation and violence against the people of Venezuela who only pursue freedom through peaceful means," Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement. "To remain on the sidelines will only signal to Maduro and other autocratic leaders in the region that they can trample over the democratic rights of their citizens and the U.S. will respond with no action."
"The people of Venezuela deserve better and the U.S. must be willing and ready to help those seeking freedom."
There are some concerns that the bill could stall in the Senate, but a congressional aide said the sanctions effort now has "momentum."
"These are the same people [expressing concerns] who believed we wouldn't move the bill and look where we are today," the aide said.
Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, told senators at a hearing earlier this month that the administration wanted to hold off on sanctions in light of talks between the government and the moderate opposition coalition known as the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD). She also said the coalition was opposed to sanctions, a claim MUD later denied.
The opposition then decided to break off the negotiations after it said Maduro refused to accept its demands, including releasing jailed protesters and forming an independent truth commission to investigate human rights abuses. More than 200 people reportedly remain behind bars since the protests began.
Secretary of State John Kerry made his strongest comments yet on the crisis last week in Mexico City when he acknowledged that "there has just been a total failure by the government of Venezuela" to act in good faith. Still, he said "our hope is that sanctions will not be necessary" while noting the legislation working its way through Congress.
BuzzFeed reported on Tuesday that the State Department has backed off its pressure against the bills after previously telling Democrats not to support them.
A State Department spokesperson told the Washington Free Beacon that "no options are off the table."
"We share the concern of those in Congress regarding the human rights violations that have been committed as well as the lack of respect for democratic norms being exhibited by the Venezuelan government. … However, we also believe the long-term solution in Venezuela will require meaningful dialogue among Venezuelans about that country’s serious and worsening economic and social problems," the spokesperson said in an email.
"We need to ensure that whatever we do in terms of sanctions, both in timing and in substance, is calculated to support our larger objectives of seeing that Venezuela returns to full respect for democratic practice and human rights," the spokesperson added.
Sanctions advocates argue that Maduro’s government has yet to face any consequences for its repression of protesters. A report released this month by Human Rights Watch found that security forces had committed abuses against dozens of protesters, including arbitrary detention and torture.
Jose Cardenas, a former National Security Council staffer in the George W. Bush administration and an expert on Latin America, wrote on Tuesday that even if Maduro uses sanctions as a pretext to direct Venezuelans’ anger toward the United States, the country’s long-term problems will persist.
"The view that sanctioning human rights observers will somehow make Venezuelans think any less of skyrocketing inflation, rampant street crime, and shortages of everything from electricity to basic consumer goods is as divorced from reality as is the Venezuelan government's belief it can beat its people into continued submission," he said.
Ros-Lehtinen has so far declined to discuss the names of individuals she wants the administration to sanction. Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) has recommended a list of 23 government and military officials and noted that wealthy Venezuelan elites with ties to the government have purchased lavish properties in South Florida.