Venezuelan opposition leaders have decided to suspend talks with President Nicolas Maduro aimed at ending the ongoing unrest in the country, prompting some U.S. lawmakers to renew their calls for sanctions against the government.
Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, general secretary of the moderate opposition coalition known as the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), said on Tuesday that MUD would only return to the negotiations if the government agreed to address some of its demands, including creating a truth commission to investigate human rights abuses and releasing jailed protesters. The opposition blames Maduro’s government for leading a crackdown against protesters that has resulted in at least 42 deaths since February.
"The government is only increasing the repression," Aveledo said. "They have to decide whether they want to win war or peace."
Maduro responded angrily on his televised radio show to MUD’s decision and said he "won’t tolerate any blackmail."
The suspension of talks presents a challenge to the Obama administration, which had said it was holding off on imposing sanctions against Venezuelan government officials in order to give the talks a chance to work. Bipartisan groups of lawmakers in both the House and Senate have dismissed the administration’s concerns about timing and say it should act now to punish individuals who have already been accused of committing human right abuses.
The House Foreign Affairs committee passed a bill last week, sponsored by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.), which would direct the administration to impose U.S. visa bans and asset freezes against government officials on those acting on their behalf to perpetrate human rights abuses. Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) has filed a companion bill in the Senate and provided a list of 23 individuals who he said should be sanctioned.
Rubio told the Washington Free Beacon that the breakdown of talks represents "the latest example of how the Maduro regime is untrustworthy and incapable of abandoning repression as its preferred mode of maintaining power."
"Last week, the Obama administration claimed the Venezuelan opposition was against sanctions on human rights violators because they wanted to give these negotiations a chance to work," he said in a statement. "We now know the administration misled Congress, the opposition is not opposed to these sanctions, and there are no negotiations to speak of."
"The administration is out of excuses," he continued. "The time is now for the U.S. to implement sanctions on the regime officials responsible for human rights abuses."
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.
Security forces arrested 243 people on Thursday in the capital Caracas before releasing most of them, the same day Roberta Jacobson—who serves as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs—expressed "cautious optimism" about the talks at a Senate hearing.
Jacobson said the administration would continue to "speak out" and "make statements" condemning human rights abuses in Venezuela but did not think the time was right for sanctions. She also said members of MUD had asked the administration not to impose sanctions yet, which the opposition coalition denied.
BuzzFeed reported on Tuesday that Ros-Lehtinen believes the administration is lobbying Democrats to not support the sanctions legislation.
Jacobson’s comments at the hearing prompted a vigorous response from Rubio, who has repeatedly pressed for sanctions.
Rubio specifically mentioned the case of Globovision, the last major television station critical of Venezuela’s government before it was bought last May by a group of businessmen with ties to Maduro. The businessmen—Raúl Gorrin, Gustavo Perdomo, and Ángel Meza—own multi-million dollar homes and lavish yachts in the neighborhood of Cocoplum, Miami, according to a recent investigation by an Argentine news outlet.
Rubio said the sanctions are not intended "to change the government of Venezuela, despite Maduro’s claims." Maduro has frequently said the protesters are backed by U.S. officials seeking to topple his administration, a claim the State Department vehemently denies.
"What we’re saying is we have [Venezuelan] individuals that benefit greatly from the economy of the United States, particularly in my state," Rubio said. "They benefit greatly from what they do in this country with our banks, our schools, our businesses."
"They invest with impunity throughout Florida and the country," he continued. "These people also happen to be human rights violators or the associates of human rights violators, and all I’m saying is we should sanction them for what they did."
Critics say Maduro’s government has used the talks as a stalling tactic while it increases its repression of the protesters.
Armed pro-government gangs known as "colectivos" last week appeared to burn buildings on the campus of University Fermin Toro in Barquisimeto, the capital of Lara state in northwestern Venezuela, according to local media reports. One 15-year-old protester, a high school student, was reportedly shot between the neck and chest and forced to undergo surgery.
Jose Cardenas, former National Security Council member during the George W. Bush administration and an expert on Latin America, said in an interview that there has so far been "no cost to the government for its brutality against the protesters" and that the talks have been a "sham."
"There’s no good faith on the government’s part to redress grievances," he said. "They are playing the opposition."