Houses Passes Sanctions Bill Over Venezuelan Opposition’s Concerns

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., right, and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., speaking at a May 9 rally on Capitol Hill to push for sanctions on Venezuela CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MANUEL BALCE CENETA
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., right, and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., speaking at a May 9 rally on Capitol Hill to push for sanctions on Venezuela CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MANUEL BALCE CENETA

The House on Wednesday passed a bill that will impose targeted sanctions on Venezuela by freezing the assets and visas of government officials in response to allegations of human rights violations, which faces uncertain prospects in the Senate and a less that warm welcome from the protesters it claims to protect.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), former chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and currently head of the Middle East and North Africa subcommittee, first proposed the Venezuela Human Rights and Democracy Protection Act. “The passage of my bill…from the committee sends a strong message to Maduro that the United States Congress is well aware of the ongoing abuses perpetuated by his regime, and that they will not go unpunished,” Rep. Ros-Lehtinen stated after the committee approved her proposal on May 12. On Wednesday, the full House passed the bill by a voice vote.

The sanctions debate comes a week after the Venezuelan opposition decided to pull out of talks with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s government. Protests began in February, when students gathered around the country to call for an end to food shortages, high crime rates, and devastating inflation, which peaked in March at 57 percent. After thousands of arrests, 42 deaths, and accusations of human rights violations, 59 percent of Venezuelans now disapprove of Maduro’s government, according to Caracas-based polling firm Datanálisis.

Despite Congressional calls for sanctions, Obama administration officials have expressed reservations that, at this point in time, such measures would only prolong the stalemate between the opposition and Maduro’s government. On Tuesday, 14 congressional Democrats sent a letter to President Obama advising against sanctions. The Venezuelan opposition is split on the matter of targeted sanctions and universally opposes broader “sectoral” sanctions, such as on Venezuela’s oil sector, according to Daniel Restrepo, a Senior Fellow at Center for American Progress.

Opponents of the bill argue that levying sanctions in the near future would have a counterproductive effect by damaging American foreign policy image. A spokesman for Venezuela’s United Socialist Party, Jorge Rodriguez, said, “it would be an honor” to be “considered an enemy of the United States.”

“Instead of weakening an authoritarian government like Venezuela’s,” explained Marino Alvarado, head of Venezuelan human rights group Provea, the sanctions proposal “actually strengthens it by providing an argument that behind the social protests is a conspiracy led by the U.S.”

“The talk of sanctions over the past three weeks significantly contributed to the breakdown of the existing dialogue,” added David Smilde, a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, in an email to ThinkProgress. He explained that sanctions “will allow the Maduro government to portray the political crisis of the past several months as a conflict between Venezuela and the US rather than between the Maduro government and its opposition.”

The majority of members in the Organization of American States (OAS) also condemned the proposed sanctions in a meeting last Friday. “Not only will the sanctions be counterproductive,” stated Smilde, “but they will damage US relations in the hemisphere. US allies in the region such as Colombia and Brazil have led a serious diplomatic effort to resolve the crisis. A sanctions bill would represent a return to go-it-alone policies by the US in the region and would be considered an insult. The optics could hardly be worse.”

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee similarly passed a bill calling for sanctions, authored by Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ), last Tuesday. Although one congressional aide has anticipated that the bill will stall in the Senate, predictions are mixed over whether the House-passed bill will become law, leaving the Venezuelan opposition waiting to see whether they have to explain to their supporters a new set of sanctions.