US senators propose legislation to get tough on Venezuela

Citing increasing concerns over violence in Venezuela, Senate Chairman Robert Menendez—along with Senators Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson—want the US to take a tough stance…

A Bolivarian National Police officer fires a tear gas grenade at demonstrators during clashes at an antigovernment protests in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, March 12, 2014. (AP Photo/Alejandro Cegarra)

Citing increasing concerns over violence in Venezuela, Senate Chairman Robert Menendez—along with Senators Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson—want the US to take a tough stance against the violence in Venezuela’s, but the question remains whether  a proposed law could be effectively enforced.

Last Thursday Senators  drafted the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014 in light of the increasing anti-government protests in the South American country. Menendez explained that the human rights legislation is necessary to combat the “volatile situation in Venezuela” and that President Nicolas Maduro’s regime has committed numerous state-sanctioned acts of violence.

Many in the government have drawn comparisons between the sanctions outlined in this new legislation and those that have been used against Cuba.

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Excluding Those Who Violate Human Rights

The $15 million authorized for the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act will be used to “defend human rights, support democratic civil society organizations, assist independent media, and strengthen good governance,” according to statements from Rubio’s and Menendez’s offices.

Bob Menendez

Sen. Bob Menendez drafted legislation along with Sen. Marco Rubio to sanction Venezuelans accused of human rights violations. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

The proposal seems to represent active support, on the part of the United States, for those in opposition to President Maduro and his policies. Over the last five weeks Caracas has devolved into a state of chaos and vandalism, with nightly conflicts between protesters and government security forces.

However, Senators Menendez and Rubio have done more than simply propose financial backing for anti-government forces and democratic action. The legislation also directs President Obama to enact severe sanctions against anyone falling into either of the following two categories:

  • Those who have “perpetrated, ordered or directed significant acts of violence or serious human rights abuses in Venezuela against persons associated with the antigovernment protests in Venezuela.”
  •  Those who have “directed or ordered the arrest or prosecution of a person primarily because of the person’s legitimate exercise of freedom of expression or assembly.”

Sanctions against said people include asset blocking, which would prohibit any property transactions, exclusion from the U.S. and revocation of any and all visas.

Drawing Connections to Cuba

The human rights legislation has already drawn the support of many in Congress, especially those with Cuban heritage.

Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, as well as House members Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, have pointed to parallels between the situation in Venezuela and what happened half a century ago in Cuba. Fidel Castro’s brutal suppression of protestors, as well as his quashing of independent media, seems to mirror Nicolas Maduro’s current actions against anti-government protestors in his country.

Senator Rubio, in particular, has said that the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act will allow the U.S. to “name, shame and punish the Maduro regime’s murderers and thugs who are responsible for the crackdown against innocent Venezuelans.”

Those in the Cuban Diaspora may see another similarity between the two Latin American countries: According to the Pew Hispanic Center, the number of Venezuelans in the United States has almost tripled since 2000. During the early years of Castro’s power, thousands of Cubans fled the socialist state in much the same way.

Marco Rubio

Sen. Marco Rubio has been known for his tough stance on Cuban policy, and is now seeking similar action against Venezuela. (R-Fla.) official photo

Effective Strategy?

Some in the government, such as senior fellow David Smilde, with the Washington Office on Latin America, think that it will be difficult to impose sanctions cleanly in this situation.

According to Latin Times, Smilde said that though violence is obviously happening, there’s “nothing of the kind you can point to a smoking gun. If the armed forces were going into places and opening fire, that’d be one thing. But those who have actually opened fire are not really in the National Guard or armed forces, except for the intelligence police on Feb. 12.”

Sens. Menendez and Rubio have made it clear that Maduro and his colectivos should be held responsible for violence and human rights violations, but they haven’t named any particular names. Sen. Rubio said that the State Department would be responsible for identifying the people against whom to impose sanctions.

Despite this potential ambiguity, U.S. sanctions may have the power to influence other countries’ dealings with Venezuela and may be effective in isolating Maduro’s government. The Venezuelan President already has waning support, if not outright disapproval, in many Latin American countries.

The Senate passed a bipartisan resolution last week that reflects the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act; the full legislation will be considered when the Senate reconvenes on March 24th.

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