WASHINGTON — After months of lobbying from a dedicated contingent of lawmakers for the fighters of South America’s forgotten revolution, the Obama administration has finally imposed visa sanctions against some human-rights abusers in Venezuela — not including the country’s leader.
But senators trying to get tougher penalties, including asset freezes, through the upper chamber faced 11th-hour resistance in the rush to get legislation through before summer recess.
The announcement came days after opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez went on trial on charges of inciting protests last winter. He could face 10 years behind bars, and has already been held for five months after handing himself in to authorities in February.
The former Chacao mayor and charismatic pro-democracy activist is seen as one of the greatest threats to Nicolas Maduro’s rule, and his wife Lilian Tintori has continued leading peaceful protests despite harassment from the government.
Last Tuesday, Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) sent Secretary of State John Kerry a letter acknowledging that he had a lot of global crises on his plate, but urging him “to use all of the diplomatic, political and economic tools at your disposal to address the ongoing attacks against human rights in Venezuela.”
“Starting in February of this year, the citizens of Venezuela took to the streets of their country to protest the alarming rates of crime and violence, soaring levels of inflation and economic hardship, and widespread scarcity of food and basic consumer goods that had come to characterize their daily reality,” the lawmakers wrote.
“Rather than address the legitimate concerns of its citizens, the Government of Venezuela responded with a shocking display of brutality and repression that was seen around the globe. Government security forces repeatedly deployed excessive force against protesters, including unlawful detentions, violent beatings, use of firearms and rubber bullets at point-blank range, documented cases of torture, and extrajudicial killings.”
They noted that a Human Rights Watch report in May revealed Venezuelan security forces “had engaged in systematic human rights violations that aimed ‘to punish people for their political views.'”
And even though the demonstrations against the Maduro government — an extension of the socialist rule started by the late Hugo Chavez — have fallen out of the headlines, more than 100 political prisoners remain behind bars and the total number of protests for the year exceeds 6,000.
“The government has unlawfully removed opposition legislators and mayors from office. And, to date, not one Venezuelan government official or member of the security forces has been held accountable for the human rights abuses committed since the start of the year,” the senators stressed.
The lawmakers referenced Lopez’s “show trial” and the fact that he won’t be allowed to present evidence in his defense. “Such subversion of justice is hardly surprising, for as Mr. Lopez’s wife, Lilian Tintori, recently wrote in the Washington Post, ‘there is no presumption of innocence or due process of law for a political prisoner in Venezuela,'” they wrote.
It’s far from the first time that the Obama administration has been asked to take a greater interest in the democracy activists’ plight, and anti-Chavistas in Congress have been frustrated by the foot-dragging. At a May hearing, Rubio called out a State Department official for suggesting that Venezuelan opposition leaders are the ones who don’t want the U.S. government to impose sanctions on Maduro.
Mediation efforts led by South American officials and Vatican representatives fell apart more than a month ago.
“As the deterioration of democracy and the rule of law in Venezuela continues unabated, the U.S. must exercise leadership and send a strong signal in defense of human rights in the hemisphere,” the senators wrote. “We urge you to use the existing authorities that the Administration has to levy targeted sanctions against individuals that have been complicit in human rights violations in Venezuela.”
The next day, the State Department announced visa restrictions against “a number of Venezuelan government officials who have been responsible for or complicit in such human rights abuses,” said a statement from spokeswoman Marie Harf.
“With this step we underscore our commitment to holding accountable individuals who commit human rights abuses. While we will not publicly identify these individuals because of visa record confidentiality, our message is clear: those who commit such abuses will not be welcome in the United States,” Harf said. “We emphasize the action we are announcing today is specific and targeted, directed at individuals responsible for human rights violations and not at the Venezuelan nation or its people.”
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs John D. Feeley confirmed to W Radio de Colombia today that a total of 24 officials are on the list.
“They range from government ministers, presidential aides, and officers of the National Guard and the Sebin (Bolivarian Intelligence Service) to judges,” Feeley said. “They are some of the people involved in systematic government pressure against the democratic forces in the street who just wanted to voice their opinion and have access to a genuine dialogue with the government.”
Feeley added that “it took us a long time to think and meditate with the governments of the region, such as the Colombian government and Brazilians and to consult with our own deputies and senators.”
When asked if Maduro was included in the visa restrictions, particularly for next month’s UN General Assembly, he said “there are usually no restrictions” for heads of state and the socialist leader shouldn’t have a problem getting his visa.
Still, Rubio called the sanctions “an important first step” — which “should be followed up with asset freezes as well.”
“The House has passed a Venezuela bill, and the sanctions bill I’ve introduced with Senators Menendez and Nelson remains the most comprehensive plan that exists in the Senate to punish human rights violators and support the democratic aspirations of the Venezuelan people,” added Rubio. “I’m pleased the administration has heeded my calls to take initial action. I hope the Senate soon passes legislation that deals with the situation in Venezuela in a more complete manner, and I will continue pressing the administration to do more.”
Menendez, while also pitching passage of the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014, said Wednesday that the administration sanctions sent the “unambiguous” message to Maduro and his ilk that “the United States will never tolerate systemic human rights violations conducted by a merciless government against its own people.”
“The administration’s visa sanctions are an important step in the right direction, but more hard-hitting sanctions are needed,” he added. “The Maduro regime will not go unpunished for violating the human rights and freedoms of its people.”
Menendez and Rubio aimed to get those sanctions passed by unanimous consent before senators left for the long August recess last week, but they hit a roadblock: a pro-Citgo lawmaker.
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) blocked the bill, arguing that it could cost jobs at a Louisiana refinery owned by the U.S. subsidiary of Venezuela’s state oil company. The Landrieu objection reportedly surprised the sponsors; she is running for re-election in the face of a challenge from Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.).
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) had originally placed a hold on the bill, but lifted it July 29 after the Venezuelan government tried to keep former Venezuelan Gen. Hugo Carvajal, who is wanted on drug-trafficking charges, from being extradited to the United States.
“A regional dialogue remains the best option to help Venezuelans find a negotiated, democratic way forward that addresses systematic violations of human rights,” Corker said. “But the Venezuelan government’s complicity with criminal activity that threatens its neighbors and the U.S. demands a firm response from our country and other nations.”
Landrieu’s last-minute block means that the Cuban-American senators will have to wait until September to resurrect the sanctions bill.