White House Finally Sanctions Some Venezuelan Officials, But Senators Want Asset Freezes

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.