This week’s electoral wins for Republicans in Congress could pave the way for stronger sanctions against Venezuelan officials who commit human rights abuses, if Sen. Marco Rubio has his way. The Florida Republican said he hoped the new GOP-dominated Congress would push for additional punishments against the government of Nicolas Maduro for its crackdown on street protesters earlier this year.
Rubio spoke at a press conference in Bogotá, Colombia, the day after U.S. midterm elections handed Republicans control over the Senate and an expanded majority in the House of Representatives. While he approved of the visa bans the Obama administration imposed on 20 Venezuelan government officials accused of human rights abuses earlier this year, he said he hoped Congress could “achieve something much stronger than what the White House has done so far.”
“We should not allow high-level officials in Venezuela or people with strong ties to the government to steal money in Venezuela and invest in Florida and enjoy stolen funds,” he said.
Earlier this year, Rubio sponsored the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act, a bill that would authorize sanctions on Venezuelans involved in human rights violations against antigovernment protesters. It also sets aside $15 million in support for independent media organizations and pro-democracy NGOs in the country.
While the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the measure in the spring, the bill hasn’t yet received full Senate approval. Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu was reportedly involved in blocking the bill’s passage over concerns that it would complicate oil imports to the state from Citgo, Venezuela’s U.S.-based oil subsidiary. Landrieu's Senate race was undecided and is heading for a runoff.
The House of Representatives passed similar legislation in May authorizing travel bans on members of Maduro’s government and freezing their assets in U.S. bank accounts.
While both bills received bipartisan support in Congress, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobsen argued against Venezuelan sanctions at a Senate hearing in May, saying they would disrupt political negotiations between Maduro’s government and opposition leaders. “We have strongly resisted attempts to be used as a distraction from Venezuela’s real problems,” she said.
Thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets this spring to protest soaring crime rates and Maduro’s economic policies. Violent government crackdowns and clashes between protesters and armed pro-government militias resulted in more than 40 deaths.