U.S. House Votes for Venezuela Sanctions to Punish Maduro

U.S. House lawmakers voted to require sanctions against Venezuelan officials involved in a crackdown against protesters and opposition leaders in that country.

The measure passed by voice vote yesterday in Washington.

The legislation is intended to “hold these human rights violators accountable,” said bill sponsor Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican. “The first step in doing so is hitting them in their pocketbooks and denying them entry into the United States.”

Venezuela has cracked down on protests that started in February over the world’s fastest inflation, crime and shortages of staples such as food and toilet paper. At least 42 people have been killed in the demonstrations.

Amnesty International said April 1 it had received dozens of accounts of torture allegedly carried out by security forces since the protests began.

The U.S. State Department has so far resisted calls from Congress for sanctions against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government.

“Any law approved by U.S. Congress to sanction Venezuela is illegitimate and we won’t recognize it,” Maduro said May 27 on his weekly radio show broadcast on state television. “We reject it, and we’ll fight it around the world.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said May 21 that all options for Venezuela “remain on the table at this time” though “our hope is that sanctions won’t be necessary.”

Freezing Assets

That resistance hasn’t stopped U.S. lawmakers.

The House bill would direct the U.S. to identify Venezuelan human-rights abusers and impose sanctions on them. In addition to denying them entry to the county, sanctions would include freezing their assets held in the U.S. or held by American entities.

The measure also would sanction those who provide Venezuela with firearms, ammunition and less-lethal munitions like rubber bullets, pepper spray and tear gas, as well as surveillance technology.

New York Democrat Gregory Meeks was the only representative to speak against the bill during debate on the House floor.

“I believe unilateral action by the U.S. is not the answer,” Meeks said. The measure is an “unfortunate reminder of U.S. arrogance in the Western Hemisphere,” he said, and approving sanctions without support and similar actions from regional allies would be a “costly mistake.”

Opposition Talks

Caracas mayor and Venezuelan ruling party leader Jorge Rodriguez, speaking on state television, accused U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Kevin Whitaker of working with opposition politicians to support the protests. A State Department official said in an e-mail that the allegation was false. The official responded on condition of anonymity.

Venezuela’s opposition coalition on May 13 said that it suspended talks with the government and said Maduro was not seriously considering its proposals. Two sessions of talks were held last month and mediated by the Roman Catholic Church and the foreign ministers of Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador.

Among other demands, the opposition is pushing for the release of political prisoners and jailed protesters including opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who was arrested in February after the government accused him of inciting protests.

Annual Inflation

Annual inflation in Venezuela, which has the world’s largest oil reserves, hit 59 percent in March, with prices rising the most in four months, after the government carried out the biggest devaluation since currency controls were instituted in 2003.

The central bank hasn’t provided data on product scarcity since January, when it said 28 percent of basic goods were out of stock at any given time. Venezuela’s economy grew 1.3 percent in 2013, down from 5.6 percent in 2012.

The House vote followed last week’s approval by the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee of a separate sanctions measure. It would apply to Venezuelan government officials involved with violence and human-rights abuses, including anyone who ordered arrests of opposition protesters for their beliefs.

The vote was 13-2, and the bill is unlikely to advance to the Senate floor, Eurasia Group said in an e-mailed note to clients May 27.

“The debate will likely only pick up steam if massive protests do erupt and levels of violence lead to hundreds or even thousands of deaths and Venezuela becomes a permanent fixture in the domestic news media,” Eurasia Group analyst Risa Grais-Targow said.

The House bill is H.R. 4587. The Senate measure is S. 2142.

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