U.S. Defends Venezuelan Sanctions as Caracas Talks Continue

  • Sanctions are needed to help fight ‘repression,’ official says
  • Measures can help fight corruption as public funds dwindle

The U.S. defended its use of sanctions against Venezuela as a means of responding to “repression” in the South American country at the same time a top Obama administration diplomat tries to break an impasse between opposition leaders and President Nicolas Maduro’s government.

QuickTake Venezuela's Revolution

An executive order signed by President Barack Obama last year is being used in “real time” to target human rights abuses as well as other acts of violence and actions that limit freedom of expression and assembly, John Smith, acting director of U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control, said Wednesday in prepared testimony to the House of Representatives subcommittee.

The “flexibility to respond to repression in real time is crucial, both as a symbolic deterrent and as a practical matter if circumstances require swift action,” Smith said, according to a transcript of his remarks. “The United States is working to see democracy and human rights protected and preserved in Venezuela.”

The comments on Capitol Hill came as Under Secretary of State Thomas Shannon was in Caracas at the invitation of the Venezuelan government. Maduro, facing public fury over spiraling inflation and lack of access to basic goods in a country with the world’s biggest oil reserves, has said the two countries are working to normalize relations. Venezuela’s opposition, which controls the legislature, is seeking a referendum to have Maduro ousted.

Treason Allegations

Maduro, speaking at a rally of oil workers in Caracas, said that he met with Shannon for about two hours on Wednesday afternoon. He said Venezuela should solve its problems internally, without foreign interference.

“Our problems will only be solved within our own house,” Maduro said before accusing Henry Ramos Allup, the president of the national assembly, of treason for traveling to a attend to a meeting tomorrow at the Organization of American States to discuss situation in Venezuela.

“With or without the OAS, Venezuela will continue with its Bolivian and socialist Revolution," Maduro said as he called for nationwide rallies tomorrow against the organization.

Political Prisoners

Expectations for the talks were low. Negotiations are “unlikely to help resolve Venezuela’s political crisis, because its government remains unwilling to free political prisoners, recognize the opposition-led national assembly, or hold a recall vote this year,” Eurasia Group analyst Risa Grais-Targow said in a report Wednesday.

The U.S. sanctions have been at the center of a troubled relationship between the two countries, which dates back to the early days of late former President Hugo Chavez’s rule more than 16 years ago. Though the two countries long ago withdrew ambassadors in their respective capitals, Venezuela took the additional step of recalling its chargé d’affaires from Washington in March after the U.S. sanctions were extended.

Dwindling Revenue

The U.S. remains concerned about Venezuela’s economic straits, with the country’s public funds dwindling, and has no desire to exacerbate the situation, Treasury’s Smith said. Sanctions do not target the Venezuelan people or the government as a whole, he added.

“Control over the relatively small amount of remaining public funds is considered a valuable asset, and there are illicit actors willing to pay dearly to exert undue influence over these funds,” he said, adding that the Secretary of the Treasury was authorized to impose sanctions on any person who has been “determined to have a hand in public corruption by senior Venezuelan government officials.”

Secretary of State John Kerry said last week that he supported a dialogue process being spearheaded former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero under the auspices of the Union of South American Nations, or UNASUR. He also called on Venezuela to free political prisoners. 

The country’s detention of opposition figures received renewed criticism this week after Francisco Marquez and Gabriel San Miguel, two political operatives, were detained on June 19 in rural Cojedes state.

The government charged the two with money laundering and public instigation after they were found to be traveling with 2.9 million bolivars ($4,785) in cash and political pamphlets, the public prosecutor said in a statement. Freddy Guevara, leader of the Voluntad Popular opposition political party of which the two detained are members, said in a Twitter post that they are innocent and were being held for political reasons.

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