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U.S. Senate Approves Sanctions on Venezuelan Leaders

Michael Johnson

The U.S. Senate passed a bill Tuesday imposing new sanctions on Venezuelan leaders accused of human rights abuses. The Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act directs President Obama to impose visa bans and asset freezes against anyone who materially or financially supported a crackdown on opposition protesters earlier this year.

The legislation, written by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and subsequently co-sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), received bipartisan support during the vote. Menendez explained it was important to “shine a bright spotlight” on “state-sponsored violence” and ongoing human rights abuses in the country.

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a cabinet meeting in Caracas on December 2, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

But the proposal remains relatively weak, especially compared to the total embargo levied against Caracas’s Cuban allies. Rubio named only 23 officials for the targeted restrictions, even though more could be added later. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) supported the measure but expressed that sanctions were not the optimal approach. “A regional dialogue remains the best option to help Venezuelans find a negotiated, democratic way forward that addresses systematic violations of human rights,” said Corker earlier this year. “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.”

The House of Representatives is expected to pass the bill as soon as today; the chamber approved a similar resolution earlier this year. In November, the White House also signaled that President Obama would likely sign the legislation, following the failure of its Latin American allies to negotiate the release of Venezuelan opposition figures from government detention.

Relations between Caracas and Washington hit new lows in February 2014, when the Venezuelan socialist leadership enlisted the armed forces to crush large scale anti-government demonstrations. Over 41 people died during the ensuing violence; 650 people were injured, and more than 2,000 detained. President Nicolas Maduro accused protesters of trying to overthrow the government. Meanwhile, local resentment remains high as Maduro’s approval rating hits new lows. Economic mismanagement and high crime rates continue to fuel anger towards the government, which faces new challenges amid falling oil prices.