WASHINGTON -- As the death toll increases and the government intensifies a crackdown on opponents in Venezuela, Sen. Marco Rubio faults the White House for being preoccupied with the crisis in Ukraine and not paying appropriate attention to a developing crisis much closer to home.
The Florida Republican and possible 2016 presidential candidate has been one of the most outspoken proponents in Washington for imposing deep economic sanctions against Venezuela. But he said Thursday he hasn’t heard anything from the White House on his and others’ proposals to cut off resources to what he calls an illegitimate government.
“We’ve heard nothing new since last week,” Rubio said. “We wish they would make it more of a priority. I understand there are other parts of the world that are receiving a lot of attention. But they both deserve equal attention. This situation in Venezuela is rapidly escalating in a very dangerous direction.”
Violent anti-government protests over crime, food shortages, a weak economy and human rights continued this week as leaders sought to honor the anniversary of former President Hugo Chávez’s death. His successor, Nicolás Maduro, took to the airwaves and appeared to give approval to administration-backed gangs to attack protesters.
On Thursday, two more people were killed in the protests. The dead were identified as a member of the National Guard and a member of the pro-government militant groups known as colectivos.
The two died during a clash in the Los Ruices barrio when government supporters tried to remove a barricade erected by protesters. The member of the militant groups was identified as Jose Gregorio Amaris Castillo, 25. The National Guard member’s name was not immediately released.
At least 20 people have died since the recent protests began Feb 12.
Opposition mayors Gerardo Blyde and David Smolansky of the Caracas boroughs Baruta and El Hatillo are facing charges of “failing to fulfill their duties” of maintaining public order, government officials said. The mayors are accused of not clearing barricades that impeded traffic in their neighborhoods, thereby violating laws that guarantee free transit.
Amid the turnmoil in the South American country, Rubio met Thursday with Venezuelan legislators who oppose Maduro before an Organization of American States meeting called by Panama to address the crisis. Leomagno Flores, a Venezuela national assemblyman and member of the legislature’s Foreign Affairs Standing Committee, said they were there to help raise awareness and build international support for a peaceful resolution with the Maduro government.
“We’re live in the presence of a government that talks about dialogue, but persecutes and shoots at the same time,” Flores said. “And this makes it very hard to find a solution to the crisis.”
The OAS is the world’s oldest regional organization and is made up of all 35 independent states of the Americas. Rubio said the leaders of the OAS need to take forceful action and condemn what is happening in their own hemisphere. But he does not expect the organization to be able to accomplish much.
“There are a handful of countries in the OAS that are beholden to Venezuela’s cheap oil. And as a result are afraid to speak out,” he said.
Rubio blasted the Dominican Republic, for example, for pulling its ambassador out of the United States last week and thus preventing the OAS from meeting on the crisis earlier.
Last month, Rubio introduced a resolution with New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, that calls for banning visas and freezing assets of Venezuelan leaders.
The United States is Venezuela’s biggest trading partner, with the relationship dominated by oil, but Rubio does not support oil sanctions against the state. Other leaders, such as Rep. Joe Garcia, D-Miami, worry that limiting Venezuela’s oil imports to the United States could strengthen Maduro.
This week, the House passed a resolution sponsored by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, supporting peaceful protests in Venezuela and condemning the aggressive tactics by Maduro’s government.
Rubio said it’s up to the United States along with its Democratic allies in the region to make this a priority.
“What is happening there is an outrage. And it needs to be addressed in the strongest possible way,” he said.
This article contains material from the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press.