This week, the U.S. Senate will focus its attention on the ongoing political crisis in Venezuela, its government’s violent repression of peaceful demonstrations, and actions the U.S. government should take to confront the corruption and human rights abuses that are central to the regime’s governing philosophy.
Today, President Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela is plagued by the second highest murder rate in the world, rampant corruption and cronyism related to state assets, a 57 percent inflation rate that some suggest is actually higher, a junk rating on the global bond markets, and unprecedented scarcity of basic goods, even for toilet paper.
So scarce are basic goods that, in addition to Maduro’s direct assault on press freedom — through censorship, expulsions, intimidation and nationalizations of once independent entities — silencing the media is now easier in Venezuela because of a lack of paper on which newspapers can be printed.
Despite its vast energy resources, well-educated population and democratic past, Venezuela is now a failing state. In fact, Venezuela’s government long ago ceased to be a democracy, by failing to live up to its responsibilities under the Inter-American Democratic Charter which it has signed.
Since February 4, Venezuelans have protested the lack of economic opportunity, public safety, freedom and basic needs in Maduro’s Venezuela, only to be met with brutal state-sanctioned violence. Maduro has hailed his efforts at “building a new national police force, strengthening community-police cooperation and revamping our prison system.”
What he fails to say is that this police force has been unleashed on innocent demonstrators, that this “community-police cooperation” consists of nothing but government-affiliated armed gangs that roam the streets on motorcycles looking for government opponents to beat and kill, and that this prison system now houses several political prisoners, including Leopoldo López.
To date, the government’s barbaric repression has resulted in at least 41 deaths that we know of, more than 2,519 detentions, and at least 80 documented cases of torture. Several of these atrocities are being committed by the Venezuelan National Guard, a component of the Venezuelan Armed Forces, as well as paramilitary elements of the so-called “People’s Guard” that is closely affiliated with the National Guard.
There are additional reports of government-affiliated armed thugs, as well as Cuban intelligence officials and operatives, working on behalf of the Maduro government to intimidate opposition members and carry out attacks against protesters.
Since March 17, the Maduro government has convicted two democratically-elected opposition mayors, and is taking steps to prosecute at least three additional opposition mayors and National Assemblywoman Maria Corina Machado, a leading opposition member of the Venezuelan national legislature, who was recently unilaterally expelled from her post.
Maduro’s actions are facilitated by his deliberate efforts to subvert the independence of Venezuelan institutions, including the judiciary. For example, 80 percent of Venezuelan judges and 95 percent of public prosecutors serve under a provisional status that allows Maduro to appoint them or remove them, literally, with the stroke of his pen. Other supposedly independent human rights guarantors in the Venezuelan system, such as the ombudsman, have tried to deny the use of torture against demonstrators.
For these and other reasons, it is imperative that Congress expose the true brutal nature of his regime and adopt the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014. This bipartisan legislation authorizes meaningful and much needed sanctions on persons involved in serious human rights violations against peaceful demonstrators in Venezuela, or that have directed or ordered the arrest or prosecution of a person due to their legitimate exercise of freedom of expression or assembly.
Congress should expand the scope of the sanctions to include individuals taking part in massive economic corruption schemes that rob the Venezuelan people of a better life and prop up the tyrannical Maduro regime.
Now is the time for meaningful action to help the Venezuelan people hold accountable the Maduro regime’s murderers and thugs who are responsible for the violence. Now is the time to stand with the Venezuelan people and increase pressure on the Maduro regime.
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican, has represented Florida in the U.S. Senate since 2011.