Some see promise and pain in Venezuelan sanctions bill

U.S. lawmakers hope to ratchet up pressure on Venezuela when the House debates a bill Wednesday that would allow authorities to block assets and deny visas to those who have ordered or committed human rights violations during protests that left at least 42 dead and 835 injured.

For many, the sanctions would bring grim satisfaction: punishing Venezuelan officials and laying bare the hypocrisy of individuals who preach 21st Century Socialism at home but squirrel away assets in the United States.

Others, however, see the sanctions as a PR win for President Nicolás Maduro, allowing him to rail against foreign meddling as he downplays the domestic issues driving the crisis.

The bill’s passage is far from assured. While versions of it have won approval in Senate and House committees, the State Department and the White House have voiced opposition, suggesting the sanctions would be counterproductive.

The opposition coalition known as the MUD, which has been in sporadic “peace talks” with the government since April 10, has no problems with targeted sanctions that don’t hurt the general population, said Vicente Bello, a MUD member.

But Bello said it’s also clear the Venezuelan administration will make the best of any U.S. action.

“The government’s not going to be hurt,” he predicted. “On the contrary, they will use this to play the victim, to travel the world and talk about U.S. imperialism.”

The anti-U.S. tour is already underway. Last week, Foreign Minister Elías Jaua denounced the “illegal, unilateral and unjustified sanctions” before the Union of South American Nations in Ecuador. On Tuesday, he traveled to Algeria for a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement to do the same. The ministry says he will also be taking the issue to the 33-members of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States soon.

“Maduro and his cronies consistently blame the United States for their failures instead of taking a look in the mirror and owning up to their own misguided policies that have steered Venezuela into a democratic and economic crisis,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Miami Republican who sponsored the Venezuelan Human Rights and Democracy Protection Act, said in a statement.

“My bill works to promote human rights by ensuring that the regime’s oppressors cannot come to the United States and take advantage of our liberties while denying those same liberties to their own people.”

The bill targets individuals who committed or ordered violence, human rights violations or illicit arrests and prosecutions during the protests. It also targets those who knowingly “assisted, sponsored, or provided significant financial, material, or technological support” in the commission of the violence and arrests.

Punishment would include blocking assets in the United States and denying or revoking visas.

Despite having bipartisan support, the bill has its congressional detractors.

On Wednesday, 14 members of the House, including John Conyers (D-Mich) sent a letter to President Barack Obama supporting his opposition, saying there is no regional support for sanctions.

UNASUR, the Caribbean Community and Organization of American States have all issued statements in support of Venezuela, the lawmakers said.

“We are concerned that disregarding these views would hinder our efforts to reengage with the region at a time when other major powers are making unprecedented inroads,” the letter said. “As unilateral U.S. intervention and sanctions have caused deep resentment throughout Latin America, these are not the right tools for our regional policy in instances where they lack any significant regional backing.”

Mark Schneider, the senior vice president of the International Crisis Group, argues that sanctions would undermine the ongoing peace talks that are being mediated by the Vatican and foreign ministers of Colombia, Brazil and Ecuador.

The talks “offer everybody — if they are smart enough to take it — a way out,” he said. “In that context, you want to give that process the chance to fully play itself out.”

Sanctions would be far more effective if they came from other Latin American nations, he said.

Critics point out that almost two months of negotiations have yielded little. The MUD accuses the government of foot-dragging — particularly as protests have died down. The organization said it won’t sit with the government again until it makes meaningful concessions.

The opposition’s demands include that the administration drop charges on the 3,102 protesters who have been detained and release the 252 who are still in custody. While 19 security forces have been arrested in connection with the violence, the MUD is asking for the creation of a non-partisan truth commission. In addition, the MUD is asking for the release of political prisoners such as Leopoldo López and opposition mayors.

“We’re waiting for concrete steps,” Bello said. “We have very specific requests but so far, there has been no progress.”

Ernesto Ackerman, the CEO of the South Florida-based Independent Venezuelan-American Citizens, has been organizing a letter-writing campaign to pressure Congress into approving the bill.

He said there are clear signs the law would be effective. Shortly after the idea of sanctions surfaced, Maduro wrote a New York Times editorial saying “Venezuela and its people do not deserve such punishment.” Ackerman said there are also reports of army officers stepping down in fear that their family in the United States might be deported.

“You have to see that the sanctions are really going to hurt them and they are very afraid,” he said.

The current Venezuela crisis began in February when student protests over rampant crime and impunity snowballed into mass demonstrations over everything from record-high inflation to food shortages and eroding civil liberties.

The government says the demonstrations are part of a broader attempt to overthrow Maduro and it points out that of the 42 people killed 10 have been security forces and public officials.

Human rights groups and others accuse the administration of using arbitrary detentions, torture and excessive — sometimes fatal — force to subdue largely peaceful protests.

Ackerman said the sanctions are one of the few measures that might help resolve the crisis. He said the House debate will also be a benchmark for the Venezuelan community in the United States, which is learning to flex its political muscle.

On Wednesday, “we’re going to see who’s on our side,” he said of the debate. “That’s an important message for all the people who need votes.”

Read more Venezuela stories from the Miami Herald

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A mural of late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez covers a street wall in the 23 de Enero neighborhood in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, July 17, 2014. In 2010, Chavez pushed Venezuela’s Congress to ban U.S. funding in the name of protecting the country’s sovereignty. The  ban subjects violators to fines of as much as twice all foreign money received, and bars them from running for public office. Foreigners in Venezuela who provide such aid can be deported.

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