Nicaragua bans Rubio, Ros-Lehtinen from travel over Venezuela sanctions

From left to right: U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
From left to right: U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Miami Herald Staff

Nicaragua's president is banning U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen from traveling to the Central American country because, he says, he is protesting the Venezuela sanctions the Republican lawmakers helped pass Wednesday in Congress, according to The Tico Times.

"Just like they [U.S. officials] have their lists, we can make our own lists in Latin America of those who shouldn’t enter our country,” Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega told Costa Rica-based Tico Times during a meeting with Venezuelan officials in his country.

Rubio, via Twitter, mocked Ortega's decision: "Oh no! My summer vacation plans are ruined!" The sanctions, primarily aimed at Venezuelan officials and proxies involved with violently suppressing pro-democracy activists, would ban them from traveling or staying in the United States and would freeze any U.S. assets. President Barack Obama plans to sign the legislation, S2142.

The sanctions legislation Ortega is protesting does not mention Nicaragua or really involve the country, which has received as much as $3 billion in Venezuelan aid since the Sandinista government returned to power in 2007. Venezuela is also a top ally of Cuba's government, of which Rubio and Ros-Lehtinen — Cuban-American legislators — have been outspoken opponents.

"It's a badge of honor to be banned by a thug like Ortega. These authoritarian heads of state like Ortega, Maduro and the Castro brothers like to intimidate those who disagree with them and they use their power randomly and ruthlessly," Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement Saturday morning. "I'm not worried about being banned in Nicaragua. What frightens me is the erosion of fundamental human rights throughout our hemisphere. I'm proud of the law that Marco, Bob and I wrote that penalizes human rights violators in Venezuela and we'll work to place violators on that list, ban or no ban."

The Miami legislators say the sanctions would have particular salience in South Florida, where Venezuela's elite frequently travel and have homes.

“With these sanctions, we can end the days of Venezuelan regime officials and thugs repressing innocent Venezuelans in their day jobs and then coming to Florida to live in the lap of luxury and splurge Venezuela’s wealth," Rubio said Wednesday in a written statement after the U.S. Senate passed the sanctions legislation.

"This is the first step to address human rights violations in Venezuela," Rubio said, "and it will be a blow to the hypocrites in Nicolás Maduro’s regime who talk a lot about socialist sacrifice but who themselves are immune from its failures and live in a fantasy world of gold-plated iPads and fancy cars, even though most Venezuelans can’t even find basic necessities like food and toilet paper."

For Rubio, the opposition of Ortega has a political upside in the United States as he considers running for president in a potentially crowded Republican primary. Ortega led the Sandinista government in Nicaragua from 1979-1990, during which time Ronald Reagan's administration helped fund the Contra rebel group.

Rubio has made Venezuela a top issue for months. In February, he gave an impassioned speech on the U.S. Senate floor, where he denounced Nicolás Maduro's government in Venezuela for its violent suppression of protesters.

That speech, and Rubio's activism on the issue, has been well-regarded in Venezuela's exile community in Miami. On Dec. 5, after teaching a political-science class at Florida International University, a student stopped Rubio on the way to class and shook his hand.

"I'm from Venezuela," the student said. "Thank you for what you're doing with Venezuela."

For months, Rubio and Ros-Lehtinen labored to pass personal sanctions legislation aimed at those Venezuelan officials and proxies who have ordered, carried out or assisted that government's "significant acts of violence or serious human rights abuses in Venezuela against persons associated with the anti-government protests in Venezuela that began on February 4, 2014." Also facing sanctions: Those regime elements who have helped arrest or prosecute anyone in Venezuela "primarily because of the person’s legitimate exercise of freedom of expression or assembly."

The legislation stalled in the dysfunctional U.S. Senate. But it finally passed Wednesday. The following day, a White House spokesman said Obama would sign the bill.

"We have not and will not remain silent in the face of Venezuelan government actions that violate human rights and fundamental freedoms and deviate from well-established democratic norms,” said Obama spokesman Josh Earnest.