U.S. Senate approves Venezuela sanctions

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, left, at the United Nations.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, left, at the United Nations. Associated Press

The U.S. Senate on Monday passed a bill imposing targeted sanctions against Venezuelan officials responsible for violence and political arrests in the wake of anti-government protests earlier this year.

During a sparsely attended Senate session, the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014 was passed by voice vote. The bill had been caught in a political tug of war since May when the House passed a similar version of the sanctions.

In a statement, Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) applauded the measure and asked her House colleagues to take up the Senate version so “Venezuela’s oppressors will be denied visas to enter the United States and their properties along with their assets will be frozen.”

The Senate bill targets Venezuelan authorities who directed “significant acts of violence or serious human rights abuses against persons associated with the anti government protests in Venezuela that began on February 4, 2014.”

It also targets officials who directed or ordered arrests or prosecutions of people engaged in the “legitimate exercise of freedom of expression or assembly.”

Finally, it targets those who materially assisted or provided significant financial, material or technological support for the commission of such acts.

The Obama administration had initially opposed the bill but has signaled in recent weeks that it now supports sanctions.

The House passed a version in May that called for similar sanctions but included a broader number of targets, including those responsible for media censorship and companies that were knowingly selling equipment that might have been used in human rights violations.

The House will have to pass the Senate version before it adjourns this week or risk starting the legislative process over in January.

Anti-government protests that began in February led to the death of more than 40 people and hundreds of arrest, including opposition leader Leopoldo López.

Earlier this month, the government said it would be charging former National Assembly member María Corina Machado for her alleged involvement in a plot to kill President Nicolás Maduro. Machado and human rights organizations have called those charges absurd.

While it’s not immediately clear who might be hit by the sanctions, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who co-sponsored the bill, released a list of 23 Venezuelan officials in May that he said should be targeted.

U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and author of the bill, called it an “unequivocal message to the Government of Venezuela” and Maduro.

“For too long, Venezuelans have faced state-sponsored violence at the hands of government security forces and watched their country’s judiciary become a tool of political repression,” he said in a statement. “We in the United States have an obligation to shine a bright spotlight on Venezuela’s abuses and must object to the severe human rights violations committed by the Maduro government and his paramilitary thugs.”