President Barack Obama on Thursday signed into law legislation that will allow him to freeze assets and deny or revoke visas of Venezuelan officials responsible for violence and human rights violations in the wake of anti-government protests early this year.
The move comes just a day after the Mercosur bloc of nations condemned the possibility of sanctions, and as Washington is mending fences with Venezuela’s chief ally Cuba.
“On one hand they recognize their failed policies of aggression and the embargo against our sister Cuba,” Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro wrote in a series tweets of Twitter. “On the other hand they begin escalating a new phase of aggressions against [Venezuela] amid total rejection by our country.”
The sanctions will target those responsible for violence and human rights abuses against protesters. It also targets those who ordered the arrest and prosecution of people who were exercising their right to free speech and assembly. The Senate passed the bill earlier this month and the House passed it Dec. 10.
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“After almost a year of trying to achieve this important measure as a response to Nicolás Maduro’s violent crackdown on innocent Venezuelans, I’m glad these sanctions against corrupt human rights violators in Venezuela are finally the law,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R. FL), one of the bill’s lead sponsors, said in a statement. “Now it’s important that the sanctions be swiftly implemented to help send a message to the Venezuelan people that the American people are on their side as they seek democracy, freedom and respect for human rights.”
Anti-government protests that began in February led to the death of more than 43 people on both sides of the political divide. As the government accused its foes of trying to topple the administration, it swept up opposition voices, including Leopoldo López who has been in jail since Feb. 18.
It’s not clear what kind of impact the sanctions will have in the short term or how many people might be affected. The State Department already has a travel ban in place on Venezuelan officials involved in the crackdown. And a Maduro cabinet minister called on Venezuelans to burn their visas if the sanctions were passed.
While the measure won’t touch the general population, the Maduro administration is likely to use them as cover for an economic crisis that features skyrocketing inflation, sporadic shortages of basic goods and a flailing economy.
“The sanctions on Venezuela will serve the exact same function” as the embargo on Cuba, said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars. “It’s a way of deflecting attention from the failure of the government and onto the U.S.”