Top lawmakers in Congress push tough new measures against Venezuela

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro greets guests at the National Electoral Council on May 22, 2018
Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro greets guests at the National Electoral Council on May 22, 2018 AP

Lawmakers will unveil a $58 million plan Monday that would force the Trump administration to push harder to isolate the Venezuelan government and restore democracy.

The plan would be the most comprehensive proposal on Venezuela taken up by Congress. It is already drawing comparisons to the controversial Helms-Burton Act signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996 shortly after Cuba shot down two civilian American planes that directed tens of millions of dollars toward democratic reforms.

The overarching Venezuela plan includes financial penalties against the government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, increases diplomatic pressure on regional allies to also take action and offers tens of millions in humanitarian aid to Venezuelans inside and outside the country.

“As millions flee repression, hunger and destitution at home, Nicolás Maduro’s criminal regime has turned Venezuela into a failed state with implications across the region,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J. “With Venezuela’s humanitarian catastrophe growing daily, Maduro betrays his citizens’ most urgent needs, while his inner circle plunders state coffers and profits from drug trafficking.”

Spearheaded by Menendez, the senior Democrat of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and working with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fl., who has worked closely with the Trump administration on Latin American policy, the Venezuela proposal includes $40 million for humanitarian assistance to be distributed between State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, $500,000 for international election observers and $3 million to help allies craft legislation and adopt their own financial penalties and visa restrictions against the Venezuelan government.

The U.S. government has already sanctioned 70 officials, including Maduro, and restricted U.S. investment and financial transactions, including those involving Venezuela’s new digital currency.

The Capitol Hill proposal would codify the sanctions, but also require Treasury to publish details about the frozen U.S. assets of Maduro and other top officials who are sanctioned.

The legislation also provides greater support behind the efforts of the Organization of American States to pressure Venezuela and requires the administration to take additional steps to prevent Russian-owned oil company, Rosneft, that owns a 49 percent state in Citgo revenues, from gaining control of refineries and pipelines owned by Citgo, the U.S. unit of troubled Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA.

“As the corrupt Maduro regime adopts a Cuba-style dictatorship and engages in crimes against humanity, including the use of forced starvation against its citizens for political coercion, it is vital for the United States and our partners to provide direct humanitarian aid to the Venezuelan people,” Rubio said.

While the legislation’s future is uncertain in such a divided Congress, it includes the support of John Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate as well as the second ranking Democrat, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida.

Frank Mora, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Latin America, compared the proposal to a smaller Helms-Burton bill where, he said, Congress took steps to go beyond appropriating funds and provide an ambitious strategy toward another a country.

“This legislation doesn’t go as far as that, but Congress has in the past made efforts when it feels that the executive is not doing enough to go beyond that and offer something much more comprehensive and ambitious that the executive is willing to do,” said Mora, who now heads the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University.

Franco Ordoñez: 202-383-6155, @francoordonez