How Marco Rubio negotiated to extend Venezuela sanctions

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio speaks to reporters at his Doral office earlier this month.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio speaks to reporters at his Doral office earlier this month. rkoltun@elnuevoherald.com

It happened with little fanfare Thursday: The U.S. Senate agreed to three more years of sanctions against key officials of the Venezuelan government, a law pushed by South Florida legislators to punish President Nicolás Maduro’s government.

The extension passed in the Senate by unanimous consent. The back story of how it all happened, however, is far more interesting than the easy vote suggests.

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio took to the Senate floor Wednesday to ask his colleagues to extend the 2014 sanctions, co-sponsored with New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez and set to expire at the end of this year. The law lets the U.S. freeze assets and deny visas for Venezuelan officials deemed responsible for violence and political arrests that roiled the South American country in 2014. It prompted Maduro and his government to brand Menendez, Rubio and other South Florida lawmakers “terrorists” and ban them from Venezuela.

“Because the Maduro regime continues to violate human rights and expand its political oppression, the U.S. must continue doing our part to address this growing crisis in Venezuela,” Rubio said in a statement late Thursday. “The Maduro regime’s abuses of power and violations of human rights are hurting innocent people in our hemisphere and threaten the national security interests of the United States, and we have a responsibility to stand with the Venezuelan people by extending these sanctions.”

The extended sanctions became part of a four-part deal that resulted in the confirmation of a new U.S. ambassador to Mexico.

Here’s what took place, according to a Senate aide who briefed the Miami Herald:

Last November, Rubio blocked Roberta Jacobson’s nomination to the ambassadorship. She had been the State Department’s key negotiator on normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba, which Rubio strongly opposed.

This month, Republican leaders and the White House asked Rubio, who had returned to work fresh off the presidential campaign trail, what could be done to get him to lift his hold on the nomination. Extend the Venezuela sanctions, said Rubio, who represents South Florida’s robust Venezuelan community.

There was a wrinkle: Sen. Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, objected to the sanctions extension unless Rubio could persuade Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who is still campaigning for president, to stop blocking another piece of legislation dictating State Department operations.

Rubio asked Cruz to lift his nearly 10-month-old hold on the bill, according to the Senate aide, and Cruz agreed. In return, Rubio promised to lobby the House of Representatives to pass another law, sponsored by himself and Cruz, naming a street in front of the Chinese Embassy in Washington after Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese political prisoner and 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

So: Rubio helps GOP leaders and the White House get an ambassador, Corker get a State Department bill and Cruz try to get approval for a street designation. Rubio gets to come home to West Miami with his Venezuela law extended for three more years — beyond his Senate term. He also gets to boast passage of the State Department bill, which includes seven of his proposals, ranging from requiring reporting on U.S. humanitarian assistance to Haiti to training the U.S. foreign service on international religious freedom.

The deal isn’t complete yet. The House must still sign off on the extended Venezuelan sanctions and the State Department “reauthorization” bill.

All in all, though, the arrangement marks the culmination of a busy month for Rubio in the Senate, after some pundits had declared an early death to his political career following Donald Trump’s romp in the Florida primary. His term ends in January, since Rubio isn’t seeking re-election. He told reporters in Miami earlier this month that he intends to keep a full work calendar until then.

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