Congress approves extending Venezuela sanctions over rights abuses

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio AP

In a political victory for South Florida Republican lawmakers, Congress reinforced sanctions Wednesday against top Venezuelan officials the United States holds responsible for repressing their people.

The House gave final, unanimous passage to the bill 10 weeks after the Senate unanimously approved Sen. Marco Rubio’s companion measure extending the Venezuela sanctions for three years beyond their scheduled expiration at the end of 2016. The legislation went to President Barack Obama for his approval.

“By extending these sanctions, we are reinforcing our commitment to those innocent people in our hemisphere who are subject to the abuses of the [Nicolás] Maduro regime,” the Miami Republican said Wednesday after the House vote.

The bill, which Obama is expected to sign into law, authorizes the U.S. government to freeze assets of Venezuelan President Maduro and his senior aides and to deny them entry visas into the United States.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who shepherded the legislation through the House, urged Obama to add more names to the list of targeted Venezuelan officials.

“As the Venezuelan people are deprived of liberty, protest the lack of food or necessary supplies available, and live through a deteriorating economy, we should keep the pressure on the oppressors by freezing assets and removing visas of human-rights violators in Maduro’s regime,” Ros-Lehtinen, also a Republican from Miami, told her colleagues on the House floor.

Fellow GOP Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami noted that Venezuela recently celebrated its independence from Spanish rule in 1811.

“As the Maduro regime continues to subvert democratic institutions, rule of law and civil society, Congress will continue to stand with the people of Venezuela in pressing for fundamental rights and liberties by ensuring that those who commit human rights abuses face consequences,” Diaz-Balart said.

Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Cuban Americans like the South Florida lawmakers, co-sponsored the Senate measure.

Menendez on Wednesday accused Maduro, elected president in April 2013 after the death of Hugo Chávez, of trying to manipulate Venezuela’s Supreme Court to invalidate laws passed by the National Assembly.

“The extension of the [U.S.] Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014 will combat these abuses of human rights and the rule of law,” Menendez said.

Congress first imposed the sanctions after violence and political arrests swept the South American country in 2014.

Maduro retaliated by branding Menendez, Rubio and other South Florida lawmakers “terrorists” and banning them from Venezuela.

James Rosen: 202-383-0014; Twitter: @jamesmartinrose