Mess in Venezuela calls for decisive U.S. action

Over the past several months, Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro’s use of the military and colectivos, guided by the Castro regime’s instruction in thuggery and intimidation, has violently oppressed dissenters through mass detentions, systematic torture and deaths.

Human Rights Watch released a report on May 5, Punished for Protesting, that detailed egregious human-rights violations, including arbitrary detentions, the use of unlawful force, torture, abuses in detention facilities, targeting of journalists and dismantling of independent media and state collusion with pro-Maduro gangs.

The U.S. Congress overwhelmingly supports tough action against Maduro’s oppression. We are the authors of H.R. 4587, the Venezuelan Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, which would impose tough sanctions against those involved in human-rights abuses and supports strengthening democratic institutions in Venezuela.

Yet the Obama administration continues to wrangle with Congress over even the most noncontroversial sanctions, such as denying visas to Venezuelan human-rights abusers. President Obama’s response has been slow, weak and tragically confused.

Inexplicably, the administration harbors limitless optimism for Maduro’s anti-American regime to change course despite all evidence to the contrary. Apparently, President Obama thinks America has more to gain in Venezuela by not rocking the boat than by standing firm for democracy and human rights. Somehow, in President Obama’s worldview, hope springs eternal for the bright possibilities offered through “dialogue.” Yet when it comes to America’s democratic allies, punitive measures can be swift and inflicted without discussion.

Early in President Obama’s first term, Manuel Zelaya of Honduras attempted to unlawfully expand his executive powers and extend his term in office. Under the Honduran constitution, this unlawful usurpation constituted abdication of his office. An overwhelming majority of the Honduran legislature (including a majority from Zelaya’s own party), all 15 members of the Supreme Court, including eight from Zelaya’s own party, and the attorney general all rejected Zelaya’s brazen power grab.

On orders from the Honduran Supreme Court, the military arrested Zelaya and, in accordance with the Honduran constitution, a civilian interim government was put in place until new elections were held.

Yet rather than siding with the people of Honduras, Honduras’ highest legal authority, and the vast majority of its political leadership, President Obama mistakenly labeled Zelaya’s removal a “coup” and declared that Zelaya should serve the rest of his term, although doing so would have violated the Honduran constitution.

According to President Obama, “President Zelaya was democratically elected. He had not yet completed his term. We believe that the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the president of Honduras, the democratically elected President there.”

The administration quickly slapped the interim government with denials of U.S. entry visas and removal of more than $30 million in U.S. aid. It cannot even be argued that President Obama was supporting an ally; Zelaya was no friend to the United States, but rather a close ally of America’s enemies, including the Castro brothers and Hugo Chávez.

It is difficult to square President Obama’s inaction regarding, and even appeasement of, leaders in countries such as Iran, Cuba, Russia, Venezuela and Syria with his meddling in pro-U.S. democracies such as Israel and Honduras.

President Obama has no patience with America’s friends, but will endure insults, indignities, trampled liberties and human rights, and brutality from its enemies. When he should be circumspect, he rushes in; when he should act decisively, he hangs back.

It is time to stop the endless discussion and circumspection. It is time for President Obama to change course, end his coddling of Maduro and side with the people of Venezuela who are demanding an end to intimidation and repression.

President Obama must abandon his muddled foreign policy. The deteriorating situation in Venezuela calls for immediate, decisive action to both weaken Maduro’s desperate grip on power, while strengthening Venezuelan civil society and democratic institutions.

U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart represents Florida's 25th District in Congress. U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen represents the 27th District.