WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives passed a sanctions bill Wednesday that would bolster the ability of U.S. officials to levy penalties on the people who have been involved in cracking down on Venezuelans protesting the regime of President Nicolas Maduro.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican from Florida, and supported by several other South Florida lawmakers, would levy sanctions on the individuals in the Venezuelan government who have played a role in the sometimes brutal tactics used to quell dissent in the South American nation.
Saying she was “pleased that the House of Representatives has acted to punish the thugs of the Maduro regime for brutally repressing and violating the human rights of those seeking to exercise their basic freedoms of speech and assembly in Venezuela,” Ros-Lehtinen urged the Senate to follow suit.
The bill passed by unanimous consent on a voice vote after a 20-minute debate in which most speakers were strongly in favor of the bill as a necessary step to prod the U.S. government to engage more forcefully with Venezuela.
One speaker, Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., said the bill wasn’t the right step to take.
“This bill does not advance U.S. interests, it will not help the people of Venezuela and it sends the message to our regional allies that we don’t care much about what they think,” he said. He added that “the Obama administration has the authority to do what this bill calls for right now.”
But Ros-Lehtinen and others urged passage, saying that actions by the Venezuelan government and its leaders were unacceptable.
“This House stands for freedom and democracy,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, also a Republican from Florida, who made an impassioned plea for the bill during the House debate. He talked of the shootings, beatings and trumped-up charges student protesters have had to endure since February.
“In response to these legitimate, peaceful grievances, the Venezuelan regime (has) ordered security forces to brutally crack down — brutally, with great force and brutality,” Diaz-Balart said. “They’ve used severe beatings — beatings of unarmed protesters, mostly students.”
The Venezuelan Human Rights and Democracy Protection Act would take several steps to punish the people who work with or for the nation’s president, Maduro, and who have been involved in cracking down on protesters.
Among other things, the legislation would deny visas, block property, freeze assets and prohibit financial transactions to members of the Venezuelan regime who are responsible for human rights abuses against Venezuelan citizens. It also calls on the Obama administration to develop a strategy to promote Internet freedom.
A separate bill, co-sponsored by both Florida senators and others, is alive in the Senate and has passed out of committee in that body. It’s unclear when it will advance to the floor.
The Obama administration has been cool to the legislation.
Administration officials testified in a Senate hearing that sanctions could be counterproductive, reinforcing a narrative that Maduro and his allies are standing up to the United States — rather than having the Venezuelan people stand up for themselves.