WASHINGTON — The Obama administration said in a Senate hearing Thursday it was hesitant to use individual sanctions as a tactic in the Venezuelan political crisis, saying that doing so could escalate the situation into a fight between the Maduro regime and the United States rather than a struggle between that country’s people and their government.
In response, Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sharply criticized the administration, indicating it was being far too timid in pushing back against the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and its repressive tactics against political protesters.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., was among the sharpest critics, blasting officials from the State Department for failing to advocate for sanctions against individuals in Venezuela although sanctions have been used — and continue to be used — elsewhere.
Citing sanctions against individuals in Russia for that country’s actions in Ukraine, Rubio asked what the difference was between repressive officials there and those in Venezuela.
“We sanction human rights violators all the time,” Rubio said. “The only difference between those sanctions, those people, and others, is they spend their weekends in Miami.”
He spoke of people connected to the Venezuelan regime who live in Miami and “drive up and down the streets in their fancy cars. They laugh at you and they laugh at us, because they know they can get away with these things.”
Using sanctions against the Venezuelan officials will not cause them to be unified against the United States, because they already are, Rubio said.
“Let me give you a brief bulletin: They are already united against us,” Rubio said.
Rubio, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and others are backing legislation that would authorize sanctions to help mitigate the situation in Venezuela.
The criticism of the administration’s go-slow stance was bipartisan. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said the administration’s hesitancy on sanctions in the Venezuelan crisis could be applied to the use of sanctions in other places.
“I think you continue to make arguments against sanctions, and I have to ask you: What’s your alternative?” he said. “If we start with the premise that we can’t do anything that might affect the Venezuelan economy because it will hurt innocent people, we find ourselves at the end of the day saying, ‘Well, they’re just aren’t many sanctions’ ” the U.S. could use.
“If we’re not going to use military force, what are sanctions that might result in a positive outcome?” Durbin asked.
The administration, represented by Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, stressed that the administration’s policy was to attempt to make sure the Venezuelan conflict didn’t escalate into a Maduro-vs.-U.S. dispute. Sanctions, while they can be effective some times, need to be used carefully, she said.
Asked Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.: “If we were going to nudge you along, how would you like to be nudged?”
“We think we don’t necessarily need the nudge,” Jacobson said. “We’re considering these things. We do think that right now they would be counterproductive.” She said sanctions would serve to reinforce a narrative of the Venezuelan government standing up to the United States — rather than the Venezuelan people standing up for themselves.
Added Tom Malinowski, another State Department official, on sanctions: “They work in some places, they don’t work everywhere. Timing is extremely important.”
But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., responded that administrations often needed to be prodded by Congress to use sanctions.
“It’s sometimes a bit entertaining when administration witnesses come forward to talk about how tough various administrations have been on sanctions when by and large they have initiated with the Congress,” McCain said.
Since February, Venezuelans protesting the Maduro regime have been met with often brutal state-sanctioned violence. According to Rubio, “The government’s barbaric repression has resulted in at least 41 deaths that we know of, more than 2,519 detentions and at least 80 documented cases of torture.”
Several of these atrocities are being committed by the Venezuelan National Guard, Rubio said.
In a new report from Human Rights Watch, investigators found that the crackdown in Venezuela was widespread.
“These are not isolated incidents or the excesses of a few rogue actors,” Human Rights Watch’s Jose Miguel Vivanco told the Senate committee. The situation the group witnessed was “the worst we have seen in Venezuela in years,” he said.
The legislation Rubio and others introduced earlier this year — the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014 — would authorize sanctions on persons involved in serious human rights violations against peaceful demonstrators in Venezuela, or those who have directed crackdowns on people exercising freedom of expression or assembly.