FPI Bulletin: Hold Venezuela’s Human Rights Abusers Accountable

May 13, 2014

As the regime of strongman Nicolás Maduro escalates its violent crackdown on protesters in Venezuela, U.S. policy appears to be in growing disarray.

Witness a recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in which Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson initially told Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) that officials in the Obama administration “have been specifically asked” by civil society groups in Venezuela “not to pursue sanctions” against the Maduro government’s human rights abusers.  After Mesa de la Unidad Democrática, a leading umbrella opposition group, publicly disputed Assistant Secretary Jacobson’s claim, the U.S. State Department issued a correction:  “We wish to clarify that the opposition has not specifically suggested we refrain from sanctions against individuals.”

In response to growing protests by Venezuelans against the country’s deteriorating economic and social conditions, the Maduro government has taken alarming steps to silence critics and suppress political dissent.  Venezuela’s opposition leader, Leopoldo López, now sits in a military prison.  Another opposition lawmaker, Maria Corina Machado, has been stripped of her elected seat, and is now barred from even stepping foot in Venezuela’s National Assembly.  Reporters and media outlets are being threatened as hundreds of demonstrators remain jailed.

Clashes between the Maduro regime’s security forces and Venezuelan protesters have resulted in at least 42 deaths and 800 injuries as of May 11th.  In a recent report, Human Rights Watch described “a pattern of serious abuse” and “strong evidence of serious human rights violations committed by Venezuelan security forces”.  Abuses include unlawful force against unarmed individuals, torture, arbitrary arrests, and due process violations.  The report added:  “the abuses were not isolated cases or excesses by rogue security force members, but rather part of a broader pattern, which senior officers and officials must or should have known about, and seem at a minimum to have tolerated.”

Maduro’s oppressive tactics have continued—and intensified—amid talks with members of the opposition that began on April 10th.  Last week, on the same day that officials in the Obama administration expressed “cautious optimism” regarding Venezuela’s political talks, Maduro’s security forces arrested 243 youth activists in Caracas during a series of early morning raids against protest camps. The Wall Street Journal’s Maria Anastasia O’Grady reports that over 500 citizens have been arrested since “negotiations” began. 

The Obama administration is holding out hope that “negotiations” between the socialist government in Caracas and various opposition leaders can peacefully deescalate the country’s political crisis.  To be sure, the Venezuelan people will ultimately decide their own country’s future.  However, the United States and our democratic partners in Latin America should not stand by idly as Venezuela’s constitution is trampled on, the Inter-American Democratic Charter is ignored, and the universal rights of the Venezuelan people are systematically abused.  Washington should adopt policies that hold accountable individual Venezuelan government officials engaged in deplorable human rights abuses against the Venezuelan people.

In recent days, congressional lawmakers have advanced legislation to do just that.  On May 9th, the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed the Venezuelan Human Rights and Democracy Protection Act (H.R. 4587), a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by Congresswomen Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and 18 lawmakers that would “impose targeted sanctions on individuals responsible for carrying out or ordering human rights abuses against citizens of Venezuela.”  Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of Senate lawmakers—led by Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Mark Kirk (R-IL), and John McCain (R-AZ)—are backing the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014 (S.2142), a bill that would require the President to block assets or revoke visas of persons responsible for “significant acts of violence or serious human rights abuses in Venezuela against persons associated with the antigovernment protests in Venezuela”.

As the White House and Capitol Hill debate next steps for U.S. policy toward Venezuela, they should examine all options to hold the Maduro regime accountable for violations of human rights.  One option is sanctions, which have emerged as an important tool in Washington’s diplomatic arsenal.  On February 19th, the U.S. State Department imposed a visa ban on 20 Ukrainian officials “considered responsible for, complicit in, or responsible for ordering or otherwise directing human rights abuses related to political repression in Ukraine.”  Moreover, the United States has used financial sanctions and visa denials to pressure individuals in countries such as Russia, Burma, Iran, and Syria.  While Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski prefers a wait-and-see approach to imposing sanctions on Venezuelan human rights abusers, he nonetheless conceded to Senate lawmakers:  “I would point to Burma over the years as a place where targeted sanctions were particularly effective in not just highlighting human rights abuses, because that’s symbolic, but in empowering an opposition to pursue success in dialogue with an authoritarian regime.”
The United States and our partners in the region have a long-term interest in helping to advance security, prosperity, and human dignity in Venezuela.  U.S. policymakers and lawmakers should find new ways to hold accountable individuals in the Maduro regime responsible for ordering or implementing human rights abuses against their own people.  One option is targeted sanctions, which would send a powerful signal to government officials in Venezuela they will face growing consequences if they continue to trample the rights of Venezuelans, to use armed gangs and excessive force to terrorize the population, and to arbitrarily jail political opponents.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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