As the crisis in Venezuela escalates, U.S. lawmakers are questioning whether the Obama administration is doing everything it can to improve the situation.
Four witnesses from the administration testified at a hearing Wednesday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. In questioning led by subcommittee chairman Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., legislators asked what actions the U.S. government is – and should be – taking to alleviate the suffering of the Venezuelan people.
Duncan suggested the United States impose more economic sanctions against Venezuelan government officials directly responsible for human rights violations.
The assets of seven Venezuelan officials were frozen in March 2015 following protests that left 43 people dead, including some who were shot by security forces. Since then, according to the State Department, no more economic sanctions have been placed on Venezuelan officials.
“Many government officials in Venezuela who are directly responsible for human rights abuses and the deterioration of democratic institutions, public corruption and drug trafficking, remain free to access U.S. financial systems,” Duncan said. “This is not right.”
Venezuela is in the midst of an economic and political meltdown, with policies inherited and implemented by President Nicolás Maduro contributing to rising inflation rates, negative economic growth and increasing social unrest. Food, medicine and even electricity are in short supply; the situation has grown so grim that the party opposing Maduro is looking to host a recall referendum that could result in his removal from office.
Many government officials in Venezuela who are directly responsible for human rights abuses and the deterioration of democratic institutions, public corruption and drug trafficking, remain free to access U.S. financial systems. This is not right.
U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C.
Maduro refuses to schedule the referendum. His party has gone as far as to post National Guard soldiers and police in riot gear to block roads and metro stations near National Electoral Council offices, said Michael Kozak, deputy assistant secretary at the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in the Department of State, in testimony on Capitol Hill.
“Venezuela does not have time to waste,” Duncan said.
Sanctions against Venezuelan government officials are allowed under legislation and a subsequent executive order passed in 2014. Venezuelan government officials found guilty of enabling human rights abuses may have their property in the United States, or under the control of the United States government, blocked.
“What we do not want is for those who would threaten and undermine democracy in their home country to be able to use the U.S. financial system to advance their nefarious purposes,” testified John Smith, acting director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control in the Department of the Treasury.
The desired end goal is “to change the behavior not only of individuals but Venezuela as a whole,” Smith said.
With 62 Venezuelan visas revoked and more currently under review, the administration also is considering placing more sanctions, testified Annie Pforzheimer, acting deputy assistant secretary at the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs in the Department of State.
No names have been or will be released, Pforzheimer said.
“So much of this is done in secret,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said. “We just don’t know what’s happening.”
Ros-Lehtinen brought to the hearing a list of names she thought should be sanctioned, and submitted it to Pforzheimer for review.
“What more do we need to do?” Ros-Lehtinen asked witnesses. “I hope it doesn’t take more deaths.”