By Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) - 03/24/14 06:34 PM EDT
The palpable absence of a coordinated strategy in support of the pro-democracy advocates in Venezuela is evident and yet another in a string of missed opportunities by the Obama administration to promote U.S. interests and freedom around the world.
For longer than a month now, a crisis in Venezuela has been escalating, but the stage for this had been set with the death of Hugo Chavez last March and the contested presidential elections that followed. Now, according to Venezuelan non-governmental organizations, the regime of President Nicolás Maduro is responsible for almost 30 killed, nearly 60 reported cases of torture, more than 1,500 people unjustly detained, and hundreds injured with very little attention from the Obama administration and with no reasonable end in sight.
On March 13, Secretary of State John Kerry testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and to my disappointment but not to my surprise, he failed to address the situation in Venezuela in both his written testimony and opening statement to the committee. This lack of attention to this crisis is insulting and represents the foreign policy strategy of the Obama administration to stick their heads in the sand and hope these problems go away by themselves. When I pressed Kerry on Venezuela during the hearing, he responded that it is time for the Organization of American States (OAS), and neighboring countries, to focus on Venezuela and hold Maduro accountable.
I can only assume that Kerry forgot that the OAS has already tried to focus on Venezuela and failed miserably. On March 7, the OAS passed a watered-down declaration that failed to hold the Maduro regime accountable, which precipitated the U.S. permanent representative, as well as the Canadian and Panamanian representatives, to vote against this weak declaration. The lack of U.S. leadership in our region has only emboldened these tyrants to violate human rights with impunity.
Maduro’s bullying tactics have even extended as far north as Washington, D.C. On March 21, the OAS was set to convene an ordinary session of the Permanent Council, and Panama was willing to allow Machado to address the council as a member of its delegation. But Maduro and his Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America lackeys, such as Nicaragua, quickly moved to make the session private. Then the Venezuelan delegation successfully managed to lobby the council to remove the topic of the Venezuelan crisis from the agenda. Yet perplexingly, the administration falsely believes that the OAS shares our concern over Venezuela.
When Honduran officials acted in 2009 to remove former President Manuel Zelaya, in accordance with the country’s constitution, the U.S. led the effort to expel Honduras from the OAS and revoked visas of Honduran nationals. Yet, when students are being killed in the streets of Caracas by the Maduro regime, the Obama administration echoes the same hollow words and responds with no action.
The president has issued an executive order to sanction individuals who have undermined the democratic process and threatened the security of Ukraine, but no similar order has been signed to target Venezuelan officials who have acted in the same manner. And so, if the Obama administration will not act, Congress will lead the way.
Last week, I introduced, alongside more than a dozen congressional colleagues, a bipartisan bill: H.R. 4229, the Venezuelan Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act. It calls on the president to impose targeted sanctions on Venezuelan officials who have committed or have been complicit in human rights violations by denying them visas to enter our country, blocking their property, freezing their assets and prohibiting them from conducting financial transactions in the United States.
This bill will neither hurt the people of Venezuela, nor will it impact the Venezuelan economy. Instead, it is targeted to those Venezuelan officials who have fired rubber bullets and tear gas into crowds and those who are responsible for human rights violations. In response to this legislation, Maduro has blamed my colleagues and me for Venezuela’s ills. This is just another attempt by Maduro to distract from his failed policies that have caused staggering inflation and food shortages. It is a badge of honor to be attacked by an autocrat who disdains basic democratic principles.
Ros-Lehtinen has represented Florida’s 27th Congressional District since 1990. She sits on the Rules and the Foreign Affairs committees, and is chairwoman of that panel’s subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa.