Ratcheting up the pressure on Venezuela

The sham elections held in Venezuela that extend Nicolas Maduro’s mandate by six years on May 20 played out exactly as expected.

The process was fraught with irregularities including the use of food in return for votes to a starving population and manipulation of turnout numbers to hide an abstention rate of 70 percent. Such a high abstention rate would normally be a cause for concern. However, in the case of Venezuela, this number showed civic resistance against the Maduro regime.

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In response, the international community has rejected the election result. It is telling that 14 countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Canada recalled their ambassadors from Caracas in protest. These are actions I strongly urged during meetings with leaders at the Summit of the Americas in Lima in April. More countries in the region should join these efforts.

The U.S. responded by designating additional high-level Venezuelan officials as drug kingpins, including Diosdado Cabello, who has been a long-time crony of the regime and a blatant violator of human rights. President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch To ward off recession, Trump should keep his mouth and smartphone shut Trump: 'Who is our bigger enemy,' Fed chief or Chinese leader? MORE also signed an Executive Order blocking Venezuela from selling off state oil assets in return for kickbacks. This is money that belongs to the Venezuelan people.

So, what happens moving forward? The Maduro regime responded to U.S. sanctions by expelling the two US heads of mission from our embassy in Caracas, and the U.S. rightly responded by reciprocating, expelling the two heads of mission from the Venezuelan embassy in Washington. However, signs also show that the Maduro regime is dead-set in keeping its power at the expense of the Venezuelan people.

Severe shortages of food and medicine and an estimated 4,000 percent inflation have led nearly 3 million refugees to flee to neighboring countries. Venezuelans make up the largest percentage of U.S. asylum requests and have created a potentially destabilizing situation for Colombia, Brazil, Peru and the Caribbean, countries with limited resources to provide long-term assistance.

Venezuela’s ever-increasing refugee flows have also led to concerns about the spread of infectious diseases, including malaria, diphtheria, and measles. These diseases were previously eradicated, but the Venezuela crisis is creating new challenges.

U.S. interests are clear: we want a peaceful and democratic Venezuela that doesn’t destabilize the region, respects the rule of law, and doesn’t engage in drug trafficking or facilitate the influence of Cuba, Russia, China and Iran. We also want to see a free Venezuela regain a productive energy market since it holds the largest proven oil reserves in the world.

The severity of the situation in Venezuela requires that we all continue to apply pressure on the Venezuelan government. The upcoming OAS General Assembly in Washington serves as an opportunity for the whole region to follow the example of the Lima Group and present a united voice of condemnation and potential actions of solidarity against the Maduro regime.

Despite the regime’s refusal to accept humanitarian aid, recent U.S. and international efforts to provide resources and financial support to Venezuelan refugees in Colombia are saving lives. We must increase these efforts and support additional capacity building to strengthen Venezuelan humanitarian groups and create regional humanitarian contingencies to distribute aid in Venezuela when it becomes possible.

In addition, the U.S. should continue to target sanctions on high-level military officials and their families. The message to the Venezuelan regime’s enablers (Cuba, China, Iran and Russia) should also be clear: stop propping up the Maduro regime, undermining the country’s economy, and promoting authoritarianism and anti-American views. These actions threaten U.S. interests, and we will no longer tolerate them.

Finally, we must increase our multilateral efforts to cut off the licit and illicit funding streams that are keeping the Venezuelan regime afloat. We enjoy incredible cooperation with our partners in the region, but we need to take those joint efforts to a new level in order to fully address the Venezuela crisis.

None of these actions alone will return Venezuela to democracy and prosperity, but they are necessary next steps on the path to a free Venezuela.

Rep. Paul CookPaul Joseph CookHillicon Valley: DOJ approves T-Mobile-Sprint merger | Trump targets Google, Apple | Privacy groups seek to intervene in Facebook settlement | Democrats seize on Mueller hearings in election security push Republican lawmakers issue dueling letters over Pentagon 'war cloud' contract Native American groups press Congress to rescind Wounded Knee medals MORE represents the 8th District of California and is the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs’ Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere.