WASHINGTON — Both the House and the Senate passed a bill to impose sanctions on Venezuela in the wake of the government’s numerous human rights violations. Specifically, the bill focuses on both current and former officials who committed violence or human rights abuses against participants in the anti-government protests that began in early February and lasted through May. Thousands of activists have been arrested for speaking out against the government and the clashes have resulted in the deaths of more than 40 people, most of whom were on the anti-government side of the divide.
The protests erupted partly out of frustration with the country’s current economic problems. Venezuela has been battling serious issues since the 2013 death of former president Hugo Chavez, including inflation, a fall in global oil prices, constant shortages of basic goods and heavy violence. The Venezuelan government set prices for many goods in an effort to halt inflation, but this plan backfired by causing a chronic scarcity of essential supplies. Mass protests began sweeping the streets on February 4, and deadly confrontations between police, pro-government militia and protesters ensued for months.
While the government claims that opposition leaders have urged protestors to engage in violence and staged a plan to overthrow President Maduro, the opposition insists it has been unjustly targeted for its political stance. Opposition leader Leopold Lopez, who encouraged his followers to actualize a campaign to overthrow the president through demonstrations, was arrested at the peak of the protests and has been charged with inciting violence. Another strong opposition member, Maria Corina Machado, learned last week that she is being charged with conspiracy for her involvement in an alleged plot to assassinate President Maduro.
As of right now, the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act seems likely to be signed into law by President Barack Obama. The act will deny visas and freeze U.S. assets of current and former Venezuelan officials who have violated the rights of anti-government protesters. Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who sponsored the bill, claims the sanctions will send an “unequivocal message” to the Venezuelan government. The United Nations appears to share the U.S.’ stance, calling on the Venezuelan government to “ensure that people are not penalized for exercising their rights to peaceful assembly and to freedom of expression.” Human Rights Watch has described the government’s violence as part of a “systematic practice by Venezuela’s security forces.”
Venezuelan President Nicholas Madura has strongly denounced this action by Congress, describing it as the United States’ attempt to enforce “insolent imperialist sanctions,” and releasing the following message to President Obama: “If the crazy path of sanctions is imposed, President Obama, I think you’re going to come out looking very bad.”
This latest move by Congress occurs in the midst of an already tense relationship between Venezuela and the U.S., a relationship that some insist may become further strained by the imposition of sanctions. The U.S. has a history of imposing trade restrictions on Venezuela, and the Venezuelan government has repeatedly expelled American diplomats suspected of spying or attempting to incite civil unrest. The countries have lacked full ambassadorial relations for the past four years.
– Shenel Ozisik
Sources: BBC 1, BBC 2, New York Times, The Guardian
Photo: Washington Post