WASHINGTON (AP) – As sanctions legislation against Venezuela advances in Congress, the Obama administration is finding itself wedged between pressure from Capitol Hill to punish officials over human rights and regional governments that think such a move would only add to tensions in the South American country.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday joined its House counterpart and issued a bipartisan approval of legislation that would ban visas and freeze the assets of Venezuelan top level and security officials guilty of abuses committed during three months of anti-government protests.
While it's unclear whether the bill will move to a full vote, the Obama administration is trying to slow its momentum, arguing that more time is needed for efforts by Brazil and other regional nations to broker dialogue between Venezuela's government and opposition. The opposition last week pulled out of month-old talks, arguing the government wasn't negotiating in good faith as it continued to arrest protesters and refused to budge on proposals to free jailed activists and create an independent commission to investigate the deaths of 42 people on both sides.
There may be another reason for the United States' reluctance: fears of a regional backlash.
Chris Sabatini, policy director at the Council of the Americas, said that even targeted U.S. sanctions would smack of a return to Cold War policies like the half-century embargo against Cuba that are a favorite target of the current generation of Latin American leaders.
Many, like Brazil's Dilma Rousseff and Argentina's Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, are allies of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and have so far refused to join the U.S. in condemning his government's crackdown. Even more moderate governments are unlikely to support sanctions just now.
"The bottom line ... is isolation," Sabatini said. "Something does have to be done, but it can't be done by the U.S. acting unilaterally."
The U.S. has suffered a number of setbacks in the region in recent years, from Ecuador's closure of the only U.S. military base in South America to Rousseff's cancellation of a state visit to Washington over revelations that the United State spied on her communications. As countries flex their growing economic muscle, they're also diversifying ties away from the U.S., traditionally its biggest trading partner, to new players such as China and Russia.
Secretary of State John Kerry criticized Maduro's government during a visit to Mexico City on Wednesday, saying it hasn't demonstrated a willingness to cede space to the opposition.
"Regrettably, there has just been a total failure by the government of Venezuela to demonstrate good-faith actions to implement those things that they agreed to do," Kerry said.
His Mexican counterpart, José Antonio Meade, refused to take sides. He said only that dialogue has to be inclusive and produce results.
Still, Sabatini said the threat of U.S. sanctions might actually help regional countries exert more pressure on Maduro. "It's good cop, bad cop," he said.
Maduro on Tuesday lashed out at the prospect of sanctions, calling the Senate committee vote "detestable." He called for a meeting of South American heads of state in June to present evidence of what he says is a U.S. effort to work with local Venezuelan political groups to carry out a slow-motion coup.
Maduro's opponents at home also warn that U.S. intervention could backfire.
"Instead of weakening an authoritarian government like Venezuela's, it actually strengthens it by providing an argument that behind the social protests is a conspiracy led by the U.S.," said Marino Alvarado, head of local human rights group Provea.