The House approved new sanctions Wednesday against Venezuela, instructing the Obama administration to compile a list of human rights abusers in the government, freeze any assets they hold in American banks and ban them from entering the United States.
The bill, passed by voice vote, raises the stakes in Congress' efforts to hold Venezuelan authorities accountable for a crackdown against protesters that has raged since February. Forty-two people have been killed, with the violence heightening tensions between the U.S. and Venezuela that have persisted unabated since the death last year of the South American country's former leader Hugo Chavez.
Venezuelan officials have responded angrily even to the threat of economic punishment. They say the demonstrations are a coordinated attempt to overthrow the government and have regularly tried to discredit the opposition by linking it to the United States. On Wednesday, leaders of the ruling socialist party presented what they described as indications the U.S. ambassador to Colombia was involved in a plot to destabilize Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's rule.
Up to now, Obama administration officials, too, have opposed sanctions legislation in Congress. They've argued in hearings over the last two months that imposing economic measures could undermine mediation efforts between Venezuela's government and opposition, and strain relations between the U.S. and Latin American partners.
That opposition may be softening, however. Last week in Mexico, Secretary of State John Kerry rapped Venezuela's government for its "total failure" to adhere to agreements aimed at easing the unrest and warned sanctions may be inevitable.
"The United States Congress must stand ready to act on the calls for freedom and democracy around the globe and the Venezuelan people have sent us a distress signal for help," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., who drafted the bill. Political dialogue, she said, "has provided no results, no actions, no concessions and the innocent are still being imprisoned."
Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, was among those who also spoke in favor of the bill. Another Democrat, Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York, was the only member to express reservations to what he termed "unilateral" U.S. action.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 13-2 to advance a similar bill last week. It's unclear when the full Senate might take it up. The office of Majority Leader Harry Reid declined to comment.