WASHINGTON – Congress has cleared and sent to President Obama legislation directing him to levy sanctions against Venezuelan government officials involved in a crackdown on anti-government protesters.
The Senate passed a bill Monday evening and the House approved the measure by voice vote Wednesday evening.
It authorizes sanctions that would freeze the assets and ban visas of individuals accused of perpetrating acts of violence or violating the human rights of those opposing the South American country's socialist government. During the summer, the State Department imposed a travel ban on Venezuelan officials accused of abuses during a months-long street protest movement in the winter and spring that left dozens of people dead.
"The absence of justice and the denial of human rights in Venezuela must end, and the U.S. Congress is playing a powerful part in righting this wrong," said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the author of the bipartisan Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act. "When this bill becomes law, a spotlight will shine on Venezuela's abusers and target individuals responsible for human rights violations by applying asset-freezes and visa bans."
Last week, a leading opposition figure, Maria Corina Machado, learned that she was being charged with conspiracy in connection with an alleged plot to kill President Nicolas Maduro.
, a move she called an attempt to silence her and other critics of the government. Together with fellow opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, Machado called tens of thousands of demonstrators into the streets to protest the government earlier this year. Lopez was arrested nine months ago for his role in the sometimes violent protests. He turned himself in during an emotional public event.
Venezuela's government made no immediate comment. But legislator Diosdado Cabello, president of the National Assembly, criticized the action.
"We reject sanctions as arbitrary, as immoral and because no one has the right to impose sanctions on anyone else in the world," said Cabello, who is seen as one of the most influential members of Maduro's governing socialist party.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said the bipartisan legislation signals the U.S. will not tolerate impunity of violations of human rights in Venezuela.
"We support the calls of democracy and freedom by the people of Venezuela," she said. "I call on President Obama and the State Department to vigorously enforce the sanctions against Venezuelan officials swiftly."