POLITICS

Congress approves Venezuela sanctions; bill awaits Pres. Obama's signature

FILE - In this April 13, 2010 file photo, members of the National Revolutionary Militia hold up their weapons and a painting of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez at an event marking the 9th anniversary of Chavez's return to power after a failed 2002 coup, in Caracas, Venezuela. Venezuela has found yet another way to honor the late leader who launched Venezuela’s socialist revolution. A state-sponsored ballet about his life premieres on Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014, with dozens of performers recounting Chavez’s life, from humble roots, to failed coup, to international fame. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos, File)

FILE - In this April 13, 2010 file photo, members of the National Revolutionary Militia hold up their weapons and a painting of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez at an event marking the 9th anniversary of Chavez's return to power after a failed 2002 coup, in Caracas, Venezuela. Venezuela has found yet another way to honor the late leader who launched Venezuela’s socialist revolution. A state-sponsored ballet about his life premieres on Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014, with dozens of performers recounting Chavez’s life, from humble roots, to failed coup, to international fame. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos, File)

Congress has cleared and sent to President Barack Obama legislation directing him to levy sanctions against Venezuelan government officials involved in a crackdown on anti-government protesters. 

Although administration officials expressed reluctance earlier in the year to support the idea of such sanctions – it is expected that the president, not wanting to use a veto on a bipartisan effort like this one which was co-authored by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) – will sign the bill into law.

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.  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."

On Tuesday, a leading opposition figure, María Corina Machado, learned that she is being charged with conspiracy in connection with an alleged plot to kill President Nicolás Maduro, a move she called an attempt to silence her and other critics of the government. Together with fellow opposition leader Leopoldo López, Machado called tens of thousands of demonstrators into the streets to protest the government earlier this year. López 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."

"Venezuelan leaders like Leopoldo López and María Corina Machado have become the target of vicious government-led campaigns that seek to silence them for speaking out in defense of democracy and the rule of law," Menendez said in a statement released earlier this week. "We in the United States have an obligation to shine a bright spotlight on Venezuela's abuses and must object to the severe human rights violations committed by the Maduro government and his paramilitary thugs."

"For too long, Venezuelans have faced state-sponsored violence at the hands of government security forces and watched their country's judiciary become a tool of political repression," said Sen. Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the author of the bipartisan Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act.

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.

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