Drawing parallels to Cuba, the homeland their families fled and that has been a focus of their political careers, Cuban-American members of Congress are calling on the United States to impose sanctions on Venezuela for its recent violent crackdown on protestors.
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, is requesting that the Obama administration reduce oil imports from Venezuela by at least 10 percent. Ros-Lehtinen, who is chair of the House Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee, has asked Secretary of State John Kerry to push for a special session of the Organization of American States to discuss the unrest in Venezuelan.
“With the ongoing conflict in Venezuela and countless human rights violations occurring, I have asked the Obama administration to reduce its oil imports from Venezuela to send a signal of support to those being oppressed by the Maduro regime,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement.
“I commend the students and their supporters for courageously speaking out against the Maduro regime that seeks to undermine democracy and violate human rights.”
I am troubled about the failure of other democratically elected governments in Latin America to publicly stand by the mass peaceful demonstrations of students and other civilians and against [Nicolas] Maduro’s government’s brutal repression of the marchers.
Violence is heating up in Venezuela as firebrand opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, faces criminal charges for organizing rallies that set off a deadly week of turmoil in the oil-rich but economically struggling country.
Demonstrators are protesting Lopez's detention as well as the rampant crime, shortages of consumer goods and inflation rate of more than 50 percent that has made life difficult for many in the country of nearly 30 million people.
Five people so far have died in the protests against the Maduro government, including a beauty queen who was shot in the head.
A judge ruled early Thursday that there is enough evidence to hold Lopez, who dramatically surrendered to authorities before thousands of cheering supporters this week, on charges that include arson and criminal incitement stemming from a massive Feb. 12 rally.
In the hours before the decision, President Nicolas Maduro had suggested in a national speech that Lopez would remain in custody and face criminal charges.
"I said, 'Send him to jail,' and that's what happened and that's what will happen with all of the fascists," Maduro said in a speech that lasted more than two hours. "I won't allow him to challenge the people of Venezuela, the constitution."
At a rally in South Florida to denounce the Maduro crackdown on the protesters, Ros-Lehtinen said: “In Cuba, they arrest the opposition and in Venezuela, they do too.”
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, also a Republican from Florida and potential presidential candidate in 2016, called on the United States and Latin America to condemn the violence against protestors in Venezuela. He urged the international community to demand the release of Lopez and other protesters from jail.
“I am sickened by the images I’ve seen of young people being maimed, jailed and even killed by Nicolás Maduro's thugs,” Rubio said in a statement.
“America should not stand idly as Venezuela’s government tramples on the Inter-American Democratic Charter that all nations in our hemisphere, except Cuba, have endorsed,” he said. “I am troubled about the failure of other democratically elected governments in Latin America to publicly stand by the mass peaceful demonstrations of students and other civilians and against Maduro’s government’s brutal repression of the marchers.”
Criticism of Maduro's crackdown has bipartisan backing in the U.S. Congress.
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and chair of the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee, assailed Maduro for jailing protestors on “trumped up charges.”
"The brutal and oppressive tactics President Maduro is subjecting his fellow countrymen to will only further diminish his legitimacy as president,” he said in a statement, “and the United States will not look the other way while the democratic aspirations of Venezuelans are viciously trampled."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.