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CARACAS, Venezuela – A bipartisan group of 34 U.S. lawmakers has sent a letter to President Donald Trump urging him to step up pressure on Venezuela's government by immediately sanctioning officials responsible for corruption and human rights abuses, The Associated Press has learned.
The letter was partly prompted by an AP investigation, which it cites, that found corruption in Venezuela's food imports. It also calls for a thorough probe into alleged drug trafficking and support for Middle Eastern terror groups by the country's new vice president, Tareck El Aissami.
El Aissami has been the target of U.S. law enforcement since his days as interior minister almost a decade ago, and has been tied to bribes paid to officials by the nation's top convicted drug trafficker. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Relations between the U.S. and its staunchest critic in Latin America have been tense for years — the two countries haven't exchanged ambassadors since 2010. And at Congress' insistence, President Barack Obama sanctioned several top Venezuelan officials for cracking down on opponents or helping smuggle cocaine to the U.S.
But Trump mentioned the country only briefly during the campaign. And Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's comments during his confirmation gave little sign of whether he will depart from the Obama administration's relative restraint and call for dialogue between socialist President Nicolas Maduro and his opponents. Venezuela is mired in political gridlock, even as its economy is falling apart.
Amid such uncertainty, Maduro has taken a softer tack. After blasting Trump as a "bandit" and "mental patient" during the campaign, he's remained silent since, even in the face of the Republican's promise to build a wall with Mexico and freeze immigration from close Venezuelan allies such as Iran and Syria.
"He won't be worse than Obama, that's the only thing I dare to say," Maduro said last month in an appeal to supporters to withhold judgment on the new U.S. leader.
The letter, co-written by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Florida, chair of the house Committee on Foreign Affairs, and Senator Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey, the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, appears intended to force the administration's hand.
"Decisive, principled action in response to unfolding developments in Venezuela as one of the first foreign policy actions of your administration would send a powerful message to the Maduro regime and the Venezuelan people," according to the letter, which was signed by an equal number of Democrats and Republicans.
Specifically, the lawmakers call on Trump to sanction officials responsible for profiting from the dire humanitarian situation. That includes officials in the Venezuelan military who have been put in charge of distributing food, but the AP found that are instead making money from hunger.
"An extensive investigative report by the Associated Press in December 2016 exposed what many assumed to be true, that corrupt Venezuelan officials are in fact profiting from the humanitarian struggle in the country," the letter says.
It mentions the AP investigation's findings that two generals, food minister Rodolfo Marco Torres and his predecessor Carlos Osorio, are among military officials trafficking in hard-to-find food for personal profit. Neither official responded to requests for comment, but in the past, both have dismissed charges of corruption as empty accusations propagated by political opponents.
The letter also calls on the Treasury Department to issue clarifying regulations to ensure that U.S. companies don't inadvertently fuel graft and benefit from the overpayment of food contracts in violation of the foreign corrupt practices act. Finally, lawmakers are seeking increased U.S. funding for pro-democracy and civil society work in the country.
Lawmakers reserved their most-stinging criticism for El Aissami, a hardliner socialist who would take over from Maduro should the president step down or be removed, as his opponents are seeking. El Aissami has been targeted by U.S. law enforcement since almost a decade ago, when dozens of fraudulent Venezuelan passports ended up in the hands of people from the Middle East, including alleged members of Hezbollah. He was also accused in 2011 by one of the nation's top drug traffickers of taking bribes through his brother to allow huge shipments of cocaine to leave from the country's main port.
"Given these reports, the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the country, and his prominence in the regime, we urge the appropriate agencies to thoroughly investigate Tareck El Aissami's conduct and activities," the letter said.
El Aissami has denied any wrongdoing and called those who speak ill of him traitors who seek to harm Venezuela.
Associated Press writer Hannah Dreier contributed to this report.
Joshua Goodman is on Twitter at https://twitter.com/APjoshgoodman. More of AP's reporting on Venezuela's problems can be found at https://www.ap.org/explore/venezuela-undone.