The United States should condemn Venezuela’s government for violently suppressing protests, and it should slap individual sanctions on mid- and top-level officials associated with the regime in Caracas, under a resolution filed Thursday by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and others.
Rubio, who spoke at length with The Miami Herald about the resolution, separately accused former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — a Democrat whom the Republican might run against for president in 2016 — of espousing a “muddled position” on Venezuelan democracy during a speech she gave Wednesday night at the University of Miami, Rubio’s law school alma mater and near his family home.
Rubio’s criticism of Clinton, though, was secondary to the resolution he is sponsoring with New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on which Rubio sits. Florida’s Democratic senator, Bill Nelson, signed on as a co-sponsor after the resolution was introduced.
“We’re asking the administration to study and consider putting in place strong individual sanctions against individuals in the Venezuelan government who hold assets, property and travel visas to the U.S.,” Rubio said.
Rubio said the proposal resembles the intent of what is known as the 2012 Magnitsky Act, which targeted Russian officials complicit in a human-rights violation case.
“You can take away their travel visa, which for some of them would be devastating,” Rubio said. “What a lot of these people are doing is they’re stealing money in Venezuela because of their governmental power or are unfairly getting access to it. And then they come to Miami with their families on the weekends,” he said. “They go to Disney World and Universal Studios. They have apartments and money and cash and bank accounts. They parade through the streets of Miami. They’re all over the place. And I think that would be a real sanction for a lot of them.”
Rubio acknowledged that the sanctions probably would not affect the head of the Venezuelan government, Nicolás Maduro, who doesn’t travel much — if at all — to the United States. Maduro has called Rubio “the craziest of crazies.” Asked Tuesday about Maduro’s comments on CNN, Rubio said: “Mr. Maduro, he’s someone who actually said Hugo Chávez, after his death, appeared to him in the form of a bird. So I’m not sure who the ‘crazy’ is here.”
Rubio said he does not support oil sanctions against Venezuela, in large part because they would not really hurt the regime.
“The Venezuelan oil industry is collapsing because of the incompetence of the Venezuelan government,” Rubio said. “The biggest sanctions on Venezuela’s oil are to allow their government to run it into the ground, unfortunately.”
Two of Rubio’s close friends in Congress, Miami Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, both Miami Republicans, said at a news conference last week that they, too, intended to push for sanctions. But a resolution filed by Ros-Lehtinen on Tuesday fell short of asking the federal government to go after members of Maduro’s administration or requesting a halt of U.S. oil imports from Venezuela. Instead, the resolution deplores the violence in Venezuela and calls for dialogue between the government and opposition.
“We cannot stand idly by while democracy and due process are trampled on in our own hemisphere,” Ros-Lehtinen said Tuesday on the House floor. The U.S. and other countries have a “moral responsibility” to support peaceful student protests, she said, and criticized the detainment of Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López, the leader of the political party “Popular Will” who was jailed last week. Ros-Lehtinen’s measure also urges the Organization of American States to convene its Permanent Council to seek a way to end the violence, which has resulted in the deaths of at least 16 people. Panama, an OAS member, asked the organization Tuesday to consider the Venezuela situation, but a special meeting initially scheduled for Thursday morning was put off.
The Senate and House resolutions give brief histories of the Venezuelan protests. On Jan. 23, Lopez and a Venezuelan representative, Maria Corina Machado, called for public protests in the face of government repression and economic trouble. The protests began in force on Feb. 12, Venezuela’s National Youth Day. Rubio, pointing to oversize photographs during a speech Monday on the Senate floor, highlighted Lopez as he was arrested and a beauty queen and student, Genesis Carmona, who was shot dead. “As of February 27, 2014, there have been 13 people killed, over 100 injured, and dozens have been unjustly detained due to pro-democracy demonstrations throughout Venezuela,” the Senate resolution reads.
The night before the Senate resolution was introduced, Hillary Clinton made her brief remarks about Venezuela at UM and said President Barack Obama’s administration is going to “keep doing what we can to support positive change, peaceful change, which is the best way to go.”
She implied a measure of caution, and differentiated Venezuela from the more-totalitarian state of Cuba. “It’s a democracy. No one would argue that it isn’t,” Clinton said. “But a democracy doesn’t just mean an election. A democracy means a free press. Protecting the rights of opponents. Protecting a free economy. Having an independent judiciary. So other than elections, there aren’t very many characteristics of a real democracy right now in Venezuela.”
Rubio said Clinton was essentially saying two contradictory things: that Venezuela is and is not a democracy.
“It’s a muddled position, which I think gives you insight into how the Obama Administration makes foreign policy,” Rubio said.
Rubio said Venezuela is not a real democracy anymore because of government crackdowns and control of opposition parties, the news media and the judiciary. Also, he pointed out, Maduro threatened last year to shoot his opponent in the presidential election, Miranda state Gov. Henrique Capriles, according to press reports.
“How can you have a free and fair election when the president of the country is threatening to shoot in the head his opponent?” Rubio asked. “How can you have a free and fair election where the loser dies?” Rubio said he was startled by an anecdote, told by Clinton, about how Obama had hoped Chávez would be open to dialogue after a handshake and a meeting early in his first term. But instead, Chávez just used it as a photo op.
Rubio said it is emblematic of what he called foreign policy failures in Russia, Syria and Venezuela. “These folks, particularly tyrants, only understand strength and they understand weakness,” Rubio said. “No number of photo ops or niceties is going to change their behavior.”
Rubio’s remarks drew a response from a Democratic political committee called Correct the Record.
“Secretary Clinton’s remarks were well stated and on the mark, which is no surprise given her track record promoting democracy throughout the region,” spokeswoman Adrienne Elrod said. “Senator Rubio on the other hand is attempting to distort her record, jumbling his own legislative agenda with his own political ambitions.”
Though he trails Clinton in early Florida and national presidential polls, Rubio said his positions are not rooted in partisanship.
“Many of our strongest allies in the cause of Venezuela are Democrats,” Rubio said.
“My criticisms of her happened because she’s a former secretary of state,” he said, “talking about an issue that I’m focused on and she did it in Miami, my hometown, at the university where I graduated from law school.”
Rubio said the issue is bigger than Clinton.
“It also gives us insights into the broader failures of Obama’s foreign policy,” he said.