Bipartisan US Senate Bill Pushes Tougher Sanctions against Venezuela

A bi-partisan bill leaked to press calls on the US government to sanction more Venezuelan government officials, as well as work to isolate the South American country in the Caribbean region. 

By Rachael Boothroyd-Rojas

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The bill will be filed before the US Senate. (HRF)
The bill will be filed before the US Senate. (HRF)
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Caracas, May 3, 2017 (venezuelanalysis.com) – Republican and Democrat senators planned to submit a bill this Wednesday, calling on the US government to slap sanctions on more Venezuelan officials and isolate the country in the Caribbean region. 

A copy of the bill – which was leaked to press – reveals that the senators behind the legislation are Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), and Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD).

The proposed legislation is made up of several sections, including humanitarian assistance, backing of the Organization of American States (OAS) Inter-American Democratic Charter, support for Caribbean countries, concerns over the involvement of Venezuelan officials in alleged corruption and illegal narcotics trafficking, sanctions, and concerns over Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA’s dealings with its Russian counterpart, Rosneft. 

According to the version of the bill seen by Venezuelanalysis, the senators recommend placing sanctions on those accused of “undermining democracy” or “corruption” in Venezuela, as well as for a report to be conducted by US intelligence services outlining the “involvement of senior officials of the Government of Venezuela… the National Electoral Council, the judicial system, and Venezuelan security forces, in acts of corruption”.  

The intelligence report should also detail how these officials represent a threat to US “national security” and limit the ability of the US to counteract illicit narcotics trafficking, reads the text of the bill. 

Several Venezuelan government officials were sanctioned by the Obama administration in December 2014 and again in February 2015, when Venezuelan Attorney General Luisa Ortega was added to the list, among others. In March 2015, the Obama administration issued an executive order labeling Venezuela an "unusual and extraordinary threat to US national security" and sanctioning more officials. This past February, Vice-President Tareck El Aissami became the highest level Venezuelan official to be sanctioned when the Trump administration froze his alleged US assets and imposed travel restrictions under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Act. 

Under the leaked bill’s section on humanitarian aid, the senators propose that the US Secretary of State work in conjunction with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) “through non-governmental institutions” to provide food and health commodities, technical assistance, and improved transparency and accountability in Venezuelan government institutions. They recommend that USD$10,000,000 in financing be authorised to carry out these activities, and that United Nations humanitarian agencies should be petitioned to conduct an independent report on food and medicine shortages in the South American country.  

The bill would also commit the executive branch to working with OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro to invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter against Venezuela. Almagro has tried unsuccessfully since 2016 to have Venezuela suspended from the body, but has been met with resistance from other OAS member states. Venezuela announced that it would be the first country to officially withdraw from the organisation in late April.  

In other “pro-democracy” initiatives included in the OAS section, the senators propose that the secretary of state and USAID work alongside the regional body to monitor Venezuelan elections “directly and through non-government organizations” and to “support the efforts of independent media outlets to broadcast, distribute, and share information beyond the limited channels made available by the Government of Venezuela”. 

Over the past decade, Washington has funneled tens of millions of dollars to the Venezuelan opposition via NGOs linked to USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy. 

If approved, the Caribbean region would also come under renewed lobbying from the US government to strengthen its “Energy Security Initiative” (CESI) project, as well as to promote other clean energy initiatives and partnerships in the region. The move appears to be aimed at undermining Venezuela’s support in the region, which is described as potential "market” for US energy companies.   

Venezuela has long counted many Caribbean countries amongst its allies, especially since the PetroCaribe oil initiative was founded in 2004, providing Caribbean countries with Venezuelan oil under preferential payment terms. Countries in the region such as Trinidad and Tobago have also provided Venezuela with necessary food imports under bilateral agreements in recent years as part of a plan to alleviate the worst aspects of Venezuela’s economic crisis. 

Closer to home, the bill also calls on President Trump to stop Russian state oil company Roseneft from taking control of energy infrastructure in the US in the event of a Venezuelan default. At the end of 2016, cash-strapped Venezuelan state-oil company PDVSA used its subsidiary CITGO in the US as collateral to secure a substantial Russia-backed loan. 

“A Russian government-controlled entity currently under United States sanctions, would pose a significant risk to United States national security and energy security,” reads the text. 

The bill will go before the Senate as Venezuela enters a second month of violent anti-government protests that have so far led to 37 deaths, including thirteen people as a result of opposition protesters’ actions and five people at the hands of state security forces. Government institutions have also come under attack. 

Despite the rising death count as a result of the anti-government unrest, the US State Department has released a number of statements over recent weeks condemning the Maduro administration for allegedly failing to guarantee the right to peaceful protest and accusing it of repressive practices. 

In contrast, the Venezuelan government says that it is being besieged by violent groups intent on terrorizing the population in a bid to oust it over a year ahead of constitutionally mandated elections due in 2018.