US punishes Venezuela over brutal crackdown in spring. Why now?

Pressure from Congress to impose sanctions over the repression, in which 40 protesters were killed and scores jailed, spiked after the failed extradition this week of a Venezuelan general, an alleged cocaine trafficker.

Javier Galeano/AP/File
Surrounded by mask-wearing supporters of Venezuela's opposition, U.S Senator Marco Rubio speaks to the media in Doral, Fla, in Feb. Rubio and Gov. Rick Scott called for sanctions against Venezuela, as opponents of President Nicolas Maduro were staging countrywide protests. Amid escalating tensions with Venezuela, the U.S. State Department on Wednesday, July 30, announced sanctions against Venezuelan officials it said committed human rights abuses during the spring crackdown on anti-government protests.

It’s been years since the United States has had anything approaching a working relationship with Venezuela, the leftist-populist South American country most often associated in the US with oil and deceased leader Hugo Chavez.

Still, the Obama administration has resisted congressional efforts to slap Venezuela with sanctions over a brutal crackdown on opposition political forces earlier this year. The administration reasoned that such US action could enflame Venezuela’s domestic relations and make a peaceful settlement among the country’s deeply divided factions more difficult.

But in recent days pressure from Congress spiked in the wake of another point of contention with Venezuela – the failed extradition on drug-trafficking charges of a former confidant of Mr. Chavez – and on Wednesday a frustrated State Department threw in the towel on the de-escalation approach.

Citing the repression this spring of protests against the government of President Nicholas Maduro – in which more than 40 people died in the demonstrations, scores were jailed and came out injured, and dozens remain in prison – the State Department announced a ban on visas for Venezuelan officials the US believes were involved.

The State Department did not name any individuals whose visas will be revoked. But congressional officials whose offices were informed of the action said it involves police and military authorities directly involved in the abuse, as well as Venezuelan officials, including ministers and presidential advisers, who played a role in planning or ordering the repression.

“With this step we underscore our commitment to holding accountable individuals who commit human rights abuses,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a statement Wednesday. “While we will not publicly identify these individuals because of visa record confidentiality, our message is clear: Those who commit such abuses will not be welcome in the United States.”

Official reaction in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, was dismissive, with Foreign Minister Elias Jaua telling reporters that the State Department should “calm down.” He called the US action immature, and said it smacked of a reactionary “empire” whose place in the Western Hemisphere is fading.

“These are desperate actions,” Mr. Jaua said. “They’re meant against us, but at root they are recognition of revolutionary Venezuela’s important role in building the new Latin America.

“We welcome their fury!” he then added.    

The State Department action follows the failed extradition of a prominent Venezuelan general – as far as US legal authorities are concerned, an alleged drug runner – who slipped from their grasp and returned to Venezuela to a hero’s welcome.

Last week Gen. Hugo Carvajal, Venezuela’s intelligence chief under President Chavez, was detained in the Dutch Caribbean island of Aruba on US drug charges. The US government sought to extradite General Carvajal, accusing the man known as El Pollo, or “the chicken,” of transporting tons of cocaine from Venezuela to Mexico, with the US the presumed destination.

Carvajal has long been banned from entering the US, according to officials with knowledge of the government’s file on him. The US determined in 2008 that the Venezuelan general had close ties to Colombia’s FARC guerrilla group, which the US considers to be a terrorist organization involved in narco-trafficking.  

The Venezuelan government cried foul at the detention, insisting Carvajal had diplomatic immunity since he was in Aruba to assume duties as consul-general there. Venezuela also warned Aruba that it could face economic retribution over his detention.

Under pressure from Dutch authorities, Aruban local authorities released Carvajal Sunday – and he returned to an enthusiastic reception in Caracas, even getting a kiss from Venezuela’s first lady.

The US insists the Carvajal incident has nothing to do with Wednesday’s visa ban action. But what is clear is that congressional pressure for some kind of sanctions on Venezuela, already strong, only picked up steam after Carvajal’s release.

In the Senate, Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee, the highest-ranking GOP member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced Tuesday that he was dropping his opposition to a Venezuela sanctions bill in light of Venezuela’s “disruption” of Carvajal’s extradition to the US.

Corker said he would have preferred a “regional dialogue” and “a negotiated, democratic way forward” in Venezuela instead of punitive measures. But he said he decided after Carvajal’s release that “the Venezuelan government’s complicity with criminal activity … threatens its neighbors and the US [and] demands a firm response from our country and other nations.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey hailed the visa bans as “an unambiguous and direct message to President Maduro” that the US will not tolerate “systematic human rights violations conducted by a merciless government.” He called for Senate passage of his legislation that calls for assets freezes, additional visa bans, and $15 million for democracy promotion in Venezuela. The House has already passed similar legislation.

Passage into law of such legislation would almost certainly raise cries of Yankee interference in Venezuela’s internal affairs – but for now Venezuelan officials are opting to belittle US actions.

Commenting on Carvajal’s release at his press conference, Jaua, the foreign minister, said he was pleased the former general was back home, but he scoffed at claims that Venezuela threatened Aruba to spring Caravajal from jail.

“We are not like the United States,” he said, “we do not extort or exert pressure on anybody.”

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