For years the Obama administration, like its predecessors, has avoided punitive action or even harsh words against the authoritarian, populist government of Venezuela, despite its systematic violations of human rights. The thinking is that Hugo Chavez and now his successor, Nicolas Maduro, would use the United States as a foil, distract attention from their failings and earn unjustified sympathy from other Latin Americans who bridle at any hint of U.S. meddling.
While there is some truth in that argument, it can be self-defeating, as the past decade shows. U.S. policy toward Venezuela has been largely inert — and yet the Chavistas still use Washington as a foil, inventing the conspiracies that Washington has eschewed. The latest instance came Wednesday, when Maduro ludicrously claimed the U.S. ambassador to neighboring Colombia had been conspiring with opposition leaders to assassinate him.
The challenge Venezuela poses has become more acute in recent months as mass anti-government protests have erupted; the Maduro government has responded with violent repression. In Congress, there has been bipartisan support for legislation that would mandate sanctions on Venezuelan officials responsible for repression, including a ban on traveling to the United States and a freeze on assets here. The House passed a bill by a voice vote Wednesday, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a similar measure by a vote of 13 to 2.
The Obama administration opposes the bills, in part for the same reason it tried to stop similar legislation on Russia two years ago: It says the executive branch does not need authority from Congress to sanction foreign officials guilty of human rights abuses. While Secretary of State John F. Kerry and other officials have hinted that sanctions against Venezuelan leaders may be appropriate at some point, they argue that the moment is not right. They say more time should be given to a dialogue between the government and opposition sponsored by several South American governments, even though Mr. Kerry recently said “there has just been a total failure” by the Maduro government “to demonstrate good faith.” A statement by a dozen South American foreign ministers also claimed the sanctions bills would undermine the mediation effort.
The logic is that the wisest course for the United States is to do nothing. That ignores the success sanctions targeting individuals — as opposed to broader economic embargoes — have apparently had in Russia and North Korea. As Marco Rubio, R-Fla., sponsor of the Senate bill, pointed out, the potential impact on key Venezuelan actors is considerably greater, since many have purchased homes or stashed illicit assets in the United States.
Latin American governments will reflexively oppose U.S. sanctions regardless of circumstances, and the Chavista regime will demonize the United States to its dying breath. That doesn’t mean senior generals, police commanders and other officials won’t be swayed by the prospect of being banished from Miami — or that average Venezuelans would react negatively to the exposure and seizure of dollar assets amassed by self-styled socialists. The bills grant the Obama administration broad waiver authority, which means their passage would give Maduro and his cronies a chance to change course — and the motive to do so.