05/08/2014 03:11 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2014

Congress, White House Spar Over Venezuela Sanctions For Human Rights Violations


By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON, May 8 (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers pushed on Thursday for sanctions on Venezuelans linked to human rights violations, but Obama administration officials insisted that acting now would harm negotiations between President Nicolas Maduro's government and the opposition following weeks of violent protests.

Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee she shared lawmakers' concerns about human rights violations in Venezuela and a lack of results from the talks.

Hours before the Senate hearing started on Thursday, Venezuelan security forces rounded up about 250 people and dismantled camps set up as part of protests against Maduro that began in February.

"We have got to condemn those arrests in the strongest possible terms. Those were peaceful protests," Jacobson said.

However, she insisted it was too soon, just a month into the talks, to impose targeted sanctions, such as visa restrictions or freezing assets of individuals.

"The process is important because it is the first time they have had such a process," Jacobson said. U.S. officials do not want to be seen as getting involved in Venezuela's internal affairs, which would fuel the government's assertions that the protests are the product of foreign influence.

Her call for patience frustrated members of the committee, including its chairman, New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, lead sponsor of a bill calling for targeted sanctions.

"How many more people have to be tortured? How many more have to be arrested? How many more have to be fired upon, before we say, 'Well, guess what, the process is not working?'" he said.

Arizona Republican Senator John McCain said he thought a strong case had been made to at least consider sanctions. "In our own hemisphere, it seems to me that we should be paying a lot more attention, it seems like we should be considering a lot more actions," he said.

Human Rights Watch issued a report on Monday describing beatings and other violations of protesters' rights by the Maduro government.

Illinois Democratic Senator Richard Durbin suggested Washington should go beyond targeted sanctions on individuals and consider barring imports of Venezuelan oil. The United States is the OPEC nation's top oil export market.

But state department officials said that would only be considered far down the road.

"Energy sanctions are the nuclear option," said Tom Malinowski, assistant secretary of state for the bureau of democracy, human rights and labor. (Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)


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    Crowds gather again for more anti-government protests
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    Venezuelan students protect themselves from tear gas during a protest against the government
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    A Venezuelan activist wearing a Guy Fawkes mask returns a tear gas bomb to riot police
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    A Venezuelan student protects himself with a police shield
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    A Venezuelan student stands in front of riot police during a protest
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    A Venezuelan student protects himself with a police shield
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    A child is carried away from tear gas during an anti-government protest in the east of Caracas
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    Demonstrators clash with riot police during an anti-government protest in east Caracas
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    A young man was shot dead in a confused event during protests in the city of Valencia, in northern Venezuela
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    About 3,000 Venezuelan students marched Wednesday to mark a month since the first deaths in anti-government protests
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    Demonstrators set on fire a barricade
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    Riot police shoots tear gas at Venezuelan students and activists
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    Venezuelan students suffer affects of tear gas
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    Venezuelan students walk amid tear gas shot by riot police
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    A man hurls a rock during clashes
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    Masked men hurled missiles at riot police
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    Venezuelan students struggle agains the shields of riot police
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    A protester struggles against a riot policeman
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    A Venezuelan student throws a molotov cocktail
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