A group of 16 members of Congress are calling on President Barack Obama to rethink the sanctions he imposed on Venezuelan officials in March.
A letter signed by the representatives, all Democrats, argues that the sanctions, which set off a storm of criticism from Latin American governments, have undermined regional diplomacy.
“Beyond negative impacts on regional cooperation, the sanctions may actually hinder human rights and dialogue inside Venezuela,” the letter says. “While the apparent rationale for the sanctions was to help protect the human rights of opposition protesters, the Venezuelan people overwhelmingly oppose these same sanctions, and Venezuelan human rights groups fear they will exacerbate domestic tensions.”
The letter praises Obama’s breakthrough diplomacy toward Cuba, first announced in December, and presses him to take a similar approach toward Venezuela.
“We believe that it is in the best interests of the United States, Venezuela, and the hemisphere that the Administration refrain from imposing further unilateral sanctions,” the letter says. “We instead urge you to continue your admirable efforts to engage in direct dialogue with the Government of Venezuela and work with other countries and regional multilateral organizations to foster dialogue and democracy in Venezuela and throughout the hemisphere.”
The letter-signers include Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), who has been involved with similar efforts in the past, and Reps. Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.) and José Serrano (N.Y.).
On March 9, Obama issued an executive order sanctioning seven Venezuelan military and government officials accused of violating human rights. The sanctions, imposed under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, declared Venezuela an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”
The sanctions were roundly criticized in Latin America, a region now governed largely by left-wing leaders who lived through decades of U.S. political and military interference driven partly by the Cold War politics of the era. Many Latin American leaders viewed the characterization of Venezuela as a security threat to the world’s most powerful country as a gross exaggeration.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro derided the sanctions as “imperialist,” while multilateral organizations in the region like the Union of South American Nations condemned the U.S. policy.
“It’s absolutely unbelievable that any marginally informed person would think that Venezuela, or any other South American or Latin American country, could constitute a threat to the national security of the United States,” the Argentine Foreign Ministry said in a public statement following the sanctions.
Obama administration officials have tried to play down the importance of the “national security” language, urging critics and reporters to focus on the substance of the sanctions themselves. IEEPA requires the president to declare that a country constitutes a national security threat before imposing sanctions under the act. Under the sanctions, the seven Venezuelan officials may not visit the U.S. and all their assets located in the U.S. have been frozen. The sanctions target only those individuals, rather than the Venezuelan economy more broadly.
Ahead of the Summit of the Americas last month, a meeting of the region’s heads of state, the White House backed away entirely from the national security language required by U.S. law to justify the sanctions.
“The United States does not believe that Venezuela poses some threat to our national security,” Benjamin Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, told reporters last month. “We, frankly, just have a framework for how we formalize executive orders.”
Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research, said the sanctions have isolated the Obama administration. In adopting the policy, Weisbrot said, Obama went along with more conservative elements of his administration’s foreign policy team who aren’t interested in maintaining normal relations with the left-wing government of Venezuela.
“Obama has never paid much attention to Latin America because it has no electoral consequence,” Weisbrot told The Huffington Post. “This was just a big mistake.”
The Obama administration appears to be taking steps to settle the tensions caused by the sanctions. U.S. State Department adviser Thomas Shannon, a career diplomat, visited the capital, Caracas, this week, marking his second visit to meet with Venezuelan officials in two months, Spanish newswire EFE reports. The State Department has not made the goals of Shannon’s trip public.
Diplomatic relations between the United States and the government of Venezuela have been strained for years. The two countries have not maintained ambassadors at each others diplomatic missions since 2010.
The representatives who signed the letter are:
Karen Bass (D-Calif.)
Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.)
Michael Capuano (D-Mass.)
John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.)
Keith Ellison (D-Minn.)
Sam Farr (D-Calif.)
Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.)
Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas)
Hank Johnson Jr. (D-Ga.)
Barbara Lee (D-Calif.)
Jim McDermott (D-Wash.)
Chellie Pingree (D-Maine)
Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.)
Bobby Rush (D-Ill.)
Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.)
José Serrano (D-N.Y.)