Menendez, Rubio lead Senate effort to regulate Venezuelan sanctions

Menendez, Rubio lead Senate effort to regulate Venezuelan sanctions


By:  Rafael Bernal
The Hill

A coalition of 15 Republican and Democratic senators introduced legislation on Wednesday to regulate the humanitarian and sanctions responses to the crisis in Venezuela.

The bill, known as the Venezuela Emergency Relief, Democracy Assistance and Development (VERDAD) Act, would expand sanctions against members of embattled President Nicolás Maduro's regime and their families, while providing a way out to deserters who side with U.S.-recognized Interim President Juan Guaidó.

In a call with reporters, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said that officials who swear allegiance to Guaidó, provided they have committed no human rights violations and "have no blood on their hands," could get U.S. sanctions against them lifted under the bill.

The Trump administration has imposed a wide set of individual and sectorial sanctions on Venezuela, mostly focused on Maduro's collaborators.

Sanctions have officially stopped short of a full oil embargo, but the United States banned trade with state-owned oil company PdVSA in February, cutting off the Maduro regime's main source of liquidity.

The sanctions hav yet to result in regime change, the administration's stated goal.

Menendez said part of the reason Maduro has held on is that Latin American allies who recognize Guaidó's claim don't have an advanced sanctions program.

The VERDAD Act, said Menendez, would help "galvanize" international support for Guaidó.

"The next step, which is equally as important, is to multi-lateralize sanctions," he said.

The bipartisan bill is also sponsored by Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Todd Young (R-Ind.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Bill Cassidy, M.D. (R-La.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.).

"I cannot imagine that there won't be broad bipartisan support on this," said Menendez.

Menendez said Rubio's support proved critical toward crafting the bipartisan legislation, as the senior senator from Florida is in good stead with Republican leadership and the White House.

Menendez and Rubio both serve on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as ranking member and Western Hemisphere chairman, respectively, under Chairman Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho).

A spokeswoman for Rubio told The Hill "our office will work with Chairman Risch’s office to get the bill on the SFRC agenda as quickly as possible."

The bill avoids drawing red lines that would precipitate military action by the United States, a point of contention between Rubio and Menendez — and more generally, between Republicans and Democrats who support the administration's Venezuela policy.

Menendez didn't say whether a move by Maduro to arrest Guaidó should be met with U.S. military force, instead noting how European Union (EU) and Latin American support could help prevent such a situation.

"Sanctioning the Maduro government is critically important and multilateralizing those bilateral efforts is incredibly important," he said.

Menendez added that increased European support could help counteract the support Maduro has received from Russia, China and Cuba.

"This is why I think it is so important that we quickly seek to internationalize the sanctions regime. It sends Maduro a message, as well as Russia and China, who are helping to prop up Maduro, and Cuba," said Menendez.

"The EU has engagement with all of these countries," he added.

The Senate bill would give statutory support to U.S. policy, rather than grant the White House new tools to go after Maduro.

"Much of this is actually doable by the executive branch but in the absence of doing this, the Congress … is leading the way, suggesting this is what needs to be done," said Menendez.