As Americans, we are blessed to live in a place where we can speak freely about our beliefs, challenge the direction that our country is being led in, and peacefully protest against those who are in power. But we also know this is a universal right, and America has always defended the ability of people everywhere to exercise it.
In Venezuela, however, what began this past February as peaceful demonstrations against the government of Nicolas Maduro soon turned into a bloodbath. Thousands of innocent Venezuelans have been jailed, injured or killed for protesting a failed regime plagued by unprecedented scarcity of food and basic goods, widespread crime and high murder rates, and limited economic opportunities. Because Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, have worked hard to weaken the country’s democratic institutions, fed up Venezuelans took to the streets en masse, only to face bullets, tear gas and brutal beatings.
To crack down on the human rights violators responsible for these acts, bipartisan groups of members in both the U.S. Senate and House introduced legislation that would deny travel visas to and freeze the assets of these individuals. The sanctions were specifically introduced to sanction individuals, not companies, and would have no effect on U.S. jobs.
For too long, Venezuelan regime officials have been oppressing innocent Venezuelans, pillaging that country’s wealth, traveling to the U.S. to splurge, and then return to Venezuela to carry on with their repression. At the very least, it should be U.S. policy to not allow these practices to continue.
In June, the House passed its bill unanimously. Not surprisingly, the Venezuelan government opposes these sanctions and, just as the Senate was about to unanimously pass legislation to impose them earlier this month, Maduro’s regime succeeded in finding a senator to block them: Mary Landrieu.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee assured Landrieu that the bill would not affect Louisiana jobs and has no bearing on Citgo’s operations in the U.S.
When the Senate reconvenes in September, she and the Democratic majority will face an important choice about whether the U.S. will continue to stand up for human rights, or whether we will allow repressive strong men like Nicolas Maduro to dictate America’s human rights policy.
This issue and this sanctions legislation is about human rights and is specifically targeted at individuals in Venezuela’s government who abuse them. It has nothing to do with jobs and energy policy.
It has to do with responding to the violent crackdowns we’ve seen in the streets of Caracas, and standing in solidarity with young Venezuelan leaders like Leopoldo Lopez, who’s been sitting in jail for months for opposing the regime so passionately and courageously. It has nothing to do with a Citgo oil refinery in Louisiana, as Landrieu and the Venezuelan regime would like Louisianans to believe.
While many honest, hard-working Americans are currently employed by Citgo, the reality is that a request by its officers to block or weaken this legislation is as good as a request from the highest levels of the Venezuelan government. Therefore, the U.S. Senate should move to vote on this bill in September without any special carveouts for Venezuela’s human rights violators.
In recent times, our two states — Florida and Louisiana — have seen the lengths to which the Chavez-Maduro regime in Venezuela will go to entrench itself in power. When Venezuela held its most recent presidential “election,” in October 2012, the regime chose New Orleans as its expatriate polling location for Venezuelans living in the U.S. who were eligible to vote.
To enhance participation, the regime could have chosen South Florida, which is home to the largest Venezuelan community in the U.S. Instead, the regime opted to make it harder — and make travel longer – for all these Venezuelans who have escaped Chavez’s disastrous socialist state to cast their votes against him.
On that occasion, Venezuela used Louisiana as its staging ground to disenfranchise thousands of Venezuelans. With a sanctions bill now pending before the Senate, let us prevent Venezuela’s regime from using misinformation to block this worthy effort to stand for human rights and with those who have chosen to exercise them in Venezuela.
— Marco Rubio is a Republican U.S. senator from Florida; Bill Cassidy is a Republican U.S. representative from Baton Rouge. This piece originally appeared at the Lafayette Advertiser.