The White House says President Obama is ready to approve sanctions targeting senior Venezuelan officials, despite balking on the measures this year at the height of a government crackdown against protesters.
On Thursday, press secretary Josh Earnest said Obama will sign the sanctions bill that was approved by both chambers of Congress this week. It seeks to punish a yet-unspecified number of Venezuelan government and security officials accused of rights abuses by freezing their U.S. assets and denying them visas.
Some U.S. lawmakers have called for sanctions since the spring after Venezuela jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López and arrested thousands of others in unrest that left 43 dead. But U.S. diplomats said they wanted to give international mediators a chance to defuse tensions between the government of President Nicolás Maduro and his opponents.
The mediation effort failed, but others warned that the largely symbolic act of imposing sanctions would give Maduro a propaganda boost, allowing him to depict his government as a victim of U.S. bullying. Venezuela’s government, heavily dependent on oil, is reeling from falling crude prices, dragging Maduro’s approval rating below 25 percent, an all-time low, in the latest polls.
Maduro this week called the U.S. sanctions “crazy,” depicting them as collective punishment for the entire country.
“The gringos say they want to sanction Venezuela,” he said. “No one can sanction Venezuela, because our people decided to be free and will be free, regardless of what happens, with sanctions or without them.” He then told Washington to “stick the sanctions in their ears or whatever else they’ll fit.”
Maduro said he is reassessing diplomatic relations with Washington. Ties were rocky for most of the 14 years that the late Hugo Chávez ruled Venezuela before his death from cancer in March 2013.
Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader who narrowly lost to Maduro last year in the election to determine Hugo Chávez’s successor, accused the socialist government of distorting the U.S. measures. “The United States is sanctioning a well-connected elite, not Venezuela and certainly not the Venezuelan people,” Capriles wrote on Twitter.
Cuban American lawmakers such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) have been the most outspoken advocates for the sanctions. Republican victories in November’s congressional elections gave their push new steam, and Obama officials said they would welcome tougher measures.
The effort appeared to gain momentum last week when the Venezuelan government indicted opposition leader María Corina Machado for “conspiracy,” accusing her of plotting to assassinate Maduro. She denies the charge and has not been taken into custody.