Members of Venezuela’s political opposition have asked the White House not to pursue sanctions against human rights violators just yet — at least according to assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere Roberta Jacobson and her statement to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
On Thursday, the committee chaired by Senator Robert Menéndez (D-NJ) held a hearing to decide whether or not to impose sanctions on Venezuela’s government officials for the human rights violations committed during the last months of protests. This hearing also included Human Rights Watch Executive Director for the Americas José Miguel Vivanco, former US Embassador in Venezuela Patrick Duddy, and Moisés Naím, senior associate in the International Economics Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Among the main topics the committee addressed were the abuses perpetrated by state authorities on protesters, the role of Cuba in the Chavista regime, and its implications for the rest of the region. Jacobson’s declarations, however, were the most striking of the debate.
Even though Jacobson reaffirmed their will “to condemn” the arrests made during the “peaceful protests,” she insisted that it was too soon for a confrontational policy, given that the talks between the opposition and the government started a month ago.
“The process is important because it is the first time they have had such a process,” Jacobson stated.
But beyond what the Obama administration believes regarding the impact of sanctions, Jacobson said some leaders from the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) had contacted her directly and requested that the United States not impose sanctions on government officials.
But who specifically is requesting the White House to put off these penalties?
Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) made that question to Jacobson during the hearing: “Who in the opposition in Venezuela have asked you not to impose sanctions against human rights violators because it might disrupt the dialogue?” to which Jacobson firmly answered, “members of the MUD [opposition coalition] who are participating in the dialogue have discussed this with us.”
Later, Senator Menéndez (D-NJ) inquired to Jacobson once again on the same subject: “have you been asked by members of civil society that are in negotiations, or not in negotiations, not to pursue human rights violations sanctions?”
“We have been specifically asked not to pursue sanctions at this time … Yes, they have asked us not to pursue them at this time,” she reaffirmed, while avoiding the question of who made the request.
Both Jacobson and Tomasz Malinowski — assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor — argued that the sanctions should wait while the talks between both parties are taking place. “We will keep considering [sanctions], and we will use those when we think the time is right.”
The Truth, and Nothing but The Truth
As soon as the hearing was over, the MUD denied Jacobsons’s allegations through a press statement, and demanded that the assistant secretary clarify her statements, since they “can lead to undesirable misunderstandings.”
“The stance of the Unity are public and well-known. No spokesperson from the MUD has requested any North American official what today has reached the media. And if there’s any organization or individual from the civil society that has done it, it’s under it or his responsibility, and must assume it,” the statement says.
Further, the MUD have also shared through their website another statement from Jacobson to reinforce their stance. This contradicts her earlier testimony and further distances the MUD from the allegations previously made in the Senate committee.
“We wish to clarify that the opposition has not specifically suggested we refrain from sanctions against individuals. Indeed, as the [assistant secretary] explained in her testimony, some members of the opposition have encouraged it,” Jacobson’s statement said.
The hearing about possible sanctions for Maduro’s administration comes after the release of a highly critical report from Human Rights Watch on how Venezuela’s government has repressed protests during the last few months. Senators Rubio, Bill Nelson (D-Fl), and Menéndez are sponsoring a bill that would freeze assets and ban US visas for Venezuelan government officials, as well as increase aid for pro-democracy and civil society groups.
The truth behind Jacobson’s statements may remain unknown. Nevertheless, this development has generated bad press at a vulnerable time for the MUD coalition. Just four days ago, prominent polling firm Datanálisis released their latest survey, and the results showed very low ratings for the alliance. Even though 59.2 percent of respondents had a negative opinion regarding Maduro’s performance, this didn’t translate into a boost for the opposition. Up to 50 percent expressed a negative opinion of the MUD as well, and only 9.3 percent identified themselves as their supporters.