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Congress Issues New Sanctions Against Venezuelan Leaders 'On The Ropes'

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Well, we can now add Venezuela to the list of countries being targeted by U.S. sanctions. President Obama is expected to sign a bill soon that will impose sanctions on the Venezuelan officials who organized a violent crackdown on antigovernment protesters earlier this year. The push to punish Venezuela really came more from Congress than the White House, which had been trying a different approach. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Just before the sanctions bill passed the House Wednesday night, Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen took to the floor to blast Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. She said the human rights situation under him is even worse than under the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

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REPRESENTATIVE ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: Pro-democracy leaders have raised their voices against the abuses of the regime. And they have been persecuted with politically motivated charges, and those arrested faced indescribable cruelty in prison.

KELEMEN: Dozens of students remain behind bars as do high-profile human rights activists. Ros-Lehtinen says the sanctions bill, which was already approved by the Senate, will target Venezuelan officials responsible for human rights abuses.

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ROS-LEHTINEN: And how do we do that? We deny them visas. We block their property. We freeze their assets here in the United States.

KELEMEN: She says the Obama administration has been, quote, "embarrassingly silent when it comes to the crackdown on protesters in Venezuela." Cynthia Arnson, who runs the Latin America Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, says the White House tried to be pragmatic.

CYNTHIA ARNSON: The administration has been quite restrained in its response trying to let other Latin American democracies take the lead in trying to broker a dialogue. And that just frankly hasn't worked.

KELEMEN: Speaking from an airport in Buenos Aires, Arnson says there's a danger that sanctions could backfire. President Maduro has already dismissed them as imperialist measures. Arnson says the Venezuelan leader often tries to use the U.S. as a foil.

ARNSON: He's really on the ropes politically, and it's very tempting, therefore, for the government to rally supporters against these signs of U.S. aggression.

KELEMEN: The sanctions come at a time when Venezuela's economy is in a tailspin. Oil prices have fallen dramatically, and the inflation rate is skyrocketing. Still, Arnson says the new sections will be targeted and should not add to Venezuela's economic woes. The White House says U.S. government agencies will decide how to enforce the sanctions and who will be targeted. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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