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US government wary of sanctions on Venezuela

Published on NewsOK Modified: May 21, 2014 at 5:37 pm •  Published: May 21, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) — As sanctions legislation against Venezuela advances in Congress, the Obama administration is finding itself wedged between pressure from Capitol Hill to punish officials over human rights and regional governments that think such a move would only add to tensions in the South American country.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday joined its House counterpart and issued a bipartisan approval of legislation that would ban visas and freeze the assets of Venezuelan top level and security officials guilty of abuses committed during three months of anti-government protests.

While it's unclear whether the bill will move to a full vote, the Obama administration is trying to slow its momentum, arguing that more time is needed for efforts by Brazil and other regional nations to broker dialogue between Venezuela's government and opposition. The opposition last week pulled out of month-old talks, arguing the government wasn't negotiating in good faith as it continued to arrest protesters and refused to budge on proposals to free jailed activists and create an independent commission to investigate the deaths of 42 people on both sides.

There may be another reason for the United States' reluctance: fears of a regional backlash.

Chris Sabatini, policy director at the Council of the Americas, said that even targeted U.S. sanctions would smack of a return to Cold War policies like the half-century embargo against Cuba that are a favorite target of the current generation of Latin American leaders.

Many, like Brazil's Dilma Rousseff and Argentina's Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, are allies of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and have so far refused to join the U.S. in condemning his government's crackdown. Even more moderate governments are unlikely to support sanctions just now.

"The bottom line ... is isolation," Sabatini said. "Something does have to be done, but it can't be done by the U.S. acting unilaterally."

The U.S. has suffered a number of setbacks in the region in recent years, from Ecuador's closure of the only U.S. military base in South America to Rousseff's cancellation of a state visit to Washington over revelations that the United State spied on her communications. As countries flex their growing economic muscle, they're also diversifying ties away from the U.S., traditionally its biggest trading partner, to new players such as China and Russia.

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