A group of House Democrats called on the Biden administration to ease sanctions on Venezuela, make more aid available and assess the conditions necessary to re-establish diplomatic relations to alleviate the economic crisis there.
“Given the high costs of the crisis for the Venezuelan people and the hemisphere broadly, we believe it is imperative that the Administration respond to this opportunity by empowering the Venezuelan people who are seeking to rebuild their country and their future,” the Democrats said in a letter, shared first with NBC News, sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Thursday.
The letter's lead writers were Reps. Joaquin Castro of Texas, ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere; Gregory Meeks of New York, ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee; Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, ranking member of the House Rules Committee; and Barbara Lee of California, senior member of the House Appropriations and Budget Committees.
The letter praised steps taken by the Biden administration that resulted in the release of U.S. prisoners in Venezuela, as well as an agreement between President Nicolás Maduro and the country's opposition to use billions of dollars that had been frozen by U.S. and European banks to create a social fund to assist Venezuelans.
But Democrats asked for specific follow-ups and timelines on the fund, as well as clarification on "legal representation" in the country to ensure funds don't fall into the wrong hands. It also urged that human rights issues be re-evaluated in the context of re-engaging with the country and the easing of sanctions.
Over 7 million people have fled Venezuela, many to the U.S., over the past decade because of the political and economic crisis under Maduro, who has consolidated power over the years.
Venezuela has one of the largest oil reserves in the world, but government mismanagement and U.S. sanctions imposed by the Trump administration have cut oil exports. Many people have been pushed into poverty, hunger and dangerous health conditions.
“Because we share your view that human rights should be at the center of U.S. foreign policy, we have been deeply troubled by the extensive reporting on the indiscriminate and counterproductive impacts on the Venezuelan people of the secondary and sectoral sanctions imposed by the Trump Administration,” the Democrats said in their letter.
The sanctions "have often been found to be ineffective in achieving their objectives," and "to purposefully continue contributing to economic hardship experienced by an entire population is immoral and unworthy of the United States.”
The Democrats ask what conditions are needed for the U.S. and Venezuela to reopen consulates and embassies. After then-President Donald Trump recognized Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s legitimate leader in 2019, Maduro ordered all U.S. diplomatic staff to leave the country.
The lawmakers also asked about restoring direct commercial flights from the U.S. to Venezuela, which were suspended in 2019.
The Biden administration has said it’s willing to lift some sanctions if Maduro takes steps to restore fair elections. President Joe Biden has taken some steps to ease sanctions to encourage dialogue between the government and the opposition, but most sanctions are still in place.
Venezuela has freed some American prisoners, though others remain behind bars, including Los Angeles public defender Eyvin Hernandez.
The Trump administration focused on regime change and the Venezuelan opposition, and many Venezuelan Americans, especially in Florida, supported a “maximum pressure” campaign to force Maduro from power. But the new representative of Venezuela’s opposition in the U.S. has shifted and urged the Biden administration to relax oil sanctions.
The letter's co-signers were Reps. Juan Vargas, Sydney Kamlager-Dove and Ted Lieu, all of California; Veronica Escobar of Texas; Jan Schakowsky of Illinois; Bill Keating of Massachusetts; Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia; and Hank Johnson of Georgia.
Castro was one of several legislators who recently reintroduced the bipartisan AFFECT Human Rights in Venezuela Act, which among other things supports U.N. fact-finding investigations in the country until democracy and the rule of law are restored.