MIAMI -Saturday May 24,2014- The U.S. Congress is convinced of the need to punish Chavista leaders involved in violating human rights as the regime of Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro increasingly suppresses and kills students and protestors, accordng to Florida Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart.

“We in Congress will continue to act energetically in a bipartisan way. We have adopted resolutions of solidarity, have prepared legislation [which contains sanctions], which I am convinced that we will adopt,” said Diaz-Balart in a forum of Venezuela leaders held at Florida International University (FIU) in Miami.

The “Round Table of Thought Leaders” was called Pressure, Sanctions & Strategy: How to Influence Change in Venezuela and also heard from Representatives Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen as well as Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio. 

“This is important because the best friend of tyranny is silence and fortunately in the U.S. Congress, and in this community, we will not remain silent. We will continue showing solidarity and we will continue to put pressure,” he said.

The sanctions, which freeze the accounts and properties in the United States of between 100 and 200 military and Chavista leaders, seek to punish what has been described as one of the harshest crackdowns undertaken in the democratic history of Venezuela.

At least 42 people have died and about eight hundred have been injured after university students launched protests against the regime in early February. Maduro has also arrested more than 3,000 protesters. Organizations that monitor human rights have reported hundreds of cases of torture.

According to experts who spoke during the meeting, demonstrations shaking the country are being met with efforts by Maduro to increase control and repression.

According to the presentation by Venezuela analyst and Latin American Herald Tribune publisher Russ Dallen, the country is facing a severe economic crisis that is hitting the Venezuelan people, accentuating the already pronounced shortages and further accelerating what is already the highest inflation rate in the world.

“Though Venezuela has become an economic basket case under Chavez and Maduro, it still has the largest oil reserves in the world,” said Dallen. “But the promise of that oil makes Venezuela a “one hit wonder” as its only real economic strength. But because of Chavez’s legacy of expropriation, mass firing of 20,000 of PDVSA’s most talented employees for political reasons, replacing them based on political loyalty, continued under-investment, and giving away hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil a day for free to Cuba, and at half-price to Nicaragua and Bolivia amonst others, Venezuela remains incredibly vulnerable.”

“In spite of record high oil prices, Venezuela’s oil production has actually gone down during the 15 years of Chavez and Maduro rule,” said Dallen. “The regime has left the country starved for dollars as Chavez continued to write checks that the country simply could not cash.” 

But Venezuelan protesters are not just protesting the severe economic situation, explained Dr. Luis Fleischman, columnist and political science professor at Florida Atlantic University Honors College.

Protestors are also responding to the hard crack-downs of the Venezuelan government, which are “increasingly repressive, increasingly violating the private freedoms of the Venezuelan people,” said Fleischman.

Fleischman said Maduros’ response to the protests aims to strike fear amongst the population.

“The Venezuelan government has secured the loyalty of the military to his despotic government and abolished trade unions, the media, business and professional groups,” Fleischman said.

“At the same time, people are being intimidated by paramilitary groups and the politicization of jobs, particularly in companies such as PDVSA,” he added.

Political strategist Michael Rowan, who advised previous Venezuelan presidential candidates Claudio Fermin in 1993 and Manuel Rosales in 2006, pointed out that actually few Venezuelans support the Cuban revolutionary model advanced by Chavez in the country.

“75% prefer a democratic government versus 18% for a revolutionary,” Rowan said, citing figures from pollster Alfredo Keller.

“That’s a great opportunity,” Rowan said, explaining that the vast majority of Venezuelans do not share the vision of Fidel Castro or Maduro. 

“Despite Chavez’s efforts to polarize the country, the Venezuelan population is still culturally unified and shares the democratic principles in place for decades in the oil-rich nation,” said Rowan.
Those present, including many Venezuelan community activists, agreed on the need for sanctions discussed in Congress.

“It is very necessary that measures are implemented against selective regime officials who are involved in corruption, in acts of violations of human rights and drug trafficking,” said Horacio Medina, executive secretary in Miami of the Venezuela opposition alliance known by its Spanish acronym MUD.

According to Medina, that kind of international pressure is necessary because Venezuela is essentially a country under foreign occupation, with representatives of the regime of Fidel Castro, and terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, the FARC and ETA actively operating in the country.

There were representatives from all the major political parties, including Gonazalo Aguerrervere, Executive Secretary of political party Primero Justicia outside of Venezuela.

On the civil activist side, Cassandra Izaquirre, whose organization SOS Worldwide came up with the widely used #SOSVzla and SOS Venezuela campaign, came all the way from Michigan to present her and her organizations thoughts for going forward. 

Likewise, Alberto Barreto and Andres Otero, who came up with the “Venezuela, Got Democracy?” take on the old “Got Milk” campaign also brought their skills and marketing genius to the table.

Diaz-Balart recognized many of those in the room, including Venezuelan activist Patricia Andrade, who got a very public thanks from Diaz-Balart for providing him with an updated list of all of those Opposition members unjustly imprisoned in Venezuela every day.

Harvard-educated Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez has been jailed since February, and San Cristobal Mayor Daniel Ceballos and San Diego, Carabobo, Mayor Enzo Scarano also remain jailed. 

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee approved sanctions last week and the Senate Foreign Relatons Committee did Tuesday. Both bills now proceed to a floor vote.

Diaz-Balart said Congress is alarmed by the situation in Venezuela and understands that should it come out in defense of the young students who are being “massacred” by the repressive apparatus of the regime.

“Congress understands that we have to push, and the way is through sanctions,” he said.

That position is very different from the position taken by the Obama administration, which has emphasized that not even consider it necessary to implement such measures, he said.

According to the congressman, that lack of action by the White House shows that the administration does not understand very well what has been happening in Latin America.

“We have had great difficulty in getting our own president to understand the reality of what is happening in Venezuela,” said Diaz-Balart.

“For years, we have been telling our administration you have to understand what we are facing, not only because it is a dictatorship, but because it is a cancer in our hemisphere,” said the Congressman. “It is a cancer that is not only destroying and repressing the people of Venezuela, but is helping to repress and murder throughout the hemisphere and across the globe.”